What future for theatres?

Yesterday, I had a long conversation with a friend who works at a great European opera house. It’s been shut for several weeks, and everyone has accepted that the rest of this season is lost. More than 200 staff are at home, though many can’t do their work away from the theatre. Their salaries are being paid, but they must wonder how long that can be sustained. Early hopes of reopening ‘soon’ have faded. Confidence in launching the autumn season is waning. Even if they can reopen, who will come? How is a theatre audience compatible with the social distancing principles we are starting to realise will continue long after we can leave our homes? The images of press conferences and parliaments with solitary figures scattered across empty benches give some idea of what the that might mean for theatres.

Imagine being responsible for 300 livelihoods – and their dependents – to say nothing of the freelance artists and musicians, the cleaners, the people who supply the food and the flowers, the printers, IT providers and all the rest. A cultural institution is a hub in an ecosystem that sustains many more people than it employs. Its income is often derived from subscriptions, bought in advance for performances that can no longer happen. How will they be refunded? Even for the people who can afford the tickets, this is still unnecessary spending. After the 2008 financial crash, thousands of the theatre’s regular supporters stopped coming, for years. Today, the director of London’s National Theatre, Rufus Norris, spoke of the organisation ‘haemorrhaging money’.

The financial problems of cultural institutions are a big problem but, as Norris says, they are solved when the powerful choose. The questions I’m asking myself are beyond the reach of anyone’s chequebook. Can institutions grown comfortable in one way of life (‘comfortable’ will offend some readers, but it’s all relative) can they reimagine their purpose and activity for a new, still uncertain world? What will we want from theatres, galleries and concert halls after weeks of isolation, hardship and grief? Our sense of security has evaporated like a mirage. Previously dominant values are being challenged and found wanting. People dismissed just weeks ago as ‘low-skilled‘ are now recognised as risking their lives with heroism to care for those in need. Stuck at home, we are rethinking what matters to us, what really matters. Social connection, family, community and solidarity are proving more reliable than consumerism; in any case, we’re all going to be poorer, and for a long time.

If even part of this is partly true, will we recognise ourselves in the cultural offer suspended in March 2020? We are going through traumatic events. We need art and culture to help us process and recover from those experiences. But it seems unlikely that we’ll be much interested in the stories and ideas that held our attention before the world changed, and since the ways in which we can experience them are changing too, there’s an opportunity, perhaps a genuinely historic chance to do things differently. My friend at the opera house is thinking about taking chamber music to hospitals and care homes when the lockdown eases. It’s a first idea, but she’s looking in a good direction.

Art is first, last and always about relationship, between artist and audience – creator and re-creator, are more accurate terms, I think – and also between an audience brought together in shared experience. Industrial society created new structures for art’s presentation, consumption and distribution, and contributed to its present social and economic importance. But a theatre is just a convenient means to a particular end. The performances I most remember have been in village halls, streets and slums, in schools and woods, in churches and town halls. And their artistic language has been different too, without the concentrated support of a theatre’s technical resources and social rituals. It doesn’t always work, but failure comes not from the space and its conditions, but an inability to find how to make them come alive.

Some people who run great theatres and cultural institutions probably think this won’t happen. It’s a bump in the road, a period of belt-tightening and dark nights, but things will get back on track. They might even be right: I’m no futurologist. But they’d be foolish to think it can’t happen. I’ve seen enough sad theatre and mothballed opera houses in the former Soviet empire to know that it can and it does. When your economic model ceases to be viable – which is just another way of saying, when you cease to matter to enough people – you die. One minute, you’re full of confidence and glory, the next, like roses in a drought, you’re ready for the bonfire. We’re beginning to see that what began in March 2020 is not going to end quickly. COVID-19 is an existential threat to us individually and to the way of life we’ve been used to, good and bad. The cultural sector will need all its creativity to imagine new ways of connecting with the rest of us in a world of social distance.

Photographs – (1) ‘Jericho’, Anselm Keiffer at the Royal Academy, 2008; (2) House of Commons, 22 April 2020, Parliamentary TV, via Sky News; (3) Opera Dudes, performing at Freckenham Church for Creative Arts East, drawing by Rosie Redzia taken from A Wider Horizon (2015); Dushanbe Opera House. Photographs by François Matarasso except where stated.