I’m gonna rant – and I’m sorry about it, but I am. As a young theatre-maker, it felt like, (and forgive me if this was naïvely idealistic), like something might actually change in the theatre industry as we emerged from the pandemic.
Throughout the lockdowns – there were talks. Actual discussions. In tiny Zoom boxes all over the world. There was a global space emerging: international practitioners were in creative dialogue, ruminating together, and daring to imagine a better future. There was kick-ass refreshing honesty – about what was working, what should be killed off, about the woeful treatment of freelancers, about ongoing structural inequality… I dared to dream – was it somehow possible, in this enforced pause, to dig into the guts of the theatre industry collectively and collaboratively, and to reset and ‘come back better’? At this point, I was back in my childhood bedroom, and in my small, suffocating town, and yet somehow, I felt creatively alive. The creative solutions coming out were ELECTRIC.
For example, my lovely mum – who is chronically ill and largely housebound – finally had access to digital theatre. Largely, since she felt ill, she hasn’t been able to watch theatre. Through livestreams and online content, the explosion of digital theatre was finally opening up provision. Provision to those who have been traditionally excluded from our cultural life – rejected by extortionate pricing, inaccessible architecture, theatre etiquette, cost of public transport and location. I have to note here: accessible theatre work is not a new idea: academics and theatre-makers like Kirsty Sedgman, Nikki Miles-Wildin, Bree Hadley, and Hannah Simpson have been talking about how to ensure genuine accessible provision for years. Suddenly, in the pandemic, some change was FINALLY HAPPENING (not nearly enough, but some).
Whilst many arts organisations disappeared (AGH) and shut up doors, there were emerging creative leaders who were actively working with resilience, bravery, and faith. Slung Low in Holbeck had turned themselves into a social referral unit and were feeding their local community. Doorstep Arts in Torbay were working tirelessly to ensure creative provision for vulnerable young people and their community. These FAB pockets of creative ingenuity were grinding day in day out, carving out joyful moments amongst the crisis, all whilst supporting their communities’ mental and physical well-being. What is art for, except for this?Where were the buildings and organisations with triple, quadruple their budgets?
It felt like, amid this awful global crisis, the UK theatre industry was choosing seeds of growth. I hoped and I hoped that these conversations, these examples, these creative ideas would spark action. That as the theatre industry gently restarted, we wouldn’t just return to normality – it would be different this time. These were the promises.
But the reality so far isn’t promising. I’m saddened that so far digital provision seems to have slipped away. Most organisations are STILL not creatively embedding access requirements. Organisations like Doorstep and Slung Low continue to courageously support their communities, but the balance of ACE funding is still prioritising big traditional buildings, not reflexive grassroots work.
I’m writing this at NSDF (the National Student Drama Festival) – which has a digital hub of work running alongside the festival, is free for the first time, and in consultation with Nikki Miles-Wildin has largely embedded access into the festival, with captions, BSL interpretation and audio description. These are extremely commendable changes, and it is joyful to walk around a space where mostly everyone has been considered and supported. NSDF is one of the organisations that have actioned some of the ideas floated during the lockdowns. But truthfully, I feel like I shouldn’t have to pat NSDF on the back for doing the bare minimum in terms of making spaces accessible for everyone. Don’t get me wrong, these are amazing, AMAZING changes, and are absolutely welcomed – but, for me, the proof will be in the longevity of this level of access – can we expect the same standard over the coming years? Only time will tell, but at least they are trying (which is more than can be said for some buildings/organisations...).
Looking to the wider theatre industry, I remain hopeful that the words of lockdown will still turn into actions – but boy I’m angry at how long it’s taking. Watch this space, I guess (rant over...for now, ARGH).