‘The show must go on’ goes the old adage. And on and on theatres had gone, some resiliently through both World Wars, until the coronavirus.
But the obvious reality that theatre is incompatible with social distancing means, like music festivals, that their model is fundamentally opposed to life during a pandemic.
So naturally, news of the virus has frightened theatre workers, particularly regional and Fringe theatre staff, whose work is less financially stable than the West End’s – which itself is defined by financial unpredictability.
Statistics show that advance ticket sales have decreased by 92% since the virus, according to data from TRG Arts data specialists, illustrating the bleakness of the current picture as the industry is estimated to have lost around £330 million from the shut down.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has yet to announce the specifics of any sort of future funding plans, and there are fears that when he does, financial support will be too little, too late.
An update came from the Government on 21 June when prime minister Boris Johnson told the Commons: “We will work with the arts industry on specific guidance to allow choirs, orchestras and theatres to resume as soon as possible” – but the messaging has been criticised for being vague by industry experts, including the Lion & Unicorn Theatre.
In a tweet, they said: “Having watched the Prime Minister’s speech we once again find ourselves with a frustrating lack of clarity and support for the theatre industry and no guidance on when venues might reopen.”
Attempting to keep morale high amid the fear, theatre communities have streamed digital shows to keep creatively relevant. And despite financial uncertainty, one upside is that online performances have helped theatre reach potentially more new audiences under lockdown than they would have reached if the virus hadn’t happened.
The National Theatre’s weekly streams of classic shows have responded to the national appetite for entertainment under lockdown, and have attracted audiences of non-theatre-goers, convinced to venture through digital doors by friends on the basis of doing something together – albeit remotely – amid the gloom.
However, financially – away from the joyous new streaming culture – venues are erring on collapse.
So how can theatres stay alive with their lights off on a semi-permanent basis?
“We have all depended on art and entertainment throughout this current crisis to maintain our wellbeing and quality of life,” reflects Alistair Smith, Editor at The Stage newspaper. “Theatre can make a hugely positive contribution on all these fronts, but only if it is still around to do so.”
The main issue for theatre workers is that the Job Retention Scheme, which pays employees 80% of their wages, may end soon as other industries receiving support from the Scheme open their doors to customers, potentially leaving the theatre industry behind.
Alistair Smith feels “increasingly pessimistic about the government’s willingness to offer meaningful sector-specific support,” and thinks other industries, like football, have been prioritised over theatre “despite the fact that many more people go to the theatre every year than go to a live Premier League match.”
He calls on a mixture of grants, tax breaks and investments to be paid back when theatre is up and running, particularly to support the 70% of theatre staff that work freelance and are thought to be most at risk.
Justin Audibert, Artistic Director at the Unicorn Theatre, shares Alistair’s concerns. “Seventy percent of theatres say that they will have to close by Christmas if they don’t get further government help,” says Justin, echoing the fears expressed by Book of Mormon producer Sonia Friedman in her piece in The Telegraph.
Justin calls the Job Retention Scheme a “vital lifeline” but believes it won’t protect theatres from imminent closure.
Many theatres have already started making mass redundancies. They include the Birmingham Hippodrome, which made the “heartbreaking” decision to give 130 staff notice of redundancy, and the entire artistic team at the Royal Theatre Plymouth.
The playwright James Graham, behind ITV’s Quiz, described the cultural impact of that specific closure in one sobering tweet, saying the “cultural landscape is in collapse.”
Additionally, Cameron Mackintosh’s theatre companies and theatre owner Nimax have also confirmed redundancies in the strongest sign yet that cracks have reached the highest echelons of the industry.
One of biggest fears is that minority groups will be disproportionately affected. “We as a sector need to ensure that Black, Asian, ethnically diverse, Deaf and Disabled developing artists are protected and their talents nurtured,” says Justin from the Unicorn.
More broadly he fears that the “eco-system” that encourages and supports new talent to progress from community theatre to professional theatre has been damaged.
“At its best theatre works as a virtuous feedback loop of talent being developed by new, exciting companies, who are nurtured by small venues, and then go on to tour work into the subsidised sector before eventually having commercial success,” he says. “This development has ground to a halt.”
So while the industry waits for news on the pipeline for funding, individual venues are considering their options. Financially crippling constraints aside, there’s the idea of performing in a socially-distanced theatre.
One such project in Berlin has seen 500 of the 700 seats removed to prepare for distanced reopening. In the UK, The Great Gatsby immersive production has announced an October 1 reopening with social distancing, combining a new masked mall element to allow PPE protection.
And in Sheffield, the Shakespeare To Sheffield scheme will see outdoor Shakespeare productions staged, but they are the outliers as the major players in the industry hedge their bets.
But would anyone want to perform to a mostly-empty room, let alone pay to experience that?
“We are looking into socially distanced audience seating, which is challenging in terms of audience and performer experience, as well as economically,” says James Brining, Leeds Playhouse’s Artistic Director.
Justin from the Unicorn goes a step further. “An auditorium with lots of empty seats feels problematic,” he says, “and an empty auditorium just isn’t commercially viable. We’re more likely to explore ideas around presenting work outdoors or in schools,” a model that feels particularly suited to children’s theatre, but also to immersive theatre and site-specific outdoor theatre.
The format may be up in the air, but the priority is to begin performance in some way, as soon as possible.
“The experience of live theatre unites people and will be a much-needed healing factor for communities,” says James from the Leeds Playhouse. “We want to continue to produce vital, exciting theatre for Leeds and the city region, plus make nationally and internationally significant work in the future.”
But more pressing is the call for clarity on financial support. More cash may eventually be offered, but redundancies are being made now, already causing the industry to bleed.
“Theatres are having to start redundancy processes that could absolutely devastate the theatre workforce and risk destroying what was once a world-leading sector,” warns Alistair from The Stage.
“The British theatre sector has been built up and developed over centuries, it would be a tragedy if the current government allowed that to be wasted because it was too slow to act.”
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