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The Covid funding for UK theatres must do more than just allow them to survive | Rufus Norris


On 5 July the government announced a £1.57bn recovery fund to protect arts, culture and heritage from the devastating effects of coronavirus. Of that, £500m will be distributed as emergency grants to organisations by Arts Council England, with a further £270m as loans.

On 28 July it published the guidelines for applicants. Between those two dates the theatre world had little to do but to speculate. What will the money go towards? The shoring up of organisations on the brink or the generation of work? Survival or activity?

The guidelines hint at activity but, ultimately, it’s all about survival. The argument for this is clear: if we want our cultural infrastructure to remain intact when we finally have a vaccine, it must be protected. What this financial reading has no metric for, however, is the risk of long-term inactivity and the truth that it poses as great a threat to the integrity of the industry as running out of cash reserves.

In reality, activity is survival.

Any organisation needs to derive its energy from somewhere. In the world of theatre, energy is generated by what is simply referred to as “the work”. Without the ability to create, to make, to work, the sector is destined for decrepitude, stasis and irreversible decline.

For every theatre to remain inactive until the storm passes brings unconscionable risks of its own: we will lose our freelance workforce with its irreplaceable talent and skill; we will lose the progress we have made on diversity; and we will lose the ability to stimulate the engagement and philanthropy that is contingent upon our activity.

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And all of this before even talking about our audience. The emergency funding was a welcome investment of public money, a clear indication that culture is a valued part of our national life. Without it being used at least in part to generate activity, we risk being found in breach of contract with a public that will be paying the debt for years.

As a wise person once said: “If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.” If we must all wait for the return of perfect weather conditions, ours will be a ghost ship.

In whatever ways we can, we need to apply our skills of adaptability, collaboration and diversification. This may be digitally, in outdoor work, in education and community practice, or in new commissions and looking at different ways to engage with our artists, our audience and our purpose.

I am not ignorant of the fact that the clouds have got darker even in this past fortnight, with new surges in cases, local lockdowns and a delay to the stage 4 reopening dates. And while the National Theatre (NT) remains fortunate in many ways, the sheer scale of its need renders it ineligible for a rescue grant. Instead we must apply for a loan: if successful, we will be making repayments for the next 20 years.

But just as essential to our survival is our ability to return to what we do. This week we are opening the stage door of the NT to a handful of artists for the first time since lockdown.

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Back in March we gathered to watch Rafe Spall’s blazing performance in Death of England one last time. The play, a searing analysis of Brexit, football and white working-class masculinity by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, now has a sequel. A very English response to Black Lives Matter, Death of England: Delroy centres on a new protagonist played by Giles Terera.

We don’t yet have clearance to perform for audiences so our first venture into a rehearsal room will be for a workshop. However, in the midst of the harsh and unavoidable pain of redundancies, the decision to at least begin the process of bringing this work to the stage is an important one for the organisation.

All around the country, theatres are facing agonising decisions. The security of permanent and casual staff, the upkeep of the buildings, the ability to generate activity and with it to employ freelancers: all of these intersect and compete as priorities.

But I urge those at the decision-making table who are awarding funding to look favourably on those organisations with a clear intent to get making again. And I urge my peers to argue that activity is core to their survival.

We found a common purpose in fighting for support. Now we must unite around a profound article of faith: that the best chance of survival is to find our way back to audiences, artists and communities. To remember that our world-beating creative industries are predicated on action, courage and creativity, and to set sail again.

Rufus Norris is director and joint chief executive of the National Theatre

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