Theatre isn’t in trouble in this country because of the pandemic. As Robert Reid explains, the problems are much deeper – and older – than the Covid-19 crisis.
People are going to blame the pandemic. People already are. People will say – people are saying – variations of “Yeah, we had to close the theatre company down because of the pandemic”, or “We had to leave the venue because of the pandemic”, or “After the pandemic, it was just too hard to get going again, because we’re so exhausted and broken and broke.”
I’ve said that one myself.
No one is denying that the pandemic has been a big, destructive force worldwide – except for those who are still denying the pandemic is even a thing – so it’s going to be easy to think that the closures of theatre companies and drama courses around the country is because of the pandemic.
But it’s not.
What has closed these companies and schools, what has been strangling the Australian stage for years and decades long before the pandemic, is the poisonous economic ideology and cultural enclosure that has pervaded the performing arts in Australia from its beginning. From the five years between 1826-32 when Barnett Levey fought the NSW governors simply to get a licence to present plays in the theatre he’d already built, to the still missing millions that were stolen from the Australia Council during the 2015 Brandis Raid, this infrastructural disaster has, like the pandemic, been a long time coming.
The pandemic didn’t close the Monash Centre for Theatre and Performance. Only a few years ago the now former CTP Director Jane Montgomery Griffiths was fighting the Monash University to keep their doors open. The pandemic didn’t restructure or close the theatre and drama departments at La Trobe or Newcastle or Deakin or Flinders. The pandemic didn’t decide that student theatres no longer need a professional artistic director to guide them. The pandemic didn’t raise the cost of a humanities degree to more than $100,000 dollars. The pandemic didn’t cut funding to La Mama, Carriageworks, Barking Gecko, Sport for Jove, ATYP and too many more to list. The pandemic didn’t deny arts workers and tertiary educators Covid relief funds such as Job Keeper.
What has shuttered and gutted these vital resources is bad management decisions made with no regard for or consultation with the sector, complete ignorance of the value and purpose of the performing arts amongst institutions and, frankly, a wilful and destructive antipathy towards the performing arts. The pervading sense that theatre and performance are cultural window-dressing, frills and tassels that aren’t important, luxuries and irrelevances that “real Australians” don’t care about.
The ground-down apathy of the sector to fight its own tendency towards insularity comes from an already depressed community weakened by decades of inaction at best and outright hostility at worst. Were the performing arts robust and secure at the time of lockdown there would have been far fewer casualties. Instead theatre, fabulous invalid, was an industry with pre-existing, underlying conditions that made it vulnerable to the depredations of 2020 and, like so many other marginalised communities, it was abandoned by those who are supposed to be supporting it. The message from government was clear, as if it hadn’t been clear enough since the 1980s: theatre must fend for itself or die.
The pandemic didn’t do any of that. It only provided useful cover for plans and prejudices already long in place.
When any system – whether social, mechanical or digital – reaches homeostasis it can theoretically continue indefinitely as long as the resources available are not consumed faster than they can be replaced. Such a system perpetuates itself as a successful set of solutions to environmental challenges.
Once these solutions no longer suit the environment, either through changes to the environment or the system itself, the system must evolve, relocate or collapse.
I’m not going to rehash here the history of Australian theatre’s unending battle for cultural legitimacy. I’ve done that comprehensively with the video series and commentary here on Witness. At a certain point it becomes too depressing to keep enumerating failure after failure to establish a secure place for Australian theatre. The knockbacks and funding cuts and closed institutions and forgotten canons leave corpses littering our path, if we would only turn back to see them.
It’s not the pandemic that did that.
In fact, there have been important developments because of the pandemic: currents of hope that might point to a future for theatre beyond its long-heralded demise. Not as we recognise it now, perhaps, but still performance. Telling each other stories is a core component of humanity. It builds communities, it shapes identities, it bonds us to each other and helps to make sense of a confusing and chaotic world. That’s not going to go away. On the other hand, the big buildings we do it in, the corporate structures that infest it and the bureaucratic expectations of “international excellence” as an aesthetic may not fare so well.
When big, established systems collapse, new systems emerge in the evolutionary niches left behind in the wake of the behemoths of the past. Even as the old system struggles and maybe fails to get back onto its feet, new things are already growing.
During the long lockdown, there was a subdued rush of performers taking to Zoom, scrambling to find ways to share their work using the internet. It was slow to start because it’s an unfamiliar medium and there were missteps along the way but by the end there were a lot of great things happening online. Great not just because “yay internet” nor even because they were particularly amazing theatre, but because Australian theatre has never been more accessible.
Did streaming and live broadcasts of performance result in record-breaking box office? Of course not. There’s still a long way to go before we can fully capitalise on the accessibility created by streaming. There are audiences that have been neglected by theatre for so long that they no longer even recognise it as a cultural form, or at least, a form that is accessible to or interested in them.
Even more potential audience members are simply cut off from theatre because there is nothing for them locally and the CBD-centric glut of theatres and companies is just too far away, or too expensive, or not in their language or too taxing for their mental health. For those of us who struggle to get out to see theatre live, myself included, the pandemic meant that theatre has never been a less stressful experience. I saw shows in lockdown from companies and artists interstate that I would never have seen otherwise.
The streaming and live broadcast of performances that happened during the pandemic is the solution to a lot of these problems, pandemic or no. It will take time and dedication, but it will work, if we stick to it. Will we persist? Or – as the crisis gradually abates before the next big one hits – will the system just reset? Will we stop investigating and experimenting with streaming and live-casting theatre now that we can go back to our big, safe, old buildings where everyone knows how to behave properly? Will we return to the environment of scarce resources we knew before and beg, with servility and without dignity, for fewer and fewer scraps? I worry that’s exactly what we’ll do, only hastening the inevitable collapse of this system as we know it.
It’s not possible to reconcile the idea of theatre as an inherent social good with either its economic or its aesthetic value, so we need to stop trying. Particularly in the light of the community’s growing enclosure, isolation and unwillingness or inability to reach beyond the narrow confines of its most ardent defenders and supporters.
The arts are not important because they contribute roughly $117 billion dollars annually to the GDP. Theatre is not important because it is pretty, or difficult, or worthy, or special.
Theatre is important because it is a vaccine against bigotry and fear. It demonstrates humanity and exercises empathy. It challenges ideas and strengthens the imagination and, like a vaccine, theatre can only do its job if it is distributed to as many people as possible.
The pandemic was a big external shock that changed the environment for theatre and performance but it only exacerbated deep structural and cultural issues that have been left to fester for so long that we have come to accept them as definitional of the sector. Whether that model of homeostasis is fit to survive in this new environment is yet to be seen.
So, don’t blame the pandemic for the state of theatre in Australia. We all know where the blame really lies.