I am proud to declare an interest—not a financial one, but a passionate one. I chair Theatre Royal Stratford East, the erstwhile home of Joan Littlewood renowned for “Oh, What a Lovely War!”, “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” and “A Taste of Honey”. I am immensely proud of our success in regaining our historic reputation for excellence and radicalism under the leadership of Nadia Fall, a hugely talented artistic director of Asian heritage, and her team of mainly women theatre makers.
We were on a roll, culminating in receiving an Olivier award for staging Britain’s “Noye’s Fludde”, which involved east end children performing alongside ENO singers. Our mission to create excellent shows and reflect the diversity of our community in everything that we do makes our contribution unique. Then covid erupted and the curtain fell.
Theatres have proved resilient and innovative. We produced an outdoor show called “846”, our response to George Floyd’s death. National Theatre Live has been enjoyed by vast audiences at home. The Kiln’s food programme provides fresh hot meals for hundreds. Battersea Arts Centre delivered digital activity and encouraged young people to keep writing.
Government support has focused too much on buildings, not on people. Life for freelancers, the lifeblood of our theatre, has been grim. We used to employ nearly 200 freelancers annually. This year, it is 75, and mostly on very small projects. With no Government support, freelance actors, directors and designers are walking away, retraining to ensure a secure living. We are haemorrhaging creative talent, most of whom started in the subsidised theatre. Public investment in people led to creative wealth for the nation. Think of Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards: Daniel Kaluuya, who first performed at the Royal Court; John Boyega, who began at Theatre Peckham. Think of Phoebe Waller-Bridge who started at the Soho; James Graham, playwright at Finborough Theatre; Michaela Coel who went from The Yard to critical acclaim on Channel Four. All are big commercial successes today. All are contributing to our vital creative economy, the vibrancy of our city centres and lifting our spirits. They are part of a massively successful ecosystem. Public investment in them drives both commercial success and the quest for diversity and equality. Yet young black and Asian creatives, women and those with disabilities are leaving theatre in droves. Nobody wants theatre to return to being a club for the elite and the well-connected. Investment in people, in the talent of tomorrow, must be our key ask today and only then will the arts bounce back strongly.