2007 - 2020

Theatres With Walls

Theatre is in decline. It has been for years. Lockdown has merely drawn attention to an industry which was already suffering through long-term neglect.

Ever since televisions became cheap and popular, theatre has suffered from a false comparison. As theatre-going has declined, the number of places where theatre is produced has declined. As theatres close, or stop creating original work, people get out of the habit of visiting the theatre, which means that funding bodies find it harder to justify the support they offer, which means that theatre’s funding is squeezed.

As fewer people attend theatre, theatre-going itself comes to be seen as rarefied and elitist; and theatre criticism seeks to justify itself by promoting theatre as Art, rather than as Craft or Entertainment, so emphasising its elite status. When something is perceived as elitist, it is easy for people to ignore, underestimate or misunderstand its significance. The Arts in general have long suffered from this malaise. They have been undervalued for decades.

However, a myriad of facts and statistics have recently been published enumerating theatre and the Arts’ vital contribution to jobs and the economy. For example, the Creative Industries in Scotland contribute £5.5 billion to the economy every year, and employ more people than the energy sector. Visitors to the theatre in the UK outnumber the crowds at the English Premier League. In 2008, a study commissioned by Perth and Kinross council and Scottish Enterprise found that Pitlochry Festival Theatre alone brought in an estimated £13 million per annum to Scotland’s economy.

But we can’t judge things purely on their monetary value. I have something of a personal investment in the survival of Scotland’s theatres: I was raised by two actors. As a result, I spent much of my childhood backstage, observing the intricate workings of a theatre. These buildings were my home. Theatre normally demands the suspension of disbelief, and this means, if it is done well, that audiences will be unaware of the team of passionate and hardworking craftspeople and creatives working assiduously behind the scenes to bring the spectacle to life.

It is too easy, I think, to conflate ‘theatre’ with ‘actors’. In fact, theatre is a collaboration across a multitude of crafts and art forms.

 

Actors, playwrights and directors tend to be transient – whether they want to be or not – they move from job to job. They are also likely to be self-employed (the issues and implications currently surrounding that would be a whole other article). Backstage crew, however, manage the spaces in which theatre occurs. They are more likely to be under contract, to stay with one building for sustained periods, coming to know it intimately.

The most general reaction to the current theatre crisis has been cries of ‘The show must go online!’. The National Theatre of Scotland, an organisation that proclaims itself ‘a theatre without walls’, produced Scenes for Survival – a series of 55 original, digital artworks in response to COVID-19 – which provided much needed work to a handful of actors, directors and writers (only some of whom were rich celebrities). Of course, these filmed performances are no substitute for a full theatrical experience, but in the face of an unprecedented global crisis they were a brave attempt at providing opportunities and an alternative to live performance, given the current circumstances. They were lovingly crafted pieces of work, which, as some pointed out, succeeded in being more accessible than the average theatre-going experience.

However. This medium can only offer work to a very small few; it must not become an excuse for closing theatres. It must not be exploited by government to squeeze the industry even more than it already is.

A Zoom play with a small cast is all very well, and honourable enough, but where does it leave the teams of stage management, sound technicians, scenic artists, production management, lighting design, stage crew, props department, set design, wardrobe and costume design, carpenters, front of house, box office, ushers and bar staff?

As a senior technician told me: “I know that funding has been allocated to producing houses and yet they are still going ahead with redundancies, which are predominantly technical and front of house staff … in a lot of management’s eyes we are easily replaceable.”

These are unfathomable circumstances that we find ourselves in, and some theatres have had to make difficult decisions. Pitlochry Festival Theatre has made almost half of its staff redundant. On the 17th of July, The Traverse in Edinburgh put out this statement: “We have (…) had to make the painfully difficult decision to enter into redundancy consultation with a number of our team in customer-facing and technical roles, with the likelihood that almost a third of our staff will be made redundant.”

On the 5th of August 2020, the very same day that The Macrobert in Stirling was awarded £485,213 from the Performing Arts Venues Relief Fund, they informed their technical team that the equivalent of three and a half specialised technician roles would be lost, making two permanent staff and one temporary staff member redundant. The specialised technical skills of The Macrobert have been reduced by 82.5%. An anonymous source told me: “This is not simply the loss of jobs. The Macrobert is losing 44 years of specialised skills and expertise that has built over the last 11 years, solid reputation, community engagement, camaraderie and trust within the creative and cultural workforce of Scotland and beyond.”

Of course it is not just the employees that find themselves in a difficult position, the management do as well. A representative of The Macrobert responded with this: “Two permanent members of technical staff are in the process of redundancy and we are saddened that the COVID-19 closure means that any staff are being made redundant. It is a terrible position to be in that dedicated and skilled people will lose their jobs because of COVID-19 closure and the resulting uncertain future for live performance. All those connected to Macrobert will feel this deeply, as will others in similar situations in venues throughout Scotland.” 

Many of these people will have based their lives in the locale of the building in which they work. They will be part of the community, vocationally trained and possessed of specialist knowledge about their workplace through years of commitment and experience. A stage manager working in a theatre in a more remote location, for example, might have children in the local school, a social network, a home. Their redundancy pulls the rug out from underneath their lives, and if they need to move, their specialist knowledge of their workplace leaves with them.

As an out-of-work front of house manager told me: “Those of us who work in theatre are completely cut off and cut adrift from our existing networks. I’m speaking about colleagues as well as our audience members too, many of whom I know by name as well as sight after sixteen years in the business.”

At the time of writing, The Lyceum is offering five jobs, the combined salaries of which amount to about £180,000 per annum. Job titles include ‘Director of Corporate Services’ and ‘Digital Delivery Producer’. Now, it may be that the appointees to these jobs will be in a position to provide real help to a theatre in crisis, but the public at large should not judge the income of the average theatre worker by the salaries offered here. Most theatre workers earn less than £20,000 a year.

And herein lies the problem . . . Ultimately, because people work in theatre for the love of it, they have in effect, subsidised the medium. Because the jobs are low paid, the jobs tend to be undervalued.

With the majority of theatres at risk of closure, we must remember that there is a real point to theatres having walls. As an actor and usher told me: “You cannot have a theatrical experience online, it’s the beauty of theatre. It is a collective, shared experience with a live audience.” A theatre can, and often does, provide a community hub, a space for youth theatre and touring companies, outreach, employment, interaction, a bar and restaurant, a meeting place. They are an opportunity. An arena for culture, discussion, empathy, dissent, craft, entertainment and creative collaboration.

We must guard against theatres closing their doors, never to reopen as theatres again. The show must go online, for now, but that can not become a substitute. Not only would that leave a huge number of skilled workers cut adrift, it would represent society giving up on all that a theatre can be. A theatre has much more potential than just becoming the latest Wetherspoons.

As a stage manager who was recently made redundant by a Scottish theatre after ten years of work there told me: “The theatres will hopefully survive – but without the people that have made them what they are, what’s left is an empty shell.”

 

Comments (15)

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  1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

    This is all very sad, but the bottom line is that theatre-going has been in decline for decades, to the extent that theatres can’t by themselves generate sufficient revenue to meet their running costs. Public funding could help to keep theatres open, but what would be the point of subsidising empty tombs and sepulchres of the muse?

  2. Gregor Powrie says:

    Succinctly put Iona. We can only hope that, unlike online shopping for pretty much anything, online theatre doesn’t become the new norm. It can’t.

  3. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

    Maybe the problem is analogous to that which André Malraux addressed in relation to museums of art.

    Museums are fairly recent invention; they’re physical spaces where the bourgeoisie can go to consume art. Their development certainly made art more inclusive, by taking it out of the private spaces of rich patrons; but, still being physical spaces, they remain exclusive by their nature, which is a circumstance that is compounded when the gates to those physical spaces are guarded by the cultural expectations or etiquettes of those who customarily occupy them.

    Malraux’s insight was that art (and I’d include theatre in this) doesn’t take place in physical spaces; it takes place in our imaginations – the ‘musée imaginaire’ or ‘the museum without walls’, as Malraux’s term is often translated. It’s a myth that the consumption of art is a collective experience; even among the largest audiences, we each sit alone in the dark, re-enacting the performance we’re experiencing in our own imaginations. We only gather in crowds to consume art because we have hitherto only been able to access it in public spaces, through physical media, and not because gathering in public spaces to consume art alongside others is somehow intrinsic to the art itself.

    The digital age presents opportunities for the musée imaginaire that we have only begun to imagine. The virtual world is the ideal ‘space’ for the arts because it is still less exclusive than the physical museums that first brought art out of the private drawing room and salon. It’s definitely the way ahead; the effects of the current pandemic may serve to assist theatre in the transition of its locus from physical to virtual museums.

    1. Dougal Lee says:

      I think Malraux (who was to a considerable extent responsible for the relatively high status of the Arts in Modern France, certainly as compared with the UK!) was subtler than implied by Anndrais’s comment. He was keen on the establishment of a country-wide arts infrastructure, for sure, but I think he would have drawn a distinction between a play, a performance, and an artwork in a museum. Of course, we all react differently and personally to a painting, even though it’s likely we’ll see it in the same context as everyone else. If, however, we read, for example, King Lear, we can react to it as literature, but we must recognise it as incomplete: it’s very existence implies the need for performance. This performance might be provided by a filmed version. and this will be like a painting: available for differing interpretations by individual audience members, but as a spectacle it will be essentially immutable, as if the painter has applied a last coat of varnish. A production for the theatre of King Lear has the opportunity to interpret the text in a way which might be radically at odds with another production. What’s more, at any given performance the audience itself should become a factor: a reaction, maybe, to one of the Fool’s lines might prompt the actor playing the Fool to delay the delivery of his next line; that delay might cause the DSM to delay the next sound cue; which might delay the entrance of The Earl of Gloucester; which might throw greater focus onto the reaction of Edgar….. In other words, theatre is not only about our own imaginations; every performance of every play differs to some extent from every other, and to my mind the audience should always be recognised as an integral part of how a performance proceeds. I think the thrust of this article is valid: theatres per se are locations which could be better exploited; theatre is, at its best, irreplaceable (would a pantomime work well in any other environment?); the present crisis should prompt us not to close theatres, but to cherish them in a way which broadens their appeal.

      1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

        Yes, I agree; the muses are different, and Malraux was specifically addressing the visual arts rather than the performance arts. Malraux was also making the historicist point that the meaning of a work lies in its relation to other works, along with the practical point that no physical space can accommodate all the works in relation to which any one of them acquires its meaning.

        But while they’re undoubtedly different, what all the muses do share is the place in which they happen: Malraux’s ‘museum’, if you will; our imaginations. What I’m suggesting is that the exigencies consequent on the pandemic present theatre-makers with the opportunity to creatively explore alternative, non-physical ways in which they might deliver their product to the imagination; something analogous to the ‘virtual’ curations that some galleries created when they were physically closed to the public.

        I also agree that the ‘aura’ of theatre (to plunder on this occasion Walter Benjamin’s term) lies in the singularity of its performance and that this differentiates it from other forms, such as film or literature, which can be reproduced without loss. But this doesn’t invalidate my suggestion. Rather, it more sharply delineates the challenge involved in delivering theatre ‘without walls’; namely, the need for any alternative mode of delivery to preserve the singularity of its performance.

        As does the point we might plunder from Caroline Heim: that, in theatre, audiences are also performers and, as such, are indispensable to the creation of the theatrical event. Pantomime and stand-up perhaps best exemplify this. In a very real sense, theatrical productions are just as impossible without the physical involvement of audiences as they would be without the physical involvement of actors. The absence of ‘live’ audiences would be a particular challenge to delivering some kind of ‘virtual’ theatre, but perhaps it wouldn’t be insurmountable and certainly worth the venture.

        I agree that the present crisis (the enforced absence of audiences, in contrast to the voluntary absence that marks theatre’s perpetual crisis) shouldn’t prompt theatre-makers to simply close shop and stop making theatre, and issuing counsels of despair instead. Rather, it should prompt them to explore alternative ways of delivering what they make to our imaginations. I still think the idea of ‘theatre without walls’ has some mileage in it.

  4. Ritchie Young says:

    I agree with most of the article and I have been affected by the recent winding down of theatres but we need to get away from phrases like “people work in theatre for the love of it“. To blame the people working in theatre for the low wages is not helpful and also gives the public the wrong image of us.
    We should be questioning the terms and conditions we are offered or the constant reshuffles that happen in our institutions resulting in rewritten contracts where you are forced into either accepting a reduction in terms or leaving. The people doing the job at the top are running most theatres like a corporate entity and forgetting the charitable bit.

    I enjoy my job but I work in theatre for the wage which supports my household. I have turned down jobs and left jobs because of conditions changing but there is always someone waiting to step in and accept the conditions.

    We also seem to inherently value business acumen and administration rather than a company’s ability to safely present a show. This is where cuts happen first. It’s never questioned that companies need 5 marketing staff or assistants for senior managers. But if we need an extra person on stage to make it safe or extra front of house staff you can go whistle.

    There are many problems and the lowest earners are not one of them, well, not any more.

  5. James Bryce says:

    Excellent article. So, so true. Sometimes, I feel that the “powers that be” in this country have no idea of the value of what is termed the Arts, but then, spirit and community have no place in feeding the gaping maw of profit.

  6. George Gunn says:

    Good piece. And true. The mistake managers make is that when they pay off technicians they think they can easily rehire them. You can’t. When you pay off skilled workers you lose the skill. Theatre is not a museum. It is a public art where people come together to share their humanity in a story. Theatre is the articulation of our democracy. It is popular in the true sense. At its core it is very simple. It is also very powerful and political. Which is why the state tries to control it. They can’t. Iona is right. Scottish theatre has been in decline for years and the coronavirus crisis has only brought forward what was always going to be manifest. My contention is that this decline is the result of bad management, cultural ignorance and social conservatism. Scotland should have a thriving, outward looking theatre culture – pandemic or no pandemic – that takes its place in world culture and the question is, why not?

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      ‘Scotland should have a thriving, outward looking theatre culture – pandemic or no pandemic – that takes its place in world culture and the question is, why not?’

      Lack of demand?

      ‘Theatre is not a museum.’

      I was using ‘museum’ in the auld Greek sense, a place of the muses, which include epic and lyric art, music, tragedy, dance, and comedy, among others. And, appropriating ideas from Malraux’s revolutionary psychology of art, I was suggesting that exclusive physical spaces are neither necessary nor desirable for theatre, since theatre essentially takes place in the virtual space of our imaginations, from which none is excluded.

      Of course, whether it takes place in physical or virtual spaces, we still need skilled people to produce theatre and generate sufficient revenue from their productions to meet the costs they incur in doing so.

  7. MacNaughton says:

    Theatre, along with poetry, is the absolute cornerstone of western culture, and without it, the individual subject would never have been born. If I recall correctly, in ancient Greek theatre, the chorus was the audience, the audience formed part of the play….

    Unfortunately, in such a mediatized world, anything which isnt loud and brashy is at a disadvantage. The tendency the author mentions to prioritize anybody and everybody over the people who actually produce the work is alas all too typical. But what can we expect when teachers and nurses are paid less than marketing executives and PR people? What happens in Scottish theatre happens throughout all of the arts I would guess…

    Why don’t I go to the theatre more often? Probably because in my mind I instinctively associate it with middle class people dressing up for the night and making fools of themselves by putting on absurd airs and graces at the Edinburgh festival. Because of its association with class snobbery.

    Going to the cinema is by contrast much cheaper and a less formal occasion than my experience of the theatre. You can’t just sneak into the theatre on your own one afternoon into the back of the stalls on a whim, like we cinema-goers do, maybe to see a film you have barely even heard of. There is something about that feeling to me which is just delicious, like the taste of freedom itself.

    I think the theatre in the UK tends to be too classicist and formal, though that may be a misconception of mine….

    1. MacNaughton says:

      The question is whether the theatre can properly be the theatre in such a class infested society as Britain, the most classicist country in the world.

      The theatre is certainly one of the places where you see the deep and intractable malaise of the class system in British society. You can feel actually alienated from other people because of their accent and your accent. This is something which is deliberately fostered by the British establishment to entrench their class privilege, this linguistic divide.

      And yet the theatre is, in its origins, as I understand it, almost the truest or most authentic art in the sense that back at the time of ancient Greece, it is as much ritual as it is art. If all art has its roots in magic and superstitions and ritual, then theatre is a direct source to that world. .

      The community comes together for a ritualized performance of cathartic collective benefit. It is a real life. experience, the idea that it is art comes much later, centuries perhaps. And when you think how effortlessly children play out roles It is perfectly logical that It emerged in human society.

      It couldn’t be further from its origins at the Edinburgh festival surely? There we have a social event which is an opportunity for the upper and middle classes to be seen and to show off and often, more or less pay no attention to what they are watching. Or, the wrong kind of focus and attention….

      No other art except music has this socially dynamic potential and in fact, not just potential, absolute need to involve its audience….It’s really important to humans, it can only be to have survived so long, and yet in some ways it feels to me to be on the fringes of society…..a whimsical thing almost….

  8. Josef Ó Luain says:

    As a one-time head fly-man: what a pleasurable read; I include the insightful comments.

  9. Emma Schad (National Theatre of Scotland) says:

    Thanks for writing such an interesting article about the issues currently facing the theatre industry in Scotland and thanks as well for the Scenes for Survival mention (all the Scenes can still be viewed at nationaltheatrescotland.com). I thought it might be useful to flag that the project created work for 208 artists, and all those that could afford to, either donated their fee into a hardship fund, specifically set up to raise funds for theatre workers across the industry who were experiencing financial hardship or paid it forward to allow other artists to be involved.

    1. Iona Lee says:

      Thank you for letting me know Emma, I wasn’t aware of that! That’s really nice.

  10. Charlotte says:

    Great article but backstage workers dont mainly work as full time employees in a venue. Venue staff make up the minority of backstage workers, the majority of us are freelancers. Meaning we are left at the mercy of the government self employed furlough scheme which has been less than helpful.

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