The impact of the Coronavirus outbreak has been shocking for everyone. I would not say it was a bolt from the blue for the UK, as other countries had given witness about the entity of the pandemic weeks before, and the challenges it could present. However, it almost seems that the UK, exactly as other European countries, has been taken by surprise by the magnitude of the Covid19 pandemic.

Abastract Italiano

Il teatro inglese ai tempi del Coronavirus – esercizi di sopravvivenza

Le politiche inglesi di fronte all’emergenza pandemia hanno suscitato reazioni piuttosto controverse in Italia e in altri paesi europei. Ma quali ripercussioni ha avuto l’approccio anglosassone sulle arti performative? E soprattutto, come stanno reagendo alla crisi teatri, compagnie e professionisti dello spettacolo inglese?

Il teatro inglese ai tempi del Coronavirus ha indubbiamente mostrato zanne e artigli. Per capire la resilienza del settore è necessario partire dal primo provvedimento governativo del 16 marzo. Tra le varie – ancora caute – misure per rallentare il contagio, c’era la raccomandazione di evitare pub, club e teatri. A distanza di poche ore decine di associazioni artistiche richiedevano pubblicamente chiarezza: lasciando i teatri nel limbo e facendo cadere su di questi la responsabilità di cancellare gli spettacoli anziché dare un chiaro ordine di chiusura, il governo stava negando alle sale ogni possibilità di indennizzo assicurativo.

Tra le voci autorevoli dell’acceso dibattito c’erano, tra gli altri, Caroline Norbury, direttrice di Creative Industries Federation e Creative England; Samuel West, attore, regista e presidente di National Campaign for the Arts; David Babani, produttore e co-fondatore del celebre teatro nel West End Menier Chocolate Factory e Nadim Naaman, celebre attore del West-End. Dichiarazioni incalzanti e interviste sono state prontamente pubblicate dal The Guardian, The Independent, The Stage e altre testate online e non.

Quando il governo ha ordinate ufficialmente la chiusura dei teatri il 20 marzo, è seguita una dichiarazione del Cancelliere Richi Sunak che garantiva ai lavoratori dipendenti britannici l’80% dei loro introiti qualora non avessero la possibilità di lavorare nei mesi seguenti a causa della pandemia. Il problema era, però, che il generoso schema governativo tralasciava a piè pari i lavoratori freelance, che costituiscono la stragrande maggioranza dei professionisti dello spettacolo.

Di nuovo lettere, dichiarazioni pubbliche, petizioni, articoli e interviste, sostenute da Equity (il sindacato attori e professionisti dello spettacolo negli UK) hanno confrontato prontamente le istituzioni, rendendo chiaro che l’assenza di uno schema a favore dei lavoratori autonomi avrebbe messo in ginocchio definitivamente l’intera industria dello spettacolo.

Lo schema governativo a garantire il supporto per i lavoratori freelance è arrivato. Tuttavia, la battaglia per la sopravvivenza è ancora tutt’altro che vinta. Lo schema sarà attivato a giugno e ci sono ancora punti non del tutto chiari (il mondo dello spettacolo è anche in Inghilterra profondamente deregolamentato e molti sono i professionisti dello spettacolo che non appartengono pienamente alla categoria dei lavoratori dipendenti né a quella dei freelance). Nell’incertezza, leggiamo sul The Stage, sono molti i teatranti che si sono rivolti a supermercati per poter sbarcare il lunario. Stringono i denti, navigano a braccio, e contribuiscono per quanto possono alle attività comunitarie.

E chi ancora può, anziché chiudere il sipario, rende fruibili spettacoli online, insieme a corsi, dibattiti, casting, e tenta di restare in contatto con il proprio pubblico. Nonostante l’essenza stessa del teatro – la sua fisicità, il suo esistere nel qui e ora e nell’esperienza collettiva – sia stata colpita al cuore.

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In these times of uncertainty, what is happening in the British cultural world? We will need to have a closer look and reconstruct the events in chronological order.

By the first week of March, there was a general feeling of concern in the UK. People were starting to be wary, despite the fact that no specific directions were given to the public yet, let alone some guidance on infection, prevention and control in circulation from the beginning of February. Theatre venues were still up and running, but a sense of uncertainty was in the air.
On 16th March the first Government statement, based on forecasting by epidemiologists at Imperial College London plus other evidence, advised on social distancing and against ‘non-essential travel’, along with a call for vulnerable people to self-isolate. The statement included an unclear recommendation which left the whole performing arts sector in limbo: it suggested people should avoid pubs, clubs and theatres. The lack of outright ban on visiting venues was leaving them unable to claim on insurance, as industry bodies immediately started to argue. That means that when the first venues did eventually shut down from March 16 onwards, it was of their own accord rather than by government instruction.

Countless public claims started to circulate in online and paper magazines soon after the 16th March PM’s statement: performing arts professionals and leading arts figures were demanding clarity.

David Babani, producer and co-founder of 16-year-old off-West End theater Menier Chocolate Factory, stated in Variety: ‘We are reliant on our audiences and we are doing everything we can to ensure survival, but thus far, the government measures and insurance don’t help us in any way’. Caroline Norbury, CEO of the Creative Industries Federation and Creative England wrote in The Guardian: ‘The fact that the PM advised people not to go to theatres and cinemas but didn’t make it mandatory is catastrophic for lots of our businesses because that means they can’t claim on their insurance’. She continued to argue that many creative businesses have absolutely no resources to provide the necessary cash flow to survive over the next few months. ‘We need the government to come up with something which really recognises the crisis.’ Actor and director Samuel West, chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, said in a statement that whilst the government had advised people to stay away from theatres and concert halls, it ‘did not instruct those public spaces to close.

The NCA (National Campaign for the Arts) is concerned that UK cultural organisations will therefore be unable to claim compensation for loss of earned income.’ ‘We need firm decisions’ he adds, ‘a clear directive and real support from the government, to enable the £110bn creative industries to survive Covid-19 and help the UK economy to recover’. ‘Our government has really let our industry down,’ West End performer Nadim Naaman declared in The Guardian: ‘If you’re being told it’s not essential to close and you know that every night you can remain open limits the damage to your livelihood, it’s a very human instinct to want to hang on for as long as possible.’ Once again, as happened in many different contexts around the world during the Covid19 pandemic, responsibility seemed to be left to individual initiatives rather than the government taking the lead.

It was only on March 20th that theatres and performing arts venues were finally ordered to close. The circumstances were indeed unprecedented, and the UK theatre industry, which employs 290,000 people, was on its knees. The Chancellor Richi Sunak provided a statement on the same day, informing the public that a new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was being set up. The grant, in which the government would pay up to 80% of people’s wages, had only one downside: it did not include the self-employed, who are the vast majority of the creative sector – only in the West End do freelancer constitute 70% of the workforce and they became unemployed virtually overnight. The only option for the self-employed was to access a Universal Credit allowance of £94 per week.

In this circumstance as well, the UK performing arts sector promptly took the reins and started a campaign to meet the needs of the creative workers. Actor Perry Moore, interviewed by Matthew Hemley for The Stage, says ‘There is no government support in place to help the self-employed. This has left thousands of people in our industry feeling both scared and under-valued’. Equity, the union of more than 47,000 performers and creative practitioners aiming at fair terms and conditions in the workplace, has been fighting for government support for creative workers and for securing a new scheme for the self-employed. The expectation, says West End star Ben Forster, is that the solid financial and cultural contributions by the West End — which brought in £133 million in taxation for the Treasury in 2019 alone — ‘will be recognized in its hour of need’.

Despite the financial loss and the psychological impact of losing their jobs in what felt like the blink of an eye, the creative workers are showing remarkable determination. Thanks to the efforts of the many leading arts figures who made their voice heard, on 26th March new UK government measures finally promised financial aid to the self-employed and guaranteed 80% of their profits. However, as the Chancellor’s self-employed scheme still had gaps to be closed and payments would not be available until June, many arts workers were still deeply concerned about the lack of earnings over the coming months.

Nearly 150 arts workers interviewed by The Stage shared their stories about how their livelihoods were being affected by the pandemic. Many of them had applied for supermarket jobs, thus showing great flexibility. Far from feeling sorry for themselves, their statements sounded somehow refreshing: ‘The people we’re working with are welcoming and incredibly interesting – they all have their own stories’ say James Tobias and Rochelle Parry, producers at Immersion Theatre and now working at Tesco. ‘We’re also enjoying doing our bit, however minuscule, for the community (…) We’re very determined people and take pride in our work, so whether it’s producing theatre or making sure a customer has a pleasant experience during this horrible time, we want to be good at it’. And then there is the bitter observation by Comedian Matthew Reed: ‘At a comedy night, if you do well you’re told: ‘Well done’, back slapped, thanked for a good night’. Now my entire income has gone I’ve been told, ‘Well, you’re just a comedian!’ and, ‘Get a proper job.’ I’ve had ‘proper’ jobs – I’ve worked very hard to be where I am and comedy is a job’. But apparently it is not as valid as an office job.

So, is everything lost? While the whole UK theatre industry is fighting hard to stay afloat, the show must go on. And it has to do it online. The live streaming of artistic performances is not new; a number of well-established organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre regularly live stream their performances to reach wider audiences or as educational outreach. The void left by the cancellation of live theatre, however, has undoubtedly forced stream alternatives into greater importance. With enormous logistical, financial, and artistic implications.

The proactivity of the sector has been remarkable. Many were the plays made available online for free, together with acting and dance classes, talks, rehearsals and even castings. This includes a series of musicals from theatre icon Andrew Lloyd Webber; The Time of Your Life by physical theatre company Gecko; Belgian dance-theatre company Peeping Tom’s early trilogy; and 2015 debut show by Breach Theatre The Beanfield. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama and The Jasmin Vardimon Dance Company will be offering classes online. There is no shortage of initiatives that attempt to create a network of artists who are in this together: Thayer from the Drayton Arms encouraged fellow arts professionals to get in touch ‘to discuss their concerns for future productions, to bounce ideas off of, to read your script and give some feedback’. Playwright and performer Bryony Cummings set up a funding campaign called #Gigaid. ‘Over 4 days we collected £21,000 of donations from artists and art workers to help other artists and art workers who’ve lost vital income in March’.

The list goes on and on, showing a strong willingness to connect and share ideas within the sector. The nature of theatre – its liveness and connectivity, has been hit at its core. But the ingenuity of the industry gives hope for the future. After having longed for months for the missing live immediacy of the shared experience – without which theatre simply does not exist, people will be more than ready to welcome it back.

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