Holding the sky up

Posted on 10th June 2020

The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.

Winston Churchill addressing the Royal Academy on 30 April 1938

Whilst seemingly every other industry seems to be able now to see a clear end in sight, with tentative dates for lifting restrictions, performing Arts venues have no such target, not for audience gatherings anyway. We at Proteus are still focusing on September being when we can welcome art and well-being classes, in socially distanced groups, back into Creation Space.

But this is not all we do.

We have five youth theatres, a programme of work for people with complex pan disabilities, a programme of performances and scratch nights, a cafe and bar, an adult workshop company that make work with us and by themselves, a network of over 100 Artists for whom we create events to find collaborators and understand funding, a programme of work aimed at the under-fives and their families, participatory workshops and projects in the community, and our own work creating national touring theatre with a large cohort of performers and creative teams. All of this work is pretty much impossible at the moment.

We have created some digital projects with our Youth Theatre groups; we have co-produced with Scratchbuilt “Conversations With Colin” an interactive live streaming series on our Facebook pages designed for younger audiences aged 4-7yrs, and, as the summer goes on, we are creating six podcast episodes with our Young Company (17-19yrs) reflecting on how this moment is shaping their future. Our other Youth Theatre groups are contributing to Fluid Motion’s “1 in 10” project online, sharing stories around mental health and well being. We have shared full length video recordings some of our previous productions for free; Missing In Action, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know and Brrr! (and also in the next few weeks, Houdini) are all available from our website, We are also using our cafe windows as a ‘street gallery’ displaying art work, poetry and photography posted through our letterbox, shared on Facebook, or e-mailed to us (mary@proteustheatre.com if you’d like to submit something). There will be some more virtual projects as time goes on, but as other areas of society emerge, blinking into the world and begin rebuilding businesses and livelihoods, the performing Arts will be left in a state of suspended animation.

And we aren’t very good at that.

We’re not good at sitting still, keeping indoors, not communicating, not moving, not getting our hands dirty. The performing arts in this country are as vibrant and economically valuable as they are (£10.8 billion a year into the economy) because of the tenacity of the people who work in the sector. We adapt, shape shift, find new ways, change structures – that’s how we have coped with the scarcity of funding over the past 20 years. For some of our sector this will be impossible to do this time around.

Make no mistake, this is the most dangerous moment I have ever known in 25 years of working in theatre. The threat to revenue, no matter how big or small the organisation, is real. The Globe, The Southbank Centre, The Donmar Warehouse have all stated they may cease to exist before Christmas. In this region we have already lost The Nuffield Theatre in Southampton. Plus the thousands of freelance creative artists and performers who saw 100% of their income disappear overnight….. and so it begins.

For those who feel the arts are a ‘nice to have’, I would ask how your lockdown would have been without television, Netflix, all those old DVD’s, the free theatre shows you may have seen online, and not forgetting music? If this period has shown anything, it is how vital the performing arts are to the nation’s mental health, to tell stories, to escape, to make sense of it all.

This is what has sustained us through the pain, the suffering and the separation.

Performing in front of an audience will be the last restriction lifted. We are an ecology, not just a ‘sector’, ‘industry’ or ‘profession’, if the smallest fail it has an effect on the largest, if the largest fail it has an effect on the smallest – in Creation Space, more than once, we have hosted Performance Lab scratch performances of work that eventually was seen at The Barbican – another venue under threat of closure. The problem is, once these organisations have gone, they are often lost forever and a whole generation of Artists lose income, audiences have to travel far away for a good night out, a town loses its soul.

We need your support, not just economically – although that will be needed in the future, but in helping us speak up for the Arts with politicians in our areas. Right now we are asking the Government to consider extending the furlough scheme for performing Arts organisations and support for freelancers in the industry, beyond the current end in October – this would protect countless jobs across the UK, support livelihoods and enable venues and companies to find a way through this crisis. We know lots of politicians of all colours support the arts – if you can, please contact your MP or Councillors and let them know you value the Arts in your community too.

We are not pushing to re-open early, don’t forget we as a sector were the first to almost wholesale close our buildings, when to do such a thing was merely a ‘recommendation’ way back on the 16th March. We know only too well our responsibilities to our audiences and communities. We are all working together to find ways to ensure safety when we do open. Some venues may try ‘socially distanced’ performances, however, some simply cannot afford to open the building with such a reduced income from audiences.

This is why on Sunday, after I accidentally knocked over a bottle of milk spilling the contents onto the kitchen floor, I burst into tears. I was literally crying over spilt milk. And that was a cathartic moment. I know many Artistic Directors who feel like they are holding the sky up for their organisations at the moment. And it hasn’t felt appropriate with all the loss and grieving to talk about how emotionally challenging and draining it has been – other than to each other, over zoom chats and WhatsApp groups. But the levy broke and I had to confront the feelings of helplessness I had desperately been trying to suppress.

I’ve had that moment. It was necessary and overdue. And it’s okay. I’ve re-applied the mascara and am ready to face the world.

One day people will laugh and cry and gasp in darkened theatres together, one day a child will see someone who has the same colour skin speak the words of William Shakespeare, one day a parent will share the wonder of impossible feats of daring on the trapeze with their child, and talk about it all the way home.

One day we will change lives again.

One day.

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