Theatre Must Be Subsidised
How can the theatre industry possibly recover from Covid-19?
This is one of the questions that I have been asking myself repeatedly over the last year. The economics of theatre never really adds up – it costs far too much to put on a play. Only when you have venues of a huge capacity and charge extortionate ticket prices on the one hand, whilst limiting rehearsal time and reducing cast size and creative team to a minimum on the other, can theatre make money. (Neither of which are conducive to high quality, artistic theatre).
So, we’re starting from far from stable foundations. High quality, progressive and sustainable theatre needs to be subsidised. That is just a fact. The repeated slashing of Arts Council budgets over the last 10 years has resulted in more and more conservative (no pun intended) productions. This has come from producers, artistic directors, programmers and directors. All have felt the pressure to make a show that they know will sell and that isn’t bad. Those have been the priorities. It has also resulted in a limiting of people resources in those productions. ‘Non-essential’ roles have been cut – assistant directors being a massive one. This not only means that there’s more pressure placed on the lead creatives who are more likely to let things slip through the cracks, but that we are removing the primary training ground for the next crop of directors and theatre artists.
So why should tax-payers’ money be used to prop up an industry that can’t support itself? That’s the big question that we have to confront. Now, we could make the well-worn argument that theatre brings £x billion into the UK economy, supports restaurants, bars and hotels etc etc. Frankly (although all this is true), it is completely the wrong grounds to make the argument on. If you’re trying to win the argument by proving how much money theatre generates, you’ve lost before you’ve begun. THEATRE’S VALUE IS NOT MONETARY. This needs to be drummed into everyone’s heads. ART’S VALUE IS NOT MONETARY. Similarly, EDUCATION’S VALUE IS NOT MONETARY. Education does not (or at least should not) exist just to get you a job. Education exists to give you the skills to engage with the world, to make connections, to discover new things, to continue to develop human understanding and endeavour, to build relationships – I could go on…
Just as education shouldn’t exist just to get you a job, theatre doesn’t exist to make money. Theatre exists to make us see the world differently, to challenge and to question, to share, to speak and to be heard, to laugh, to cry, for catharsis, to find comfort, to realise that you are not alone, to be amazed, to be shocked, to be entertained, to be educated, to be enlightened. Theatre connects us with our shared experiences, it shows us how we’re different but also how we’re the same. These should be valued in and of themselves! If I have a chat with a good friend who makes me laugh and tells me a couple of good stories – that discussion has value. No money has changed hands, but it still had a value.
We have created a society where money is king and unless something pays for itself, or makes a profit, it is deemed of little value. This is incredibly destructive and worrying. Of all the things to value, money is one of the worst. The pursuit of money brings out the worst in human behaviour, whilst the pursuit of love, peace, enlightenment and understanding brings out the best.
We need to embrace the fact that theatre does not have financial value. We should be proud that we are fighting for a world where money is not the most important quantity. Money is necessary but IN ORDER for us to seek the pursuits that lead to real value. Money is the means not the end.
So, how does this relate to theatre getting back on its feet? Ultimately, an argument has to be made for significant and sustained subsidy within the arts. Our attitudes towards taxation need to change. A tax isn’t robbing us of our hard-earned money, it is a way of paying for better art, education, healthcare, opportunities, transport – in short, a better life. It is a way of taking pride in our community, our society and each other. If you’re not interested in theatre, you might not care that your money has helped stage a new production, but you might care that someone else’s money has enabled you to take paid maternity or paternity leave, or to have a railway that runs on time and is cheaper, or to have an excellent school you can send your child to. The point is, the tax is a way of us all contributing to making each other’s lives better. It helps all of us.
If theatre has significant government funding, then the rest will come. We’ll start making better, more innovate, more exciting, more moving work, because we can be freed up to be artists again. We can make out of a desire to create something amazing, rather than out of a fear of something being bad.