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Nadia Albina as Bianca in Othello, directed by Ellen MacDougall in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (February to April 2017). Photograph by Marc Brenner.

Our stage: Why theatre matters

By Joanna Wood First Published 29 June 2020, Last Updated 30 June 2020

A year ago, I wrote how audio-described theatre had changed my life; why it meant so much to me after I lost my sight as an adult. I never imagined that less than a year later, those theatres I described as safe spaces, my second home, my salvation, would be closed and at risk of not reopening. I don’t have the words for that loss, I only have a howl.

I’m not a theatre expert, professional or influencer: I’m just a member of the audience. People more qualified and better placed than me have made compelling arguments about the economic, cultural and social contributions theatre makes to the UK. You should listen to them. I simply want to say why theatre matters beyond that – what it is to sit in the audience, the personal impact, the potential loss. Why we have to ensure that theatres survive, across the board, in all forms. To live without culture is to endure a living death, to stagger and shudder through the day. Take it from someone who knows. We need theatres now and for the future: they are the solution to, not a problem of, the current crisis.

I can’t talk about why theatre matters without it being personal. The experience itself is personal: it is embodied, collaborative and always unique. It is different for every person, every time. It is always ours – part of us – a co-created living work of art. As a child in a small town, local theatres expanded my horizons and made me aspire to something more. Theatre kept vigil with me when I lost my father as a teenager, bringing solace and respite, lending me its words when I had none of my own. A stable foundation and consistent presence, it helped me rebuild my life, parenting me through difficult times. It kept hope alive through unemployment after sight loss. And when further sight loss cost me everything, including who I was, theatre stood with me in solidarity until I saw myself again. It gave me an aspirational future as a disabled person. Throughout, it has been a place of joy, family and friendship, quality time and memories; a space for solitude and connection, peace and challenge. Whatever I have needed, it has provided. All for one ticket. I can’t imagine a future without it. And for the economic rationalists: all those intangible social goods brought concrete economic impacts – employment, advancement, income, independence. Theatre is special in unique ways for every member of the audience: I’m not claiming to define a general experience. But for those who need it most, at the most challenging times, it doesn’t just change lives, it saves them. Now we must save it.

Theatres matter. Whatever configuration, whichever innovation, wherever, however, we need the whole sector, for now, for the future, for our survival, and above all for our recovery. Losing theatres disproportionately impacts those communities most vulnerable to economic, social and personal precarity and inhibits the very economic recovery, capacity and pace, sought by those who govern. They are one of our most powerful assets.

There will be an ‘after’. We have a choice about what that looks like. There is already a path out of isolation, grief, unemployment, poverty and marginalization; a place that brings people together, holds them together and builds something that lasts a lifetime. We just need to support it.

So I write: in solidarity with the people who make theatre happen, a rallying cry to fellow audience members and a plea to those who govern. Theatre has always been an audacious, outrageous bet on ourselves, on life, on the human condition. A statement that we deserve to be there, that we’re worth the cost, the time, the words, the energy, because fundamentally we are worth something ourselves. Every performance renews a bond, a social contract, between theatre makers and theatre goers. It’s time to use that bond.

Theatre is so much more than entertainment, so much more than money: it is our stage, it is our lives and we need it more than ever. It is time for the audience to say why theatre matters, to speak up and to claim our stage. It’s our cue.

Joanna Wood is a Trustee of VocalEyes, an access organisation that brings theatre, museums and heritage to life for blind and visually impaired people. If you’d like to join the call for the UK Government to ensure the survival of the arts, please join VocalEyes and Stagetext in supporting the Public Campaign for the Arts where you can add your voice, sign a petition or write to your MP.

For our theatre fans who are d/Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing, you’ll be pleased to know that Soho Theatre have worked together with Stagetext to bring a collection of subtitled films, all in one place. From the iconic Fleabag with Phoebe Waller-Bridge to Jen Brister’s critically-acclaimed comedy sho Meaningless, it’s well worth checking out. Click here to find out more.


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