Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Theatre has survived many challenges before, but, without help from the government COVID-19 could be its biggest challenge yet.
This week, Andrew Lloyd Webber declared that the arts are at ‘a point of no return’. Could this pandemic really be the beginning of the end of the live entertainment industry? The arts industry bring in £10.8 billion per year, but sadly it has been one of the most adversely affected industries during the pandemic, with just under half of its workers still on furlough in August.
Theatre has always been an integral part of society; it has given a place for both escapism from and commentary on other aspects of culture, society and politics. Comedy thrived after the economic collapse of 2008-9 as it was used as a source to escape reality. but in this pandemic, the escape that is needed by so many is not available now.
Nevertheless, the history of theatres has often involved closures, whether that was to prevent the spreading of the plagues, or the ban on theatres in 1642 under a Puritan-led government which perceived theatres as places where illicit and bawdy behaviour was promoted. After both, they were reopened, and in the restoration period the theatres came back bawdier and more illicit than ever. There was discussion over banning theatres during the First World War, but the government decided against this because they were good for morale. When the Spanish influenza struck theatres remained open as it was believed that “the show must go on”.
It is clear throughout history that theatres have played an intrinsic role in influencing public mood. Nevertheless, in March of this year, the government decided to close all theatres in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Thousands of workers were left incomeless and the general public without their chance of escape. The closure of live entertainment venues, whether that be concerts, plays or comedy shows, has had a devastating impact on the entertainment sector in our country.
Modern inventions such as the radio, television, cinema, CD, iPod, and most recently online streaming services (such as Spotify and Netflix) have all threatened the existence of live performances. Nevertheless, theatre survives and thrives. Just last year, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival recorded it largest ever attendance and performers.
Our thirst for entertainment won’t die in principle; its determined survival despite modern technology has proved this. But the problem is, if the live entertainment industry fails to secure financial support, many theatres and companies will struggle and collapse. The fact that theatre has continued to thrive over the century, demonstrates that the government investment would not be a gamble on a dying industry.
While the government has already taken a great step by giving £500 million to Arts Council England, the money given went only to venues, while smaller businesses like acting and comedy agencies were not entitled to it. Moreover, a lump sum of money does not solve the very real problems like social distancing, which is preventing theatres and venues from reopening. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme was effective because it was not a lump sum of money, but rather encouraged the public to return to restaurants, while the restaurants did not lose money by taking part. It would be more effective if the government were to offer something like this with theatres and live performances or subsidised the empty seats necessary for social distancing.
Not only is this a safe investment, it is a necessary one. Eat Out to Help Out helped the hospitality industry get back on its feet. The government must step in and do more to ensure the long-term survival of the theatre.