Today is the day of the week, in the parallel universe that we’ve slipped into, that I head down to Sainsbury’s, stand in the one-in-one-out nightclub-style queue, then head in to pick up groceries. Every week, I head to the aisle where the vegan milks are stocked in search of my favourite by far, Oatly Whole. Every week I stare at the empty cardboard containers where it once stood. Of the many things this trash-fire of a situation has thrown into sharp relief is the law of supply and demand. Not just with products, like toilet paper and dense, creamy Swedish plant goo, but also of course, with labour. I would hazard that many are now experiencing what many artists have known all along, that, as the late great Jeremy Hardy put it “unless you’re a nurse or a bin man, chances are your job is utterly pointless”.
Theatre makers are continuously evaluated on the quality and saleability of their product. If your oat milk isn’t flying off the shelves, better get back to the lab and start squishing out a new blend, the logic goes. One could make a justification for this in a world where theatres are similarly dependent on commercial returns, as existed in the before times. But now the supermarkets of theatre are closed, kept in business only through the largest arts council bailout in history (one paid for, incidentally, by draining Project Grants, a fund mostly used for artist fees), and yet the suppliers are still made to bid for contracts they will struggle to fulfil. And so comes the spate of “Digital Commissions” where those who have worked mostly or exclusively in a live medium are asked, while navigating the rest of the chaos likely to have entered their lives, to generate ideas and source equipment for podcasts, videos, and other online media where an established and competitive market already exists. For some, this may be an easy pivot. But those are not likely to be the ones most needing support. This might seem like adaptation, but it seems to me much more like the opposite of that: an stubborn attempt to square the circle of the twin facts that a) theatre artists have value and b) that value cannot currently be properly shared with the world. Theatre administrators’ and theatre artists’ jobs are made equally pointless by the pandemic. Only one group is being asked by the other to change their entire output to suit the circumstances.
I often deploy a crude measure I call Fox’s Law (named after the poet Kate Fox who I first saw making use of it) to find out whether a thing being asked of an artist is normal. To do so, the law states, simply ask the question “Would you ask a plumber to do this?”. So in this case, the question is “Would you ask a plumber for a creative response to Coronavirus?”, or if you want to be stricter in the analogy “would you ask a plumber for a plumbing response to Coronavirus?”. To which the answer is pretty clearly no: you would expect them to carry on as much as possible, doing what they can when they can and accepting when that is nothing.
There’s no doubt these commissions are well-intentioned. Many of those issuing them could easily get away with simply cancelling their entire programme and leaving it at that. The instinct to distribute money to artists is correct. The instinct to push them to create a product they’re not suited to making is more questionable. Although creativity comes in different conditions for everyone, a rushed and hectic race to leave the comfort zone will suit few. Normality is over. Can we, as an industry, leave behind the urge to force business as usual? Nick Cave put it beautifully in his recent blog: “For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is — what we, as artists, are for.” If there is going to be a future for theatre, now is the time to start thinking of artists as valuable not just for what you can buy from them right now, but how you’d feel if the milk was off the shelves forever.