Following the removal of Wales’ last Covid-19 restrictions, attention has turned to what life might look like in post-pandemic Wales. Here, Emma Schofield reflects on the effect on our theatres and where theatre in Wales might need to go next.
In March 2020 theatres and cultural venues across Wales closed their doors for what was only meant to be a few weeks. For many of us, the image of a lone lamp, shining its light into an empty theatre struck a chord in those early weeks of the pandemic, when everything was turned on its head and the luxury of enjoying a live show was abruptly replaced with evenings of staring mutely at the grim figures rolled out at each daily news bulletin and wondering whether to go and give the food shop another wash in the sink.
As has so frequently been the way throughout the pandemic, the Welsh Government response to the way in which the arts has been affected by Covid-19 has been to nod sympathetically and throw some money in the general direction of arts and culture. Each stage in the removal of restrictions has generally been made with great fanfare, but very little consideration has been given to what happens next for theatres and arts venues. Two years later, with doors open and curtains raised once again, the time is right to shine a spotlight on theatre in Wales as it starts the task of rebuilding.
It goes without saying that the pandemic has taken a toll far greater than ‘just’ a financial one. Writers, actors, directors, producers, musicians, technicians have been forced to search for alternative work over the past two years, driven from a profession in which they have carefully carved out a career. When asked about the impact the pandemic has had on Theatr Clwyd, Executive Director Liam Evans-Ford was quick to touch on the psychological affect of such a turbulent period. ‘It won’t be a surprise to anyone that it has been very, very tough for the arts, theatre venues, and production companies during the last two years’, says Evans-Ford. ‘Firstly the emotional drain of ‘un-producing’ work that has often been years in the making, and the scenario planning for what might be possible within restrictions at any given time.’ For Evans-Ford, this emotional drain goes hand-in-hand with the financial toll that Covid-19 has taken: ‘while the venues have been the most obviously impacted as far as sheer scale of income losses, the production companies have continued to commit money against product that has then been undeliverable. In both cases there is a very strong awareness of how our freelance colleagues have lost so much of their work.’ This loss of work, coupled with the sheer frustration of working within continually changing parameters has taken its own toll on theatre in Wales.
Then there’s the wider impact of almost two years of stop-start restrictions. Audiences who once held season tickets to venues, or for whom attending the theatre was a semi-regular fixture on their calendar, are no longer in the habit of theatre-going. To assume that both creatives and audiences alike will instantly return in their droves simply because restrictions have been lifted, is both arrogant and naïve. Like it or not, lives are different now than they were two years ago, circumstances have changed and flinging open theatre doors does not necessarily mean audiences will immediately return to pre-pandemic levels. Especially not at a time when our lives, and let’s be frank about this, have suddenly got a whole lot more expensive. Which brings us neatly to the awkward truth that still lies at the heart of this whole situation:
Art is meant to be for everyone, but not everyone can afford it.
I use the term awkward because this really is an uncomfortable reality which we skirt around far too frequently in our discussion about arts and culture. It’s all very well to talk about making art available to everyone, of making theatre accessible, of throwing wide doors and welcoming in the masses, but someone has to pay for that. And yet, and I cannot stress this enough, making something accessible for one person does not have to equate to mugging someone else off. Our theatre makers, our actors, writers, directors, producers, front of house personnel, the reviewers who give up their time to write about the work which captured their attention, they all deserve decent working conditions, decent pay and the kind of job security which other sectors of employment enjoy, but as the pandemic highlighted in all its ugly glory, that very often is just not the case. Perhaps we’re all guilty of turning our backs to this issue far too easily; maybe we’ve become complacent, but it’s the truth and it needs to be repeated as many times as it takes for the people who have the power to facilitate change to listen. Art has an enormous role to play in both our cultural and mental wellbeing, but it can only do so if it is correctly funded and genuinely open to all. Gary Raymond’s recent reflection on ten years of Wales Arts Review highlighted this exact issue.
Of course, this isn’t a new problem. It is, to borrow a phrase from a well-known Disney movie, a tale as old as time. Access to theatre has always been a privilege, not a right; the pandemic and other factors, the effects of (dare we say it) Brexit and the current cost of living crisis have now made that gulf between those who can afford a theatre ticket and those who can’t, just a little bit wider. The thought that there could be entire generations who are simply priced out of accessing theatres, and all that they have to offer, should be something that we, as a nation, are ashamed and concerned about.
It’s a situation which just isn’t going to get better on its own, no matter how much any of us might like it to. At a time when people are genuinely being forced to choose between eating meals and heating their homes, theatre-going is absolutely going to suffer. Ironically, this is the very time when theatre can speak most acutely to those who need a form of escape, a time when those opportunities for expression are needed most, when we really need voices from all sectors of society, not just from a privileged through. A quick glance across the calendar for the coming months shows just how hard most theatres in Wales are working towards that goal as they fully re-open, but they can’t do it alone.
As with many phases in this pandemic, the road back to some kind of normality for theatre has been a bumpy one, made all the more difficult by false starts and a series of rapidly-changing restrictions. Returning to where we were in March 2020 is not straightforward. Torch Theatre’s Alex, Lloyd presents the enormity of the challenge when we meet on Zoom for a chat about how the Pembrokeshire theatre has navigated the challenges of the pandemic. Like Theatr Clwyd and so many other theatres across the country, Torch have had a difficult two years. Lloyd touches on these immediately admitting that ‘financially, it’s quite hard. Initially, when we were told to close in March 2020 we had no idea it’d take this long to get back. It’s been two years, of stopping and starting, then suddenly working from home, of not being able to go to a theatre, of dealing with restrictions. I think it’s just the general toll that had on audiences, as well as our staff.’ I ask what Lloyd feels has been the single biggest impact from the pandemic and he points immediately to the combined ‘financial impacts, the operations impacts, and the wellbeing and mental health of not just our staff, but our patrons as well. Suddenly you’re told you can’t sing, you can’t act, you can’t dance. You can’t go back to your place of work. We have to adjust now to get back to all of that again.’ All of this is, of course, based on the assumption that we’re simply trying to get back to where we were before, when what Wales should really be doing is looking to where theatre can go next.
So what does the future for post-pandemic theatre in Wales need to look like? For Lloyd, that future is dependent on capturing a new generation of theatre makers and goers, ‘I think the answer lies in the creation of a nation-wide scheme, or some established localized schemes’. Lloyd’s solution would be a grassroots one, focusing on getting out into the community, talking particularly to young people in the 16 to 24 year old category and encouraging them to see the opportunities and benefits offered by art and culture. He tells me that this is something which Torch are really keen to do ‘but we need more support from powers that be to really push that and to support it financially’, a narrative that is being repeated across the sector in Wales. The desire and the potential to do more is there, the commitment to support local communities and to really try to make theatre a part of their everyday lives is there, but it’s not possible without some serious support. Perhaps what’s really needed is a coordinated package of support and a plan for engagement which can be accessed by theatres and used in the way they feel would best benefit their own communities; after all, who knows their audiences better than the theatres themselves? The post-pandemic era isn’t a time for one size fits all solutions to be handed down from on high, it’s an opportunity to pass back some autonomy to theatres so that they can focus their work on what they most need at this time. It wouldn’t be easy to do, but it could make all the difference.
Perhaps the aim of returning to where we were two years ago isn’t enough. After all, it isn’t March 2020 anymore, Wales is a different place than it was before the pandemic and we need a theatre scene that is able to be as bold, challenging and engaging as it can to support that new landscape. We owe it to our theatres, along with all those who work in them and support them, to give them the space and support to achieve that.
Emma Schofield is a writer and critic and Senior Editor for Wales Arts Review.