Locked Out Post-Lockdown | Access To The Arts

By Lucy Harbron - 19:54

The market of articles about lockdown is well and truly saturated. I think everything that’s can be said about isolation and the re-evaluation it brings has been said by now, every writer, poet, artist in the world clamouring to portray it. The jokes have been made about the horror movies we’ll jump at next summer, the plays we’ll applaud, written in bedrooms in 3 months’ worth of unfilled evenings. But now in the approach to come kind of exit to this, everyone’s asking; will there be a stage to see it on? But how about for those that can’t make it there?

Isolation has seen the arts get clever. It’s an industry that thrives on human to human interaction, so the adaption to separation felt strange to start but like all things, we now can’t imagine a reversal. I admit myself, 4 months ago I used to turn down chances to go to screenings of plays. ‘It won’t be the same’, ‘live theatre needs to be felt’, I hated the idea of it, some weird merging of cinema and theatre, being a purist about the tradition of the theatre form as an in-person luxury of dressing up and finding seats and feeling the goosebumps as my hands joined the symphony of others in the standing ovation. It’s weird to think about now, especially as my hands are still fresh from a solo applause directed at my laptop screen.

One of the best adaption plans is easily the National Theatre At Home series, each week showing a pre-recorded screening of top-selling plays from the recent Barber Shop Chronicles to classics like Streetcar Named Desire and Midsummer Nights Dream. These shows were all sell-outs, tickets reaching up to £50 plus whatever you’d spend on travel, food, wine. But in the past three months, I’ve watched more theatre than I did the whole previous year, and spend half the price. Donating for each screening and settling in to enjoy it with a homemade meal and Tesco wine, it’s not the same but it’s still magic. I’ve laughed, cried, gasped, each time finding my hands clapping, wishing the actors could hear; a feeling you can sense being shared around the country, the world even as the live chat box lights up with typed applause.

It’s a feeling the same in Instagram lives as favourite musicians perform gigs in their living rooms, as orchestras come together on live streams, galleries present virtual tours, authors invite you into zoom call conferences. Though stuck at home, when you enter into these creative spaces, you still feel the magic, maybe even more than before, now infused with intimacy and 10x more appreciation.
But it’s not about me. I recognise my privilege here. I’m lucky enough to afford tickets and to live in a place where live music and theatre is on my doorstep. I’m able-bodied and well, with no need to worry about where my seat is or getting to a toilet or being able to hear properly. Watching all these things at home only makes me more comfortable, but I’m aware that for so many being able to watch all these things at home means being able to watch them at all.

While the current situation is awful, it has consequently opened the world up. As the arts have moved online, every seat in the house has become accessible. With a click of a button, everything is audio described, paused for any rest or toilet breaks, enjoyed from bed, and mostly free. For many able-bodied people, these are things we haven’t considered enough up until this point, contributing to the elitism and privilege that still taints the arts, making the industry a playing ground for the wealthy and largely the white. When we were back at in-person, live arts experiences, you’d largely look around and find reflections of yourself in some way. People may be older or younger, but all reflections of the same able-bodied, financially stable, privileged class. From your seat, you probably didn’t look around and think ‘oh, there’s not maybe wheelchair accessible seats here’, you didn’t stand at gigs and consider places to rest, you didn’t question ticket prices beyond your bank account. But in the aftermath of this, as we return to whatever our theatres and venues will look like, we need to.

Obviously, we all crave reunion, looking forward to reconnecting with our loved ones and all our favourite past times. But for so many, exit will mean a loss of connection. For differently-abled people, their friends returning to live experiences may mean a loss of being able to go along, no longer able to work it around their needs and not worry about health or their safety. For so many, opening back up will mean being limited again, by health and/or budget, because, put simply, the arts are inaccessible to all.

I miss my favourite venues, craving the day I can return to the leg numbing seats of my favourite theatre or cinemas, but we need to start considering the privilege in these statements, start working towards a plan that supports our venues while keeping the gates open to all.

There is only three more weeks of National Theatre At Home, and then what? At the end of it, do ticket prices go back up to a set price of £30+ in most places? Maybe even more for the select number of accessible seats in the full scale west-end theatres. And so, in 3 weeks, so many people who have been laughing, crying, applauding along with us all, will be left home alone and locked out as we pull the arts away from them and back to the inaccessible realm of the privilege. Not that our government cares, leaving our arts industries with no support or plan as we teeter on the edge of a devastating recession, but arts matter. If we’ve learnt anything from the past weeks with Black Lives Matter and the political space we find ourselves in, it’s that education is power and if our curriculums won’t tell us the truth, we need the arts to do it. We need plays, songs, films, books to tell us the pain we haven’t felt, to share messages of strength and empowerment, to weave a web between people and remind us that feeling is universal despite all the alienation. And we need these things to be open to all if we want them to have that power at all.

In its essence, the arts are liberal in their politics. The industry is built on a long history of radicalism and revolution, a powerful tool in every major breakthrough in this world. The arts are for the people, a statement that rings true despite the elitism and bourgeois attitude that’s smothered its hard. And now we’ve proved we can, we need to keep it accessible and open to all, find a way to keep everyone connected in spite of their needs and financial situation, because art is power, for knowledge, feeling and connection.

While we step outside again, we can’t let it go dark on those that never had the privilege of freedom that we took for granted. We need to stay connected, letting everyone in post-lockdown.

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