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Rescue package won’t stop curtain coming down on many in the arts world

PUBLISHED: 11:23 10 July 2020 | UPDATED: 11:23 10 July 2020

The Theatre Royal in Norwich has made half its staff redundant. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Theatre Royal in Norwich has made half its staff redundant. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

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Writer and former Theatre Royal employee Andrew Reeve expalins how vital the arts are says it’s vital that his beloved industry isn’t allowed to fade away

Theatre is Life and All The World’s a Stage, so when advocate for Greek literature, drama, and, perhaps, philosophy, Boris Johnson directs the current tragic reality show we’re all performing in, it’s not surprising he directs behind closed doors. Before I realised being creative was actually harder than the elaborate ruses my parents created to keep me believing in stories and magic, I worked numerous menial jobs. One of the worst involved cleaning a nightclub of the aftermath of hundreds of drunk people, fights, broken glass, underwear and vomit.

One of the best was when I was a member of the stage crew at Theatre Royal Norwich. I once pestered a responsible and trusted colleague enough that he kindly allowed me to operate Toggle, the short-sighted plough-horse in Dr Dolittle, in a scene where he pushes his head through a door and Dolittle (Philip Schofield) places spectacles on him. I wiggled Toggles ears on cue and, much to my colleague’s cheeky and knowing satisfaction, Toggle performed his duties perfectly.

Whatever your job is in a theatre you always meet vulnerable and talented people from all over the world who dedicate their lives pursuing a career that, in its simplest form, brings the entire kaleidoscope of life to an individual in a crowd. “This show is for me! I say that! I do that? Oh my god, I know what that feels like.”

That individual will go home feeling they’re an essential part of the wonderful nonsense that being human is. Merry Christmas!

During my time at the theatre I worked on the Dick Whittington pantomime during the 2000 and 2001 season. For six or seven weeks I exited the “real world” and entered a new “real world” of actors, dancers, writers, artists, directors, and technical crew who all became family. For the audience every performance was Christmas Day, and for the cast and crew sometimes three times a day. Helen McDermott was brilliant and funny, which was strange at first because I knew her as a serious newsreader. Paul Shane played the villain King Rat. His every appearance was greeted with a loud chorus of boos.

During the final show on Christmas Eve, a colleague and I were below stage securing a ladder. At the top was Paul Shane waiting for his cue to emerge from King Rat’s lair. He told us his wife was ill and he was thinking of the long drive home to be with her for most of Christmas Day, the one day off for the next week or so. He’d be back here Boxing Day morning ready to do the show all over again. You don’t forget those moments of humility, grace, and humanity. Coincidentally the colleague was the same that allowed me to wiggle Toggle’s ears.

All this and much more is for the audience; it’s their enjoyment that conceives new productions, and has done for over two thousand years. Whether it’s words written by Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Pinter, or Beckett, it is us on stage speaking the dialogue. How thoughtful that someone would reveal their most vulnerable and intimate selves in the hope that we might enjoy it.

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On Friday, July 3, Boris Johnson told us all to get down the pub. “Forget culture and art, let’s get plastered” was the message. And so here we were two days after Theatre Royal announced “113 staff, 52% of the workforce, were facing redundancy, with a further 59 employed on zero-hour contracts being told they will no longer receive any work.”

On the same day as some pubs reopened at 6am, The National Theatre announced 400 casual staff were to lose their jobs.

How did we get here? It’s only been eight years since Britain’s culture was the focus of the London Olympic opening ceremony. Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei said the ceremony was “…about real people and real events and showed the independent mind of the director, but at the same time it had so much humour. There was a strong sense of the British character.” It seemed the government had totally forgot the most valuable elements in our character.

Chief executive of the Theatre Royal Norwich Steven Crocker said he was “shocked and angry that the government is standing idle as an industry that has delivered so much to this country and is so vital to its recovery is being allowed to fade into dust.”

Going to the pub for the first time in months might have led to a national hangover. Who cares if the government has failed to support arts and culture? It’s the weekend, and Monday means work and work means toil because toil means money and money means success. How could the government forget it’s own report published in February this year by Nigel Adams MP that stated the creative industries contributed nearly £13million pounds EVERY HOUR to the UK economy.

A former colleague, Nicky Wall, who went on to work on ITV’s This Morning, said: “[All] the skills I learned at Theatre Royal Norwich, I’ve used throughout my career and passed on to young people I’ve worked with.”

It wasn’t just about losing jobs or missing shows, it was about millions of people missing out on opportunities to begin working creatively. It was about all of us missing those aspects of ourselves that can’t be expressed in STEM subjects. Not everyone can be a scientist or an engineer.

Then, on Sunday night, as if by magic a tweet appeared in my timeline posted by Rishi Sunak. A substantial £1.57billion pound rescue package for arts, culture and heritage. Good news? I want to say “yeah”. Venues and institutions quickly posted their gratitude on social media. Thanking the government for helping them despite the unnecessary anxiety, and job losses the wait had caused seemed like a form of Stockholm Syndrome.

Will self-employed freelance creative workers receive any of the funding? Some Conservative MPs of this region might want to consider how this story ends. When the work and livelihoods of writers, performers, artists, directors, technical and backstage crew is threatened, there won’t be any presents for all of us. We’ve already lost this Christmas pantomime. Let’s not lose any more.


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