Blog: What our rich & diverse theatre ecology needs to start making work!

By Charlotte Jones, CEO of ITC

The Chancellor’s announcement of £1.57 billion to tackle the crisis facing the arts is welcome both in its recognition of the importance of this industry and its potential to help a recovery. However, Oliver Dowden’s allusion though to the ‘Crown Jewels’ is disturbing and suggests that the delicate and inextricably linked ecology of the sector is not fully understood. When ever Theatre is mentioned in the press it is accompanied by pictures of cavernous, empty, red-seated auditoriums. The buildings are important but there is so much more to theatre than this archaic and unrepresentative stereotype and it is first and foremost dependent on its people.

Theatre is made by actors, writers, directors, designers, musicians, dancers, producers, technicians, stage managers and many more highly-trained expert individuals. 70% of these are freelancers or work on very short-term contracts. Few of them have been able to benefit from the job retention scheme or the freelance assistance due to the unusual and mixed patterns of their work. We have a workforce in danger of destitution and desperate to get back to work. With the focus on buildings and major institutions there is a whole area of potential that deserves more attention.

The independent performing arts sector is adaptable, light on its feet and expert at taking theatre to people in the places that they are. As I write an ITC company (20 Stories High) is taking free doorstep performances to people outside their homes in Liverpool. Many more are highly experienced in creating outdoor work, such as Wildworks in Cornwall, Emergency Exit Arts in Greenwich or Action Hero in Bristol. We have a raft of small companies and practitioners who have dedicated their working lives to rural touring (Eastern Angles in Ipswich, Company of Wolves in Scotland, Forest Tribe in Cheshire - to name but a few). Many independent companies have developed special skills in creating work to reach particular groups and promote inclusion in the arts (Artistic Directors of the Future working to challenge the status quo and create change at leadership level in mainstream theatres, Hijinx with young people with profound multiple learning disabilities, Clean Break with women in the criminal justice system, Cardboard Citizens with homeless people). 40% of ITC companies create work specifically for young people and many of them are looking at ways to take work now safely to children in their schools.

The independent sector has the potential to start making work again and to be reaching people throughout the country. Over the past couple of months, we have been convening a range of discussion forums with our members (including national and international touring, the practicalities of making work, managing change and uncertainty) to explore that potential and assess what support would be needed to enable it. We are also conducting a survey to drill down further and understand the detail (please complete it as fully and soon as possible to help us represent the position of this sector). These are a few early indications of things that would help:

  • Greater clarity from government about what performing arts activities are permissible and what the real risks are (not just focussing on when traditional theatre buildings can open). This would require a deeper understanding of how touring and working in non-traditional theatre spaces work. Practitioners from the independent sector are very willing and able to share their knowledge and expertise.
  • Continuation of the job retention scheme until live performance can safely resume. Though not everyone working in the sector has been able to benefit from this it has helped enormously to prevent redundancies and small companies folding completely.
  • More focussed assistance for freelancers in the arts recognising the complex patterns of their work.
  • Some companies and practitioners in our sector have benefitted from ACE emergency funds but many have lost project funding. We welcome the return of project funding and hope that a fast and seamless process can be resumed to support the many creative ideas that the sector has been developing.
  • The independent sector creates a great deal of new work and commissions new writing. A specific commissioning fund would be very welcome and would help to generate high quality, original work now.
  • When Covid hit and the theatres closed many small independent companies and artists ended up bearing the brunt of the losses from cancellation. Some venues behaved fairly but not all. There needs to be an expectation that funded institutions will properly share risk with independent companies and artists. This sector will be the first to start making work again and they need the support and shared courage of venues.
  • Something needs to be done about insurance. Too many companies found that they had been paying out large amounts but that cancellation due to pandemic was not covered.
  • The independent sector is resourceful and excellent at fundraising but most of the regular channels have been severely affected. This needs to be recognised in project funding considerations.

The above are only a few urgent considerations for the survival of the sector. The problems don’t end with the reopening of theatres. Things are going to be very challenging for the live performing arts sector for some time to come. The people in our sector though are resourceful, imaginative and dedicated. The Independent sector provides excellent value for money and achieves a lot with targeted, strategic but flexible support. This is the time to be recognising the depth and breadth of the professional performing arts and strengthening it for the future.