I spoke to Mark over Zoom last Friday, when he could catch a few minutes away from working his current job in St Albans, wintering taps on a ‘pop-up campsite’ he has set up to make up for business lost due to the coronavirus pandemic. Lockdown “has been tough but life is what you make of it” he says and “no job is too low”.
In normal times, Mark is an events manager, running his own business. His company, Xennial Group, coordinates events at venues such as the NEC in Birmingham. Alongside this, Mark DJs for weddings and local events in the North West and each Christmas enjoys performing as a panto dame. Each of these areas of his life has suffered because of the pandemic.
Mark feels passionately about theatre and expressed anger at the government’s attitude towards the industry. The claim that the arts is not a ‘viable’ industry and that those without work should retrain is “utter trash” he says, since creatives have spent years perfecting their craft, and to be met with little empathy from the government is really insulting. Viewing the country as “a business to run” means sectors deemed less integral are pushed to the wayside. But the United Kingdom isn’t a business, it is a collective of unique and individual livelihoods, all of which deserve the same respect as the next.
He believes that the reason theatre is often not considered ‘real work’ and thereby less integral is that jobs are often seasonal and harder to come by. Furthermore, freelance work is deemed less tangible than jobs with more reliable contracts, appearing “wishy-washy”. These prejudices couldn’t be further from the truth considering how much we have relied on the arts and theatre for entertainment during lockdown.
An avid supporter of the #wemakeevents campaign, Mark criticises the government’s “black and white” approach to the arts. He demands the government allocate sector specific support, as different areas of work require varying degrees of help. As every area of the arts has suffered in different ways, blanket lump sums don’t cut it.
Freelance workers have been most heavily hit in this respect, he highlights, as the grants given to large venues, such as the Royal Albert Hall, don’t reach workers unaffiliated with the theatre. There hasn’t been “enough direct support for individuals”.
Many non-public facing workers in the arts industry are freelancers and are critical to the theatre industry. Thousands of these workers have had their lives paused in recent months yet the government has failed to distribute support to them efficiently in a way that keeps them afloat. Without their skills, theatre would not go ahead; if their financial futures are uncertain, so too could be the future of theatre.
This situation wasn’t inevitable. European countries such as Germany have been “incredible at supporting the arts”. It is our government who has failed.
Mark also fears COVID-19 could signal the final curtain call for small regional theatres. Theatres such as The Palace in Manchester and the Liverpool Empire should get by since they make high profits all year round. Their calendar is booked with West End-standard shows throughout the year that audiences flock to see. However, the Christmas pantomime is “the cash-cow” for smaller theatres; many of these theatres make around 50% of their annual turnover in December alone. With a second lockdown threatening the panto season, many provincial theatres risk closure.
Nevertheless, Mark remains optimistic. Theatre is “a resilient industry”, which he believes will bounce back once this crisis is finally over, because “people will want us”. He cites the Roaring Twenties to exemplify this. After the devastating Spanish flu of the early 1920s, the arts exploded in response, renewing people’s joy in the wake of tragedy. The arts industry is our escape from conspiracy and suffering, and as long as creatives remain creative, theatre will always find a way.
Image: Ian Lawson Photography