Would you rather win a Grammy, an Emmy or a Nobel Peace Prize? I asked each of my summer campers in turn. And while I smiled and listened to each adolescent’s answer, urging them to elaborate upon his or her biggest dreams, I really thought: “Any other answer except for a Nobel Peace Prize is absolutely frivolous…” More than a decade later, my personal answer remains the same, but my tune has changed – and especially now that the arts are in peril.
I don’t want to believe it. You don’t want to believe it. The Guardian sugarcoated Charlotte Higgin’s opinion piece with the palatable title ‘After the war, the arts came back stronger. They can do so again now.’ when her working title was ‘The arts are screwed.’ And while my subconscious reassures me that at least a representative of the most prestigious, well-supported arts venues will continue, I know that denial (which likely blankets others’ fears, as well) will not prevent many esteemed – and more importantly, beloved, arts organizations from folding.
Surrounded by Londoners in 2016, I felt that Brexit was unlikely. Yes, they were some fervent supporters, but surely, they couldn’t be the majority? Then, Trump decided to run for President of the United States of America. What a joke! The man is an odious buffoon, as well as a racist and misogynist. However, even though I cast my vote for a more qualified candidate and chastised those who didn’t, he still undeservedly ascended to the highest political office. So I know that closing our eyes, even while donating small amounts for classes and performances, won’t be enough resuscitate our theatres and performing arts companies.
For many weeks, the UK national news broadcasts only made tiny references to the theatre. They’d cover about performers staying in shape to return to stage, while ignoring that without help, there will be no stages for a triumphant return. Now, there’s more awareness of the dire situation:
On May 14, the BBC published an article ‘We’re clinging on‘, which quotes Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s on the difficulty of social distancing in a theatre setting. He predicts that after the initial emergency funds (of £90 million) from Arts Council England run dry, the industry will need a government bailout.
On May 22, Jessie Thompson quoted James Graham, who prefers the term ‘investment’ to ‘bailout’, in the Evening Standard:
“I resist the term bailout because it really is an investment… The money we need to cover the shortfall until we can properly reopen is almost instantly paid back in the annual tax revenue and VAT. In London alone tourists bring in £2 billion of cash a year specifically for London theatre.”– James Graham, playwright
On May 21, West End producer Sonia Friedman wrote a sobering article for The Telegraph: ‘Theatre stands on the brink of ruin.’ She states, ‘Without an urgent government rescue package, 70 per cent of our performing arts companies will be out of business before the end of this year’ before naming the casualties – magical places of respite for thousands of people that feature some of the world’s most talented artists: the Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells, Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre and all of the West End Theatres.
“Once gone, British theatre is lost for good. An ecosystem as intricate and evolved as ours, shaped over70 years, is beyond price… Protecting and preserving what we have will cost far, far less than reconstructing it from the ruins. It is time to act.”– Sonia Friedman, West End producer
On May 25, the BBC reported that Prince Charles, patron of the Royal Opera House, had issued a warning about how theatres and orchestras would struggle to survive in the coming months. (He also recalled the excitement of seeing his first ballet, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, performed by the Bolshoi Ballet in London.)
The coronavirus has tragically taken many lives, and livelihoods are also being destroyed in its wake. The performing arts are already an economically lean industry, where many performers subsidize their profession with additional side jobs. Dancers, actors and other artists dedicate countless hours honing their craft, and it’s crushing to think that the opportunities to create work and present work that can touch peoples’ lives will become even more scarce.
Perhaps, the most heartening news in the UK is that the government has set up a taskforce, composed of figures from both the arts and sports, to develop a road map for how venues can safely reopen. Chaired by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, the cultural renewal taskforce also includes: Sir Nicholas Serota (chair of Arts Council England), Tamara Rojo (Artistic Director of English National Ballet) and Mark Cornell (CEO of Ambassador Theatre Group). The group first met on May 22 and is set to meet weekly.
Meanwhile, online conversations show that some individuals are plainly against giving any money to the arts. I imagine some of them are sports fans, of which I am not – so, in reverse, I could see myself scoffing at the need to support the industry they hold dear. Therefore, it’s great that the cultural taskforce is represented by a variety of different sectors, so we can the similarities between them and more easily assess how possible future funding is divvied up.
At the moment, it seems the performing arts industry is in limbo. And those of us in the UK can just sit tight as the taskforce continues. But while we strive to stay connected, we must keep our occasional theatre-goer friends in the loop. When we sign petitions to Parliament – such as ‘Provide emergency funding to The Arts Council so that they can extend support’, we need to include everyone who appreciates the live arts. They can help us to demonstrate their importance, even if they only attend one or two performances each year.
(As of publication, this currently only have 11 signatures, by the way. Let’s do some work, UK arts lovers. The government will respond to the petition once it reaches 10,000 signatures and be considered for debate at 100,000 signatures.)
If you’re in the USA – check out the petitions created by the Performing Arts Alliance: ‘Ask Congress to Fully Support the Arts and All Workers During the Pandemic and Beyond’ and ‘Ask Congress to Support All Those Who Work in the Arts and Nonprofit Sector’.
For now, let us remain connected and actively inform others of the serious risks the performing arts face, including government representatives. When a concrete action plan is formulated, we’ll be ready to mobilize in support of our loves and livelihoods alike.
Do you have any further concrete action steps that arts lovers can take right now? Share your suggestions in the comments below!