Oliver Dowden: The world looks to British theatre. Let's get it back on track…

The culture secretary calls for innovative ways to revive the performing arts after ‘knockout blow’ from UK lockdown

Back in April, I took a brief break to watch the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors online.

In the last few weeks it has been hard to stop thinking about the impact of coronavirus. But for a while on that April evening, as James Corden bumbled his way around the stage, my family and countless others across the country had a delightful reprieve. That’s the power of the performing arts.

I know this pandemic has dealt the arts a knockout blow. Live theatre has been particularly hard hit, and faces some of the biggest obstacles to its return. As someone put it to me recently: sitting and enjoying a performance together is the art. But it is also the business. And as long as social distancing rules remain in place, it makes it very hard to make the numbers stack up.

I’m not painting this bleak picture out of defeatism though. On the contrary: we have to, and will, find a way to protect our theatres and performing arts.

The world now looks to the UK’s creative arts in the same way it has to our manufacturing previously. Made in Britain has become Created in Britain – and our global reputation is too important to lose.

Theatre is a foundation of our cultural ecology – with success on stage spinning out many creative and economic opportunities. Shows like War Horse and Les Mis have gone from the West End to theatres and cinemas globally, creating thousands of jobs and billions of pounds along the way. And people trained in the theatre, from staging to make up, power the production of TV, film and the wider creative industries.

I am absolutely clear-eyed about the huge challenges the sector faces and the urgent need for solutions, which is why my department has been working flat out to look for ways to get our theatres back up and running again.

We’ve freed up emergency cash for Arts Council England’s £160m fund to help individuals and organisations deal with the pandemic’s immediate impact. Places such as Trinity Arts Centre in Gainsborough and the Tetbury Goods Shed have already received those funds and are using them to help survive the coming months.

Likewise, the arts world is full of self-employed people and freelancers, creative entrepreneurs – many of whom have benefited from the self-employed income support scheme, which can provide cash grants of up to £2,500 per month. And we’ve changed the welfare system so that self-employed people can now access universal credit in full.

War Horse at the New London Theatre.
War Horse at the New London Theatre. The stage show has been recreated in productions around the world. Photograph: Brinkhoff / Mogenburg

But while we search for a lasting solution to coronavirus, we need to find new and innovative ways for the arts to return in some form, without packing venues and risking a rise in infections.

I’ve spoken to countless people about how that might be done, from Andrew Lloyd Webber, who got Phantom of the Opera back on stage in South Korea with innovative use of the latest technology, to the English National Opera, which is exploring drive-in opera, and others who are looking at broadcasting live to outdoor spaces.

On Thursday, we’ll take those conversations forward when our Entertainment and Events Working Group meets for the first time. The group is made up of medical advisers like James Calder, a senior clinician at NHS Nightingale Hospital and expert in dance and musical theatre, as well as representatives from over 30 different organisations, including the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Really Useful Group. These organisations know the ins and outs of putting on live performances better than anyone, and will be able to advise on what might and might not work.

They’ll be supported by Neil Mendoza, who I appointed as Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal last week. A lifelong champion of the arts, he’ll ensure they have a voice at the heart of government.

I’ve made several references to theatres, but I know that every one of them is made up of hundreds of thousands of people with incredible, highly specialised skills. Ballet dancers and set designers; stage hands, costume designers and lighting technicians. I know they are itching to get back on stage and do what they love – and I’ll continue to do everything I can to make that a reality.

Oliver Dowden

The GuardianTramp

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