“It’s not just a way of making money. It’s an institution.”
Peterborough is not known for a rich relationship with the arts. Despite this, Daniel Johnson, a rising star in theatre, hopes to launch an ambitious project to bring the arts to his home city. “Places like Bristol, Manchester and London have strong a strong identity”, he tells me. “One of my goals is to boost the cultural identity of Peterborough.” He hopes to achieve this with the Peterborough Theatre Company. “The company’s goal, aside from boosting a regional identity, is to make theatre more accessible for young people. Training is so expensive, and I hope to change this by introducing industry-standard tutoring for an affordable fee.”
Daniel has been trained as an actor with Peer Productions and is now set to begin studying at the Manchester School of Theatre. He has also had writing, acting and directing credits in amateur theatre while acting, composing and directing for regional tours. The Peterborough Theatre Company is now his long-term project, and he hopes to have it established after his graduation in Manchester. But with the Covid-19 pandemic currently gripping the UK, the arts have endured serious difficulties. Many employees have lost jobs, and the Shakespeare Globe and National Theatre were at one point predicted to close doors.
Last week the government threw the arts a lifeline and announced a £1.5bn package to aid the survival of the arts sector. I sat down with Daniel to discuss the future of the theatre industry and the challenges it faces.
When discussing the benefits of the package, Daniel told me that the money was much more than he expected. “It’s been a long time coming, and a lot of time in the dark on our own as we faced the unfortunate reality of losing jobs and businesses going under. I’m happy that Oliver Dowden has finally given something back,’ Daniel told me. As a result of the nationwide lockdown, theatres have taken a significant financial hit. “The industry relies so heavily on ticket sales and has desperately needed a cash injection. The package is very welcome, if a bit slow. But it’s better late than never”, said Daniel. He was keen to highlight that money must also go to those who are too often overlooked. “It can’t just go to the major theatres, it has to go to freelancers, employees, actors and house staff as well. There are so many people behind the scenes.”
Our discussion then evolved to talk about the toll that coronavirus has taken on theatre. “People have lost jobs and businesses have gone under but there’s more to it”, said Daniel. “It’s not just a way of making money, it’s an institution. It’s a part of this country’s history that we’re losing, and it isn’t something we can get back just by opening a new theatre.” He added, “When people go to Shakespeare’s Globe, they’re not just going to see a show, they’re going to see William Shakespeare’s theatre. History is a huge selling point and we can’t just start again. It needs to be saved.”
I was keen to ask Daniel about the importance of the arts industry to the United Kingdom. He told me, “there’s always the monetary aspect. When you think of the UK, you think of The Beatles, Oasis, Glastonbury. Arts and culture bring so much tourism.” But he also highlighted the impact it has on people emotionally, particularly during this pandemic. “It’s escapism”, he says. “During lockdown we’ve had a digital performance of Hamilton on Disney Plus, while Andrew Lloyd Webber has allowed fans to watch musicals online for free. It’s a way for people to escape the real world for a short time and focus on problems that aren’t theirs.” He added, “The arts are everything and everywhere in this country, from TV to music, from sports to shows. It’s hard to find someone that doesn’t use the arts in any way.”
With the government now looking to focus on a plan to reopen the country, I asked Daniel if he thought this means theatres could reopen sooner rather than later. “It depends on what route the government go down: whether they focus on protecting the public or unlocking the economy. Both have pros and cons and there is far too much politics and economics for me to look into this in detail.” Daniel argued against the country reopening pubs and hairdressers without looking into opening up theatres. He said “If you’re going to let people into pubs without a mask, then theatres should reopen ASAP. Pantomime season is coming up and even if they are only allowed to reopen for this, it would provide theatres with enough money to support themselves”. Daniel went on to highlight the ways in which this might be done safely. “Tickets provide a method of tracking and tracing. Masks should be worn inside and perhaps limits can be applied to the number to entrants. It’s not a perfect system but there’s no such thing in this climate. If everything stays shut, then the sector should be given the money it needs to survive.”
I asked what more can be done to ensure the survival of the industry. Daniel was quick to highlight the work of The Show Must Go On in bringing entertainment to the homes of many, without a fee. “They have also been selling merchandise which will bring in money to be reused in the business”, he informs me. Despite this, he was keen to reemphasise the importance of government aid. “As a student I’m pretty poor. There’s more I could do, same as everyone, but there’s only so much we should be expected to do. The government must intervene and help the sector. After lockdown I’ll be seeing as much theatre as possible, from local to mainstream. We need to show how much we need it.”
As our interview came to a close, I was keen to find out what Daniel thought the future held for theatre. “They need to look inwards”, he said. “It’s an opportunity to stop and take a minute to analyse issues behind closed doors.” He highlights the major issue of racism: “It’s a huge problem and one that’s been exposed to all in the industry. To ignore it now would be malicious rather than ignorant”. The pandemic has also highlighted the sector’s reliance on ticket sales, which Daniel argued “must be avoided; if something like Covid-19 can decimate theatre in the way it has, then something is wrong”. However, a pressing issue he was keen to emphasise was the unpredictability of the industry. “It needs to become less volatile and more sustainable. Most shows, excluding major ones, have a short lifespan and many employees live on peanuts. Some work non-stop, 24/7, 8 shows a week, 365 days a year without downtime, which is bound to lead to burnout.” Daniel concluded by saying, “Theatre has become so expensive and needs to be cheaper for those who are less fortunate. Art should be accessible for everyone to tell their stories.”