Women in theatre: what does today and tomorrow hold?
“All of that graft has just been gently blown apart. You know? Ten years”, Jessica Edwards tells me over a Zoom call in late April 2020. Edwards is one of four female theatre professionals who’ve shared what’s happening in their industry throughout the coronavirus crisis. She’s been telling me the snakes and ladders route she’s taken to become a successful theatre director, while pulling her waist length red hair into a top knot.
Edwards, a theatre director, dramaturg and scriptwriter, has spent the last decade honing her craft from the ground up from unpaid assistant director roles to directing award winning shows like the musical SPARKS at The Vaults. Her main professional focus in the theatre world has been directing new writing, and she’s often found working with writers from the very beginning of their projects up to first production. She’s twice been a finalist for the coveted JMK young director award and is currently developing her first TV screenplay with Big Talk Productions.
All of this by the age of 31, and all has suddenly changed.
On the 16th of March, the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre announced, after considering the latest governmental advice, the closure of all their venues, stating that they’d “remain closed until further notice and will reopen as soon as possible, following government recommendations.” The Theatres Trust estimates that there are over 1300 theatres in the UK and according to reports from 2018 these theatres had a combined audience of over 34m who enjoyed a total of 62,945 performances throughout the year. All of this added up to a very healthy ticket revenue of nearly £1.28bn, meaning that the curtains being down is a sizable loss to the UK’s already struggling economy. The lion’s share of those working in the theatre world are freelancers, with no job security, whose work has dried up overnight and despite this there’s been no assistance whatsoever from the government for one of the country’s most beloved and vital industries. Hugely anticipated shows have been cancelled, for example Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles at the Old Vic, which was to star Eileen Atkins and Timothée Chalamet. This was a huge blow for the theatre who already took the brunt of cancelling the final fortnight of Endgame, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming. Even theatres that seem indestructible and constant, like the Royal Albert Hall, are facing incredible uncertainty. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row on the 11th of May 2020, the Royal Albert Hall’s CEO Craig Hassall shared his fears that social distancing measures could lead to financial disaster and it could truly be curtains for the treasured and historical theatre.
As a result of these closures, directors have had no option but to look at different ways of supporting themselves during this fallow period - be that via different media, new forms of theatre, or in alternative industries. All this takes place while sleeping with one eye open, on standby for venues to open once again.
Edwards is accustomed to getting by. Assistant director roles are often, controversially and unfairly, unpaid and for the first few years of her career she subbed her existence by working night shifts for charity fundraising call centres while her career was in its nascence.
Living on £8,000 per annum in London, she says, difficult as it was, has been invaluable as she finds herself adapting to the new and uncharted landscape ahead. “I think all of us who work in the creative industries who don't have a family backing are used to hustling so hard,” she says “It was horrible and scary when this all started, but I thought, ‘ah, this is a muscle that I have’. I haven’t used it for a while as I’ve been lucky because I’ve built this career which has had a semblance of success. But you know, I know how to do this.” Hustling and adapting seems to be second nature to all of the women in this piece, to whom professional uncertainty is an old friend.
As the old saying goes, make hay while the sun is shining, and as an ordinarily constantly busy individual Edwards is doing just that — treating it as a writing retreat. Edwards, like many other creatives, has more than one professional interest. She’s had a TV script optioned and is currently writing a second. “It's so nice to have a thing that is not completely disowned or canceled, and to have something that I'm working towards,” she says, discussing a show that was programmed for this summer’s Edinburgh Festival. “That’s obviously not happening, which is very sad. But it was a co production with BBC Radio 4. So we're still working on that. It's the first time I've directed a radio play, and now feels like such an exciting time to have a radio play, because it works.”
Ruth Butler, 35, is Head of Technical and Production at Camden’s Roundhouse theatre. Butler’s experience is diverse and varied, from production managing Glastonbury’s beloved late-night field Block 9 to huge theatre spectacles. She’s worked in the performing arts and festival industry for 18 years and has extensive experience in festivals, circus, theatre, and commercial music gigs and events. Currently, she’s facing a whole extra level of stress as she’s at home juggling caring for her two young sons on top of a workload that remains as demanding as ever. “We are still booking jobs. We’re getting a similar number of enquiries for gigs and events as we would do under ‘normal’ circumstances, which is hopeful,” she says. “They’re mostly booking for 2021 as it feels like there’s nervousness in the industry about autumn 2020.” Butler has found herself suddenly bracing for an uphill battle against an ever increasing and changing workload as an ordinarily demanding logistical schedule has been smashed to pieces by the crisis. “There’s lots of work going into planning and remobilisation, and sadly this keeps moving further into the future,” says Butler. As productions look at the different ways of potentially going ahead she adds, “I spend an inordinate amount of time discussing kit inspections and the legislation around them.” Having had no choice but to furlough 13 of her team, Butler explains that there’s been a huge push on mental health support during the crisis. She’s keeping spirits up with a weekly Zoom meet-up alongside her team which, she admits, often descends into a boozy quiz and she echoes the sentiment of people across the globe when she adds, “I’m not sure I’ve ever quizzed so much.”
Playwright Phoebe Eclair-Powell, 30, has a schedule that’s brimming through the crisis, “I'm actually weirdly busier than ever.” Eclair-Powell’s career has gone from strength to strength from its earlier days when she began working on Hollyoaks, to her well-received plays including Fury and Shed: Exploded View - the latter winning the highly acclaimed Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2019. “I am lucky in that I can keep on creating and researching and reading and rewriting existing projects,” she says. “It's more the uncertainty and the inability to start anything new right now.” She professes that although being a writer really is as isolating as it’s cracked up to be, she feels the gulf of the working space she formerly shared alongside fellow playwrights James Fritz and Simon Longman. Pausing, Eclair-Powell admits, “I find working from home really bad for mental health.”
Actor and writer Tanya Loretta Dee, 35, has taken a completely different tack to the other women featured in this piece. “I have been approached about a few online recordings, but to be very honest, booking jobs is not something of a priority at the moment as the industry is mostly shut anyway.” Dee, who has recently written her own play Episode, has starred in TV shows like EastEnders and Doctors as well as treading the boards in productions such as Offside, Boots and One life stand. She’s prioritised creating for pleasure, as opposed to professional reasons, and is making the most of enjoying that which her busy schedule usually doesn’t afford her. “I've really embraced the things I have not been able to do over the last few years because I've been so busy putting my acting career first and foremost,” she says. “Baking cakes, reading books, listening to jazz, writing in my journal, taking long baths, watching films and having proper catch-ups with friends and family on the phone.” Dee’s involvement in the upcoming short film Owls, by Benjamin Henson, has been interesting for her as it was all rehearsed and recorded over Zoom.
Tanya Loretta Dee
Productions made over Zoom are increasingly de rigueur and Edwards discusses a colleague’s upcoming project, which she said initially she worried would be a pale imitation of the real theatre experience. These worries were assuaged by the writer, who explained to her that it’s actually a whole new media form. “You achieve this startling intimacy. All of the audience, who are also participants, are on mute. And it's a thing, it's a Zoom drama. It's not trying to be anything else.”
The Arts Council has set up an Emergency Relief fund of £160m to help artists, venues and freelancers in the cultural sector. This support package includes a £20m pot for individuals which is made up of £2,500 per person. There’s £90m for National Portfolio Organisations and £50m for organisations outside of that scheme. Although this fund is vital and a lifeline for many, it means any surplus funding that might previously have supported independent projects and venues is now kaputt. For countless creatives, this extra funding could have aided them in not only surviving, but also in financing the technology needed to switch to digital productions.
Edwards was set to premiere a show at the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival and she tells me their initial plan of action was to film the play remotely. The final product was intended to be a password-protected online event that audiences could pay to watch. Sadly, the filming process proved too costly. “I think my concern is that it isn't really theatre, and I honestly think a lot of theatres are not going to open again. That this is going to destroy 40%, maybe, of fringe theatres.” Speaking about one of her favourite fringe theatres, “It’s closed one day and then... it’s gone.”
Butler says she has a lot of concerns about the survival of subsidised theatre as venues will need to fill their programmes with increased levels of commercial activity such as weddings, fundraising galas and commercial music gigs. “The performing arts have taken a hit over the last ten years already, and some theatre companies and smaller arts venues will not survive. I don’t expect many people to want to apply to drama schools or professional training in the current environment. I suspect we’ll suffer for quite a few years to come.”
Apart from the obvious effect the dearth of ticket sales and attendees lockdown has on live theatre, for many, residual social distancing anxieties might take a while to shake. “I fear that the public won't feel safe in theatres and cinemas for a while - how sad and Black Mirror-esque our future could be,” says Eclair-Powell.
Phoebe Eclair-Powell. Photo: Helen Murray
Edwards, whose frustration at the government obfuscating clear advice is plain, wonders if she or any of her colleagues are willing to risk opening minus any clear advice. “I think the big question for everybody in the theatre community is: if we are allowed to open, do we want to be part of that? We could be really putting people in danger.”
As the Guardian’s former chief theatre critic Michael Billington asserts, theatre is “above all, a social medium.” Edwards agrees: “The whole point of theatre is being elbow-to-elbow with someone, where you hear their reactions and the laughter. Being socially distanced would be rubbish.” Eclair- Powell says that she longs “to be part of a standing ovation. To laugh in a room of strangers.”
One potential upside of the theatre world having to adapt to remote productions is accessibility. Dee is hoping that the coronavirus crisis will be a catalyst for change. “As far as the creative industry is concerned, I really hope that theatres and bigger companies in the industry are spending this time working out how to make positive changes for the industry,” she says, adding that one take away from all of this is realising that digital can be great for accessibility.
“I think there's a version where people start to do more VR experiences. And that is an amazing thing for accessibility” says Edwards. “If you're differently abled, and that means you can't come to the theatre, with the technology available you can get a VR experience that gives you the best seat in the house. Putting money in time and stuff like that, rather than just televising performances, is more exciting. If you've got a headset, you can look around properly and hear other people. I think that there’s a lot to learn from the gaming world - more so than from the TV world.”
One hope that many creatives hold is that from this dark time, beauty will come. “The best art is made in times of crisis,” says Butler. She remains upbeat: “I’m hoping that there are some incredible ideas brewing in the minds of our artists and I’ll be more than willing to facilitate them!”
Aoife Hanna is a queer Irish writer based in the UK. Twitter @aoife_hanna / Instagram @aoifehannawrites.