Earlier this month the government announced a £1.57bn support package aiming to “protect Britain’s world-class cultural, arts and heritage institutions” after weeks of lobbying from industry leaders.
The support package from the government includes:
- A £1.15bn support pot for cultural organisations in England delivered through a mix of grants and loans. This will be made up of £270m of repayable finance and £880m of grants.
- £100m of targeted support for national cultural institutions in England and the English Heritage Trust.
- £120m capital investment to restart construction on cultural infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England which were paused due to the coronavirus pandemic.
- An extra £188m for the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland (£33m), Scotland (£97m) and Wales (£59m).
A week after this announcement, Boris Johnson announced that indoor theatres would be able to reopen from August 1 while outdoor theatres have been able to put on performances from July 11. The government stressed that “audiences, performers and venues will be expected to maintain social distancing at all times.”
Whilst this new fund has been welcomed by many from the arts, have these new measures come too late to save UK’s theatres?
Many from the industry seem to think so.
With theatres only being allowed to reopen complying with social distancing, many cannot see how theatres will stay afloat. Adam Penford, the artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse, told the Guardian that his team had produced 25 different seating plans, none of which made any economic sense. Meanwhile, Andrew Lloyd Webber noted that “the average play needs a 65% capacity and a musical needs more” to make a breakeven. This means that with only 20-30% capacity under social distancing there will be no way that theatres will be able to reopen even with the government’s permission. There are queries into which part of the arts the governments plans on saving, with fears that these loans will not be enough to save small regional theatres or diversity projects.
Regional theatres are in particular danger as pantos, which secure funding during the summer, are unlikely to be an option this year. For most regional theatres that have lost almost all their income during lockdown, the absence of their biggest show of the year will mean permanent closure. Moreover, given the fact that the industry relies largely on freelancers, many of them still have no access to support because more than 50% of their income is taxed as PAYE. This disqualifies them from the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, despite being on insecure short-term contracts. This could mean that creatives from working class backgrounds will be forced out of the industry. TV presenter Jodie McCallum has petitioned Downing Street to extend its support, noting that:
People that are working class aren’t going to be able to afford to survive. It’s going to affect the diversity, and it’s just devastating for these people … to be discriminated against simply for the way that we’re taxed.“
We have already entered a dark period for the arts world, with the closure of the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton. With 86 employees, the theatre was a major cultural force in the South of England, and it looks like more closures are to come. Before government intervention, 70% of arts venues were expected to go into administration by the end of the year. Even with this new injection of funds, the government has already warned that they will not be able to save every theatre. From July 31 the Royal Opera House will stop furloughing casual workers in a restructuring process, whilst the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh has made the “painfully difficult decision to enter into redundancy consultation”. The venue said it was likely that “almost a third” of its staff “in customer-facing and technical roles” would lose their jobs. As nights grow longer and theatres drain the last of their resources, we are sure to hear of many more closures, with large theatres such as The Old Vic having to spend £350,000 every month to just maintain the playhouse.
However, it isn’t all bad.
Earlier this month the producers of The Mousetrap said the longest running West End show would reopen in October with social distancing in place. Furthermore, The Old Vic has announced that Andrew Scott will star in a new one-man play, to be streamed live from the south London playhouse to viewers at home for 5 nights only. Producers have been exploring the ideas of using drive-in cinemas for live performances and open-air theatre will be a popular choice at least while the weather is still sunny.
Some theatre owners have been looking further afield for inspiration. Andrew Lloyd Webber trialed socially distanced performances of Phantom of the Opera while in South Korea. There, they learnt to put the front row at a 5.2 metre distance to avoid spit flying from actors and placed thermal imaging cameras at the stage door and by the entrances. Webber also told Radio 4 he ordered for all his theatres “silver ion self-cleaning door handles… Everybody going into the theatre is fobbed with the antiviral chemical, which lasts 30 days.” In Germany, some theatres have removed seats from the theatre floor and scrapped intervals in hope to keep social distancing and their profits simultaneously.
Some reading may question why it is so important to bail out the theatres when there are more directly beneficial industries that have been flailing during coronavirus. While many of us hardly ever attend the theatre, it is a vital part of the UK that needs to be protected.
London is the world’s leading theatre destination, with 15.3 million visitors in 2019, nearly a million higher than New York. The creative industries have been growing faster than any other sector of the economy, contributing over £111 billion in 2018, and UK theatres employ 290,000 workers. For every pound spent at the theatre, a further £5 is spent in the local economy as hotels, pubs and restaurants rely on them to stay afloat. Without the theatre the UK’s TV and film sector could be lost too. Countless Dames and Sirs have grown their reputation in the theatre; Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Daniel Day-Lewis to name a few. Without the theatre we would not have the films and TV shows that have captured the nation’s attention. Fleabag started as a 10 minute slot in a comedy show to an audience of 70, growing into an hour-long Edinburgh Fringe play before being commissioned into a series by the BBC, while the film East is East (1999) started as a play in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1996.
With a declining industrial economy and a service economy being threatened by Brexit, what Britain still has to offer the world is its arts and culture. However, with public arts spending already lower than France, Germany and the EU average, the UK’s theatres are looking in more peril than ever before.