Give ’em shelter

Honestly, how are you feeling? The adjectives that cycle through my contacts with people in the arts are increasingly consistent: tired, anxious, stressed, frustrated… Broken nights followed by frantic days, turning from one crisis to the next, at work and at home, always in the impossibility of knowing what is coming, or how long this will last. Some speak of it being a marathon, and they’re right, if they mean it’s going on for a long time. But a race has a finish line, and you can pace yourself over the distance. This is open-ended, and there’s unlikely to be much sense of achievement when we can one day talk about things ‘during the pandemic’ – we’ll be working too hard picking up the pieces.

The news doesn’t help. It hasn’t for years, as the bills have fallen due for the economic, environmental, social and political miscalculations of decades. I’ve learned to step away from the playground soap opera of 24 hour news, and its goldfish-level attention span. Who cares which MP got the better of an argument, when their responsibility is to protect lives, jobs and well-being? Watching politicians cover their incompetence with clouds of bluster is just embarrassing. And still they parade naked before the cameras, vaunting of their ‘world-beating’ new clothes. They don’t even need our admiration: they can do it all by themselves. 

How am I feeling? Tired, anxious, angry – in a word, grim. At the start of lockdown, my daughter’s employer considered her presence at work essential; six weeks later, she was put on furlough: now her team has been dissolved. There are millions in the same position, waiting to be told if they still have a job. Every business is calculating if it can survive and at what cost. Theatres, orchestras, arts centres and galleries teeter on the edge; some have already fallen over. I get brave press releases about the autumn season but they feel like whistling in the dark. I try to keep these posts hopeful, even if that is fuelled largely by will, because no one needs more bad news now. At the same time, we cannot deal with this crisis unless we are prepared to face it honestly – that is the first of the British government’s failures, and the source of much that has followed. So yes, to be honest, this is grim. I never thought we’d be home for Christmas, but even so. 

Yesterday I took part in EEA’s third webinar about the future of outdoor performance and community arts. My co-chairs were Thelma Obirai and Shazia Bibi, two young producers who have trained with EEA. I knew they would do a good job, but they were both phenomenal. You can see them, and a panel of exceptional artists and activists, whose conversation they steered, by going to EEA’s website. I started yesterday afternoon feeling pretty low, but a couple of hours in this company restored my courage and hope.

All the young women in yesterday’s conversation have so much to give and to say and to do. They are also those who will find it hardest to get through this crisis, because they don’t have the track record, the contacts or the resources that others can rely on. It’s up to those of us who do to reach out and shield the most vulnerable on whom the future of our art, culture and society depend. We have to be better than the politicians. We have to help each other, however tired, anxious or frustrated we might be. The arts have never been about buildings. They’re nice to have, yes, but my whole professional life has been spent in community and re-purposed spaces. We can create, show and perform art in parks, sports fields, schools and church halls – wherever we have to, and now on the internet too. But to do so we need to make space for all the young people who risk having their futures permanently blighted by this crisis. We owe it to them to give them the means and space to take action in this world, which belongs to them as much as to anyone else. And that needs each of us – from great institutions to individual freelancers like me – to invent creative ways of sharing our resources with those who have least. That, for me at least, is one clear path to feeling better.