How are theatres coping with Covid?

August 27, 2020

Collage by Angela Mascolo using theatre image by Andreas Glöckner and yoga image by Shahariar Lenin from Pixabay

Angela Mascolo speaks to young theatre professional Rebecca Goh on the impact of Covid-19 on her industry

March 20th saw the closure of London’s beloved and iconic West End theatres due to Covid-19.

Lockdown put 70% of theatre jobs at risk. Independent theatres and individual creatives have been especially vulnerable. Of the 290,000 people working within the UK theatre industry, a large number sustain themselves through freelance and self-employed work.

Theatre closures have meant that these people are facing an extended period of no income and unstable livelihoods.

Rebecca Goh is a young BAME and LGBTQI+ Drama and Philosophy graduate from Royal Holloway (University of London) and artistic director of from (a)basement theatre collective. She has worked in theatre in both the UK and Singapore

She shared her experiences of working in the industry during this challenging time.

“One of the positives to come out of lockdown is that it has allowed people to work in different ways through digital mediums,” said Rebecca.

Lockdown has made theatre more affordable than ever

Some of these works, which were made available online, include ‘Babel’ – a play written by Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen and directed by Mingyu Lin on the human impact of major London incidents – and ‘WeRNotVirus’, a digital arts event shining a light on the increase in hate crime directed towards East and South East Asian communities during Covid-19.

Rebecca also highlighted how lockdown has increased visibility for artists: “Audiences tend to be more accessible and easier to target online, so more people are consuming theatre they might not have had the chance to see. Visibility for those artists behind the show has increased to that extent.”

In addition, lockdown has made theatre more affordable than ever. This is especially the case for West End shows.

“Online productions have definitely increased access to shows in some ways. For example, people who can never have afforded to see ‘Hamilton’ now can. It’s great because you can still see the show and what everyone is talking about without spending so much money on a ticket,” explained Rebecca.

The live version of ‘Hamilton’ – an American rap musical following the life of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton – was made available on Disney+ on July 3. In fact, its premier on Disney+ saw 752,451 downloads of the app globally.

I’d always wanted to watch ‘Hamilton’ but couldn’t afford the ticket prices, and it has been a great privilege to watch the original 2016 cast perform online for the first time.

Having this influx of digital work makes you feel like you’re not doing anything

However, theatre work being produced online can have a negative impact on the confidence of aspiring industry professionals not able to participate.

“I think sometimes when you’re sitting at home and you have access to all this great work […] it has an effect on your self-esteem. It makes you feel that if you’re not doing anything digital, such as organising a panel or talk or producing or directing a show, that you’re left out of the loop,” said Rebecca. “Having this influx or overwhelming environment of digital work makes you feel like you’re not doing anything.”

Lockdown has also made it difficult to do rehearsals.

“It’s so hard to do rehearsals via video conferencing because you’re not in the room with them. Theatre’s all about life response and being present, while when you’re doing it face-to-face virtually it does really hinder the process of rehearsing as we know it. I feel like an aspect of theatre is missing when you do things online.”

Covid-19 has exposed significant holes in the industry in terms of how much support there is for theatre.

“Theatre is reliant on people yet it’s not being supported by the government as much as it should be,” said Rebecca.

There has been much more bottom up support for the theatre industry in Singapore

The UK government promised the arts and heritage sector a £1.57 billion rescue package to the future of the industry.

However, Rebecca points out this package has come too late; “regional theatres are already closing and the money will only save bigger theatres.”

Indeed, whilst the package has saved theatres such as London’s Old Vic, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Albert Hall, it was confirmed in July that the Nuffield Southampton Theatres would be closed permanently after six decades of theatrical history.

In contrast, Rebecca highlighted that there has been much more bottom up support for the theatre industry in Singapore.

“Singapore is smaller so the government can afford to give more money, but creatives are also supporting each other. The National Arts Council provides funding to attend courses so there’s not as much of a feeling of collapse and artists feel more supported,” she said.

The accessibility of theatre, and the extent to which this has improved since the outbreak of Covid-19, is one of the debates to have emerged from lockdown.

‘Crips without Constraints’ shows that digital work has been an equaliser for artists from various backgrounds and experiences

“Perhaps lockdown challenges us to redefine who can access theatre. People who can’t leave the house for various reasons can now create theatre from their own room and can still meet with their creative team, directors and writers on Zoom,” noted Rebecca.

This is exemplified by lockdown project ‘Crips without Constraints’, produced by theatre company GRAEae who work with deaf and disabled actors.

“Projects like ‘Crips without Constraints’ shows that digital work has been an equaliser for artists from various backgrounds and experiences. For example, if it’s not convenient for someone to leave the house for work or rehearsals, the situation has made it easier for them to continue creating from home,” said Rebecca.

There is also debate around continuing to stream shows as a potential change and improvement for making theatre accessible in the future.

Rebecca highlights that making shows cheaper could create the expectation that people can see shows for free. Whilst larger theatres may be able to afford to stream, fringe theatres are much more reliant on ticket sales and in most cases don’t have the budget to stream their shows.

What’s more, both large and small theatres employ thousands of front-of-house staff who would lose their jobs if all theatres were to stream their shows. In fact, the National Theatre let 250 front-of-house staff go last month.

More can be done in schools to help young people see the value of the performing arts

“People feel like they’re dispensable. The National Theatre started National Theatre At Home but front-of-house and bartenders have been let off. Imagine what would happen to staff at smaller theatres?” said Rebecca.

Going forward, Rebecca highlights that we need to see the performing arts as a public service. She emphasised that although the “package is a step in the right direction, more industries should value the arts and integrate it into different sectors of society.”

The US, for example, does this through the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. They bring performance experiences to their stages for the enrichment, enjoyment and education of diverse audiences.

There needs to be a particular focus on supporting BAME and other underrepresented groups

Considering that UK theatre makes up £1.28 billion of annual ticket revenue and draws in 34 million visitors annually, it’s clear that the performing arts contribute significantly to people’s lives. There is undoubtedly more that can be done in schools to help young people see the value of the performing arts and encourage them to pursue a career in this sector.

There needs to be a particular focus on supporting BAME and other underrepresented groups currently in theatre or who are interested in entering it, as well as support for fringe theatre which can be equally as good as West End theatre.

Finally, lockdown has highlighted the importance of finding a balance between accessibility to theatre and sustaining the livelihoods of those who work in the industry.

Check out these links on support currently available for the UK theatre industry:
Covid-19 support from Arts Council England
Arts Council England’s Emergency Respond Funds
Support for theatre professionals during Covid-19
Bid Black’s work
GRAEae’s work
Academy Mews Studios Residency Programme

Our thanks to Thrive LDN’s Right To Thrive grant scheme for making this project possible.