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My 2020 Theatre Heroes & Villains

Theatre Heroes and Villains of 2020

AH, dear old 2020.

In mid-March Covid-19 prompted all British theatres and arts centres to close their doors.

From that moment onwards, the carnage, pandemonium, weirdness and misery barely let up; our world-beating £7 billion cultural sector, so savaged by lockdowns that it remains at risk of permanent decimation.

A socially distanced Watermill Theatre in Newbury, with select seats wrapped as presents for the future.

For the first time in its 70 year history, the Edinburgh Fringe was cancelled. Broadway shows are expected to remain closed through to at least May 2021.

There was, though, many great acts of heroism; not all heroes wear capes.

Let’s begin with the National Theatre. The NT at Home initiative was one of the biggest virtual triumphs of lockdown; it broadcast 16 productions for free on YouTube, clocked up 15 million views and reached 173 countries.

The one-off free streaming of Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s potent monologue Death of England: Delroy – which had its live run cut short – was sensational.

The NT has today launched a brand new streaming platform National Theatre at Home – featuring a range of NT Live productions and, for the first time, some treasured plays from the NT archive.

For unlimited access to the catalogue on National Theatre at Home, a subscription will be £9.98 per month or £99.98 per year. For access to a single play in a 72 hour window, it will be £5.99 for an NT Archive title and National Theatre Live titles are available from £7.99.

I thought ITV’s three-part drama Quiz, written by James Graham – based on his stage play that began at Chichester Festival Theatre- was a masterstroke.

The dark irony was, though, that the ‘coughing major’ comedy was one of the few TV shows that was good enough to make us all forget the ongoing medical crisis for its duration. Graham donated his full commission to funds for freelancers.

Looking back now, one of my personal favourite moments involved a last-minute decision to throw open my Zoom on Friday evenings to anyone who wanted to take part in a theatre quiz. It was unexpectedly popular and rewarding and, in the chaos of lockdown, very moving.

ITV Quiz

During that first lockdown I came to a crossroads when I realised that the secret truth at the heart of almost all theatre is: Everyone’s Doing Their Best.

It’s hard to say why this revelation impacted me so deeply. Had I previously been under the impression that people were deliberately making terrible theatre, or simply being terrible at their jobs, just to annoy me? I came to realise that most things are simply bad by accident.

Anyway, this year, she closed 18 shows. Paused 10.

Sonia Friedman Productions continued its success at the 2020 Olivier Awards, scooping the coveted Best New Play Award for the fourth consecutive year with the intimate and epic Tom Stoppard play Leopoldstadt.

Incredibly, SFP was also responsible for a superb filmed stage version of Uncle Vanya starring Toby Jones. It was a hit in UK cinemas and will be screened on BBC Four this Christmas. This woman has been my idol all of my professional life, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Toby Jones and Richard Armitage, Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre

All year, producer Friedman used her clout to lobby government. Announcing comedy play The Comeback in the West End, she said: “Medicine saves lives, but culture makes life worth living.”

Looking back now, many of UK theatre’s producers and artistic directors rose to the challenges of the pandemic – combining laser-focus and decision making-authority with a real emotional feel for the creative workforce.

Of course, there are plenty of people in the industry who are simply phoning it in.

But so many took exciting digital work to audiences or streamed archive productions. Under Elizabeth Newman’s leadership, just one of a number of bright ideas, Pitlochry Festival Theatre set up a Telephone Club for vulnerable members of the community, Alan Lane and Slung Low continue to meet local needs distributing food and books to the people in south Leeds.

Artistic director Alan Lane, left, and The Slung Low team at the Holbeck.

The Unicorn theatre presented Anansi the Spider Re-Spun: fun virtual performances, created in lockdown, for children. Cultural organisations like this remain vital to communities, enabling young people’s creativity, whilst fighting for survival.

Throughout those initial long Covid months, there were modest acts of heroism from producer David Pugh and his touring production of Educating Rita at the open-air Minack Theatre in Cornwall. I loved it.

Pugh later made light of the fact that profits for investors were enough for ‘a meal at KFC’. The show has a week-long run at the Mayflower in Southampton in February.

To her credit, Nica Burns reopened the first West End theatres post lockdown – welcoming audiences back to the Apollo – for Adam Kay’s show about the NHS, This Is Going To Hurt. Burns will reopen the first West End musicals Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Six and hopes this return will prove the sector is safe and ready to resume.

Staying with the heroes, film and theatre director Sam Mendes called on Netflix — who profited from the acting, writing and directing talent nurtured on stage during lockdown— to pour some of their COVID-19 cash into British theatre. Netflix obliged, with the Theatre Artists Fund for freelancers. Mendes’ practical suggestions included: increasing the theatre’s tax relief scheme from 20% to 50%, and inviting the government to become “theatrical angels”, by investing in productions.

Moreover, performers deserve huge credit for keeping us all entertained online: Rob Madge and Oscar Conlon-Morrey lift our spirits on Twitter during these difficult times.

Pick of the bunch, for me, is Kieran C Hodgson impersonating characters from The Crown – Season 4. Genius.

10-year-old ‘#CheerUpCharlie’ Kristensen released a charity single with some of his West End favourites to raise money for the Diana Award. Little legend.

The Bush theatre commissioned six black British artists to respond to the killing of George Floyd, the results, The Protest, were astonishing, disturbing, vital and offered urgent perspectives on Floyd’s death.

Wise Children’s Emma Rice and Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris on stage at Bristol Old Vic in September

Elsewhere, Black Broadway and West End stars performed an ambitious online charity concert, organised by Nicole Raquel Dennis and Ryan Carter, this event supported the Black Lives Matter movement: Turn Up! Live at Cadogan Hall , raised nearly £13,000 for four charities and picked up a Black British Theatre Award.

One of my biggest treats was visiting Bristol to see the Romantics Anonymous one-night only performance, with a live socially distanced audience.

In September, Emma Rice’s Wise Children and Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris were dazzlingly inventive, partnering with venues to present a “digital tour” of the musical – allowing individual regional theatres to sell tickets across specific nights.

The shows will go on – in some tiers. The government’s post-lockdown plans give the green light to productions fortunate enough to find themselves in Tiers 1 and 2. Boris Johnson has announced that theatres in Tier 3 will remain closed.

Oracle Cameron Mackintosh

Villains? (Deep breath)

It was the year when theatre vanished from our lives. And Cameron Mackintosh didn’t.

Disappointingly, the West End producer got rid of 850 staff early on in the crisis, said theatres that received financial aid were ones that “were going to fail”, allegedly mistreats his staff, declared himself an “oracle” for predicting disaster and has been snow-ploughing his way through the darker recesses of the pandemic ever since.

Mind you, compensation came in the form of Andrew Lloyd Webber – who took part in the Oxford Coid-19 vaccine trial – joining TikTok.

Take a moment. I know I just did.

Perhaps most importantly, Arts Council England did a good job of turning around the government’s Culture Recovery Fund and rescued struggling organisations of all shapes and sizes.

Overall, that £1.57bn rescue fund has protected our theatres, concert halls, arts centres and opera houses.

Slytherin culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s intervention was not enough to save every institution and although we were all thankful for the money, financial models are bust.

Indeed, the government continue to do the bare minimum for an estimated three million self-employed workers. At one point, Pantomime dames marched to Parliament Square.

Slytherin Oliver Dowden and Rishi Sunak

Find another job, said the surefooted chancellor Rishi Sunak. By forgetting our workforce and dismissing an entire sector, the chancellor has begun to reveal his true ideological colours. But our sector is key to our national identity, provides hope – and billions for the Treasury.

On top of that idiocy, the suggestion from the government seems to be that arts jobs aren’t viable. They are, Mr Sunak, and when the time comes, the powerhouse theatre industry will play a crucial part in the nation’s recovery.

Above all, I was appalled by The Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) who failed to inform customers how they could obtain cash refunds instead of hopeless credit vouchers. With countless shows axed or postponed, many found it impossible to get money back – not only that, ATG were not automatically refunding transaction fees, claiming this was in line with the industry’s Code of Practice (newsflash: it definitely wasn’t).

Birmingham Rep, The #LightItInRed campaign involved more than 500 buildings

At least, though, there has been some last-minute redemption for ATG; the operator has now furloughed its 2,500 casual staff and is gifting tickets for pantomimes to NHS workers this Winter, which is a Christmas miracle.

If we’re really looking for the individuals who’ll push theatre forward through the sheer force of their own imagination, in my opinion, they are more than likely to be creative freelancers. We must protect them.

And the self employed may be more widely visible through the Freelancers Make Theatre Work group, #thescenechangeproject and The Freelance Task Force. But they must never be taken for granted again.

The Theatre Artists Fund was set up to support UK theatre workers and freelancers falling into financial difficulty while theatres remain largely closed. Many freelancers have lost everything and we are losing thousands of highly skilled theatre-makers.

Saving buildings is pointless without protecting the people who make art. For now, I have financial security. That is why I plan to donate 50% of my December salary to Theatre Artists Fund.  If you are able to, so should you.

As I say, everyone has been doing their best. Stay present, thanks for reading this year, and Merry Christmas.

 

 

An open letter to theatre and performance makers

This is a letter to self-employed and freelance theatre and performance makers in the UK. To the actors, playwrights, directors, choreographers, stage managers, designers, stage crews and set-builders to name just a few.

We really miss being with you during this period of lockdown. Making theatre and performance is a collaborative endeavour, so we are particularly affected by having to be apart from one another right now. We’re not able to come together, in the same space, to share the experience of a live performance. We’re not able to practise and enjoy our artform in its most basic form.

It’s now looking increasingly likely that won’t be possible for months to come, and we recognise that many freelancers face real uncertainty about if and how they will be able to continue to work in theatre. 70% of people who work in theatre and performance in the UK are freelance or self-employed, and it’s for this workforce, in all its diversity and complexity, that the impact of the current situation is most acute.

During these past weeks we have had conversations with many of you to understand your needs and the ways you have been affected. We are writing to express our support for you, and to lay out some practical steps we are taking to improve the situation based on these conversations.

As well as exploring ways of producing work with freelancers during lockdown, and using this time to develop new projects with freelancers for the future, we are also are working together to coordinate our response to the government, to articulate clearly what we can offer and what we need.

Most urgently, we are calling for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme to be extended in line with furloughing, for all self-employed workers, and in the specific case of theatre and performance workers, until theatres are able to safely reopen. We also want to see criteria removed from the scheme which are stopping legitimate and much-needed claims.

Some of you are already involved in these conversations. We welcome your voices and need to hear from more of you in the conversations to come. Your unique networks, skillsets, perspectives, and ideas are vital to the entire sector, and we need to work with you in our response to this crisis.

Each of the organisations who’ve signed this letter are committed to reaching out to their family of self-employed and freelance theatre makers; listening to how this is affecting your work and lives, and to your needs and ideas for the future.

More than that, we want to facilitate the establishment of a national task force of self-employed theatre and performance makers. The purpose of the task force is to strengthen the influence of the self-employed theatre and performance community. It would create ongoing points of connection between freelancers and organisations, and amplify the voice of the self-employed in the conversations to come. To help establish the task force, each of the organisations signing this letter will support a freelancer to join the group, ensuring they are paid for their time.

We want to offer a message of hope and solidarity. Our well-practised ability to work together, to form connections, and build relationships will help us through this. One day, hopefully soon, we will all be able to meet together, as people have done for centuries, in a shared space, for a shared experience. In the meantime, we remain committed to working for you and with you towards a sustainable future for theatre and performance.

Signed,

Access All Areas

Action for Children’s Arts

The Almeida Theatre

ArtsAdmin

The Actors Touring Company

Battersea Arts Centre

Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Boundless Theatre

Brighton Festival

Bristol Old Vic

Brixton House

The Bush Theatre

Chichester Festival Theatre

China Plate

Contact

Dance Umbrella

Derby Theatre

Eden Court Highlands

English Touring Theatre

Fio

Fuel

Gate Theatre

Graeae

HOME

Improbable

Kiln Theatre

Leeds Playhouse

Leicester Curve

The National Theatre

National Theatre of Scotland

National Theatre Wales

National Youth Theatre of Great Britain

The New Wolsey Theatre

Northern Stage

Nottingham Playhouse

One Dance UK

Paines Plough

Rose Theatre Kingston

Royal & Derngate

The Royal Court Theatre

The Royal Shakespeare Company

Sadler’s Wells

Sheffield Theatres

Spare Tyre

Talawa

Tangled Feet

The Yard

Theatre Peckham

Theatre Royal Plymouth

Tiata Fahodzi

Yellow Earth

1927

Notes on the open letter to theatre and performance makers of 21 May 2020:

Why is this needed?

70% of our performing arts companies will be out of business before the end of this year. More than 1,000 theatres around the country will be insolvent and have to shut down this year, unless government intervenes with a rescue package.

More than 70% of the theatre and performance workforce is self-employed (SOLT, March 2020). 70% of freelance workers were already worried in March 2020 that they wouldn’t be able to pay bills (BECTU survey). A survey revealed that 60% of creative freelances predict their income will more than halve in 2020, and more than 50% of freelancers who responded to a snap poll have already had 100% of their work cancelled (Creative Industries Federation).

Who is the letter to?

It is to everyone who works in the theatre and performance industry in the UK who is self-employed or freelance. The self-employed are in an urgent and acute situation right now, and the situation will only get worse unless they are provided with much needed financial security and representation in conversations about the survival and future of our theatre and performance industry. We also recognise that structural inequalities in our sector and in our society, and the specific implications of COVID-19 itself for individuals within our industry, both contribute to a situation where this crisis is and will continue to be more acute for some than others. For example, but not limited to, D/deaf and disabled freelancers in our industry who face even greater challenges, of long-term shielding, managing their social care and navigating complex benefits issues such as Access to Work. Whether you have been a freelancer for a number of years or are just starting out (and therefore unable to access government support) we are addressing this letter to all those who are self-employed and freelance in our sector.

Who is it from?

So far, it is from all the organisations signed up at the bottom: these range from the large-scale to the small-scale, from producing companies to venues, from Cornwall to Inverness. Other theatre and performance organisations who would like to sign up to the letter, and commit to helping the freelancers’ task force, are still welcome to join. They can email director@fueltheatre.com to sign up or with any questions.

What will the task force do?

The idea is that each freelancer will be able to use their time to co-ordinate wider conversations with freelancers in their area and/or specialism, join regular meetings with the rest of the task force, work on ideas with and for the task force, and to attend other meetings and events on behalf of the task force.  We imagine that the task force will quickly establish its own agenda, set its own mission and undertake its own discussions, listening to an even wider group of freelancers. We hope all of this will then feed in to other sector conversations, including with producing and touring companies and venues.

How will this group feed into the wider work in the theatre sector?

As well as connecting with wider networks of freelancers, and with organisations across the sector, this group of freelancers will form a working group for Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, so information, ideas and needs can be fed directly in to discussions with government, and the 25 charities being co-ordinated by SOLT and UK Theatre to support everyone in the industry.  SOLT and UK Theatre has also opened up its information webinars to all freelancers, and the next series will be publicised through this group as well.

How will the task force be set up?

Each organisation has committed to paying one self-employed theatre/performance maker for one day per week for 3 months – June, July and August. The idea is that this freelancer will be able to use that time to co-ordinate wider conversations with freelancers in their area and/or specialism, to join regular meetings with the rest of the task force, to work on ideas with and for the task force, and to attend other meetings and events on behalf of the task force. Engagement, contracting and payment of each member of the task force will be undertaken by the organisation supporting them. They will be paid a day rate in line with that organisation’s standard policy for a freelancer, in accordance with union guidelines. Selection processes will differ from one organisation to another, and we will work together to strive for representation, in all its forms, across the group. This work is underway: the task force will start work in June.

Why now?

The situation for the self-employed in the theatre and performance sector is acute. We need to increase the flow of information and ideas and amplify the voices of the self-employed in urgent conversations about the survival and future of theatre and performance in the UK now. This means we will almost certainly make mistakes in this process, and we will learn from them, and keep evolving. The situation is not static, and so our response is also a developing process.

How do I find out more / get involved?

If you’re an organisation who wants to get involved, your first point of contact is Kate on director@fueltheatre.com. It is not too late to sign up.

If you’re self-employed and want to get involved, contact one of the organisations who have signed the letter to find out how to connect with them as a freelancer, by checking their website and social media channels for more information.

If you’re a funder or donor who would like to support this initiative, your first point of contact is Kate on director@fueltheatre.com.

How can these organisations afford to pay for a freelancer at a time like this?

Many can’t, and all are facing severe financial challenges, but it’s important so we have all committed to doing so. Our organisations and our industry cannot exist without its freelancers. We have to work together, as we always have done, and even more so now: we need each other’s energy in the fight we have on our hands to survive and we need each other’s creative ideas to build back better.

Why is it only one paid freelancer per organisation?

We would all like to do more, but this is where we are right now. Paying just one freelancer now is, we hope, a stepping stone to a bigger vision of inclusivity, equality and empowerment.

What about freelancers who aren’t connected to any of these organisations?

We appreciate that this is only one initiative, and it cannot solve all of the challenges we face today. We need more routes for freelancers to be able to access information and have their voices heard. There are many organisations working on this, including unions like BECTU and Equity, and organisations like SOLT and UK Theatre and IPSE, who freelancers can also connect with, and many brilliant initiatives set up by freelancers all across the country.

Why is it only for theatre and performance makers?

Because the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on theatre and performance in the UK is catastrophic, due to the nature of the process of making work and the process of sharing it with an audience in proximity. Without significant and immediate investment from government, 70% of performing arts companies will go out of business this year and more than 1,000 theatres will be insolvent. Already, self-employed theatre makers have lost all their work and income for this year. The organisations cannot survive, and neither can the individuals.

How was this letter written?

We listened to the self-employed theatre makers in our communities and they told us they needed three things: access to information and support, financial security and advocacy, and inclusion in conversations about survival and the future. This letter seeks to work towards addressing those three needs.