Rishi Sunak And The Arts – Should Performers Be Retraining?

Katherine Davey Over

“…adapt and adjust to the new reality. That is what we all must do” says Rishi Sunak – but to what extent can the arts and cultural industries adapt and adjust without sustaining significant, possibly detrimental change?

It might be a little presumptuous to describe our current state of being as the post-critical phase of the coronavirus pandemic due to the steady rise in cases, especially here in Nottingham! This being said, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak posited that ‘we’re through the acute phase of the crisis’ in a press conference on 24th September. People have begun returning to work after months of lockdown, but mass redundancy and unemployment have left many, particularly those in the arts and cultural sectors, in a predicament of uncertainty.

The once collaborative, communal nature of the arts and cultural industries became life-threatening in an instant

The outbreak of COVID-19 meant that the once collaborative, communal nature of the arts and cultural industries became life-threatening in an instant, and the trans-national lockdown that ensued resulted in vast job losses. Many employees have been left without employment or any reassurance in knowing where their next paycheque will come from.

The stress this has caused thousands of arts and entertainment employees has undeniably been heightened by the controversy generated by an interview with Rishi Sunak, in which he was reported to have urged individuals working in the arts and cultural sectors to retrain and find other jobs. Upon examination of the original interview, the interviewer clearly had an agenda to acquire clarity from Sunak for employees in these industries who ‘say you’ve [Sunak/the Conservative Party] not helped them at all’ in their return to work.

Although Sunak has since posted a transcript of the interview on his Twitter account confirming that ‘I did not say it [retrain] and I do not think it’, there is patently still a lack of clarity for employees in arts and cultural sectors. The main take-away seems to be a need to ‘adjust and adapt’, but this has uncovered a separate yet equally pressing matter that these industries must tackle as we move towards our “new normal”.

Throughout lockdown, theatres and music venues streamed pre-recorded and live performances for customers to watch from their homes. Although this filled a void during the unrelenting months of lockdown, Sunak’s urge for businesses in general to adapt and adjust as we move forward highlights the possibility that in-person entertainment as we once knew it could be permanently replaced by virtual streaming. If this is the case, the consequences may well be detrimental for all.

‘a creative outlet is something that every single person has, whether you use that as just something you enjoy or as a profession’

I interviewed Grace Paremain, a second-year student at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama studying Contemporary Performance Practice: Drama and Applied Theatre in Education, to gain a more inclusive perspective on how permanent adaptation and adjustment could impact the arts and cultural industries in the long-term. She described that ‘a creative outlet is something that every single person has, whether you use that as just something you enjoy or as a profession’, and I feel this encapsulates how the arts offer is so much more than practical entertainment: they provide vital escapism for all.

I am sure that almost everyone will have turned to some form of artistic or creative entertainment to distract them from the incessantly repetitive day-to-day monotony of lockdown. Films, TV series’, music and forms of theatrical performance allow, as Paremain suggested, for all involved ‘to forget about day-to-day problems’. Although alternative methods were explored to provide these services virtually during lockdown, surely the culture of shared community inherent within the arts and entertainment industries needs to be prioritised and nurtured as we return to “normal”, rather than leaving them to morph into a permanently virtual state of distance and separation.

The arts are not just about passive consumption. Regardless of what form it takes, so much of the experience stems from the atmosphere created by authentic interaction between performers and those who watch and listen. It is about the anticipation in the venue beforehand, the conversations, the laughter, the applause. The virtual experience, however technologically proficient, does not have the capacity to recreate that. If those who work in the arts and cultural industries are forced to adapt so they no longer required to perform live, this fundamental culture of community will no longer be of value, and this will be the legacy not of the coronavirus pandemic, but of the attitudes inherent within Rishi Sunak’s comments.

Katherine Davey Over

Article and featured images courtesy of @nottinghamnewtheatre via

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