When that WhatsApp message popped up on my phone last week, I had to sit with it for a while. The sender, a close friend of mine now writing and performing his own plays after more than a decade in journalism, has never mentioned past trauma. Perhaps he didn’t need to. In the end he found what he needed in Theatre.
He’s not the only one. The theatre company Clean Break works with women who have been through the criminal justice system. Members attend theatre workshops on different aspects of the creative process, from writing to performing to lighting. Women who, upon leaving prison, couldn’t see their way back into the working world and mainstream society find a path emerging. As one member puts it, the skills they learn “help inside as well as outside. To wake up, and stand up for myself, and not feel people take advantage of me.”
Clean Break was one of 1,385 organisations to receive a grant from the Government Culture Recovery Fund last month. This has helped them to move their projects online. But a virtual performance is a poor replacement for the energy exchange between elbow-to-elbow audiences and actors glowing under the hot lights and all those eyes.
That’s why live performance has had a much harder COVID than any other art form. It’s also why it’s so important. As my friend went on to say: “theatre is an essential service – in ways that film or TV are not quite, because theatre relies on communal safety and respect in that moment and only that moment. As a child from an immigrant family I never once dreamed of a career in theatre, theatre came and found me.”
I’m not sure millions of us who spend lockdown leisure time devouring box sets would agree that TV is not an essential service. But I do wonder how we’ll emerge from this pandemic if we sit back and let fringe and regional theatres close their doors forever. For many of the most vulnerable, the rigours of rehearsal and the pressure of performance teach more valuable life skills than the classroom. Theatre isn’t just about watching big names in the West End; it’s also about the process of creation in marginal communities. When all this is over and we’ve lost those stories, the small screen just won’t do.