Lockdown reflections – Managing Uncertainty

On 17th March Zoe and I spent our last day in the ITC office at The Albany preparing to shift our operations to our respective homes, diverting the ITC advice line to my mobile, mopping up the last bits of admin in relation to our regrettably postponed Ethical Employment conference which should have been happening on 19th March… no time to mourn, no idea when we would next meet again. It feels like a year ago and it’s only five weeks. Five weeks in which the UK Covid 19 death toll has grown from dozens to over 26,000. Five weeks in which the law has changed almost every day. Five weeks in which an unprecedented and unpredictable situation has become increasingly uncertain. We are no nearer knowing when we will be able to come out of lockdown and it is becoming increasingly obvious that, even if restrictions are slowly relaxed, theatre and the performing arts will be amongst the last activities to be reinstated. How do we identify and reach the light at the end of this interminable tunnel?


Throughout these five long weeks the ITC advice line has been busy, and it has been interesting to reflect on the development and different character of the advice calls as the weeks have progressed. In the first week everything was about cancellations, frustration of contract, Force Majeure, lay-offs and redundancies. Week two began with a barrage of questions about streaming content online and some heart-warmingly generous queries and suggestions about how our companies could actively help freelancers in the industry. It ended with all the redundancies being cancelled as the Government’s Employment Retention scheme was announced. The next couple of weeks were dominated by calls about ‘furloughing’ – new verb, new law - how to apply it? Now a high percentage of independent sector employees have been furloughed and the few staff that are left tend to be either finance people or CEOs. In this last week the emphasis has been on future planning and we’re receiving an increased number of calls from Board members of ITC companies – tentatively asking if they are entitled to use the service – You most certainly are! The role of governance at this time is crucial and difficult. Board members are having to fulfil a vital leadership function and feel very isolated and uncertain in the face of the existential crisis facing the sector. ITC exists to support the leadership and management of the sector whether that’s CEOs, Artistic Directors, Finance and General Managers, Board Members, independent producers – if the buck stops with you – you need support.


Many ITC members are taking us up on our offer to have strategic conversations and be a sounding board for planning. It has been fascinating work so I thought I might share some of the things that have resonated for me.


Obviously, nobody knows when, or even if, the crisis will end so planning cannot be a definite science based on known facts. What you can be sure of though are:
- The values that underpin your work
- The impact you want to have
- The people you want to reach.


The independent sector is naturally values and vision driven. The best decisions that have been made in this Covid 19 crisis have been based on putting people first and the worst decisions (of which there have been tragically many – especially at Government level) have been based on purely economic considerations and misplaced ideology.


Our sector is good at putting people first and this will be a strength in planning for an uncertain future. Continuing to look after the well-being of our staff and the freelancers we work with, looking out for their safety, involving them in thinking about future plans, listening to their fears, playing to their strengths and using their creativity and imagination well. Reaching out and listening to audiences and participants, adapting to their changing needs, helping people to make sense of what we have been through.


The world we will be emerging into will not bear much relation to the one we were used to. We will not be returning to normal. Big change has happened, and we have to be ready to embrace the positive challenges it offers and let go of the old bad habits. We have been like a broken record in the Theatre industry reiterating endlessly the need for change and yet staying extraordinarily the same. We have allowed a status quo that has exacerbated lack of diversity and inclusion, maintained artificial hierarchies and an unworkable balance of power, failed to pay attention to a new and broader range of voices, failed to improve working conditions and done little to build sustainable career paths for artists and practitioners. We have not done enough to improve the way we use our resources. The independent sector does an enormous amount with very little but the way risk is badly managed and not properly shared leaves the most vulnerable and least well-resourced exposed and exploited . If we seek to put back all the old pieces in the same places we will fail.


The post-Covid arts world will need to take account of what has happened. This will be a world in shock and mourning. People will have endured a level of isolation and disconnection they have never experienced before. Social distancing is having a peculiar effect on our sense of community. Without any obvious display of violence or aggression every human being poses a potential lethal risk to each other. We could all be killing one another as we breath in and out. NHS and frontline workers have taken huge personal risks to help other people and many have died in the process. Everyone is living with extreme fear and most will have been touched by death and grief and denied the necessary process of mourning with friends and family. Paying attention to the psychological impact of this time will be an essential part of envisioning a meaningful and helpful theatre and performing arts offer to a recovering society. Spending time now working out how to get as many as possible socially-distanced ‘bums on seats’ into a traditional theatre space and feeding them the same form of entertainment that they have always experienced with a view to helping your theatre get back on its feet financially is at best pointless. It was Obama I think who said, ‘never waste a crisis’. We have been delivered the biggest imaginable crisis by this terrifying micro-organism. Let’s use it and do some serious thinking.


I have been deeply inspired by the leaders of ITC companies who I’ve been having planning conversations with. They have been alert, aware, thoughtful and open to reframing their work. They have had a default mode of generosity and a willingness to explore. They are approaching the challenge of future thinking with humility and a spirit of enquiry. I was asked yesterday by a member (trying to rethink and relaunch her organisation into this very different context): ‘is it ok that I don’t have all the answers?’ My response was that it is more than ok. ‘I don’t know’ is a liberating admission when followed by the commitment to do some deep and serious thinking. She may not have all the answers, but she was raising some really brilliant questions.


A few of the leaders I’ve been talking with in the past few weeks have admitted to me that they are terrified. I think it’s very important to articulate the fear – feel it, face it and then ‘turn the discomfort into curiosity’ (sadly not my phrase but one I quote often from a choreographer I once heard speaking at a conference whose name I can’t remember – she inspired me though).


If we pin all our hopes on the Government telling us when we can come out of lockdown and return to normal we remain powerless. This Government, currently being accused of ‘hiding behind the science’, is the same ‘Brexity’ Government that claimed to be sick of experts. We are going to have to live with extreme uncertainty for some time yet. Managing uncertainty comes down to doing something creative and constructive with our fear. Recognising it, sharing it, being aware of it in others and giving them the benefit of the doubt – these are the mindsets that will help us through these extraordinary times.


I am happy to hold strategic conversations with ITC members throughout this lockdown. You don’t need to prepare detailed plans and I don’t expect you to have any of the answers (I don’t have them either) but exploring, discussing and facing the uncertainty seems to help and I learn a lot from it too. So, get in touch and make good use of us. ITC is here to help.


Good luck to all of you dear ITC members. We will help to make sure this great community thrives and makes the best use of this massive crisis to make a better world.