As the link between British theatre and the government, Julian Bird is helping to navigate a devastating crisis for the industry that was unimaginable only a few weeks ago. The SOLT/UK Theatre chief executive tells Alistair Smith why the next few weeks are going to be so crucial if the sector is going to survive
Like much of the UK, at around 5pm on Monday, March 16, Julian Bird sat down to watch Boris Johnson give his second public address detailing the UK government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Bird and his senior team from the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre were assembled in one of the spartan meeting rooms in its West End headquarters on Rose Street, in the heart of what was then the largest and most vibrant theatre district in the world.
Four days earlier, Broadway had taken the decision to go dark; West End venues had already begun to limit backstage engagements and introduce hand sanitisers. In London, shows were starting to see a significant dip in audiences, but elsewhere in the country many theatres reported very little impact, with consumer confidence remaining strong.
Indeed, only a few days earlier, Johnson had stressed at his first public address that “the scientific advice… is that banning such events will have little effect on the spread” of the virus.
Bird “had an inkling” there was some form of an announcement in the offing, but the prime minister’s statement still came as a shock: “You should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues” – 11 words that turned the whole of the UK theatre industry upside down.
“Before he’d finished speaking, I was on the phone to one of the senior government officials saying: ‘This is a nightmare, because he hasn’t said what he should have said: he hasn’t officially given the notice to shut the industry down’,” Bird says.
“From day one, I think the senior members of the government made those decisions and kept them quite close to that group. I don’t think anyone knew [Johnson] was going to announce that. We thought something at some point in the near future was going to come, but what we and other sectors had said was: ‘When you do it, it has to be an explicit instruction’ so that it triggers insurance.
“The insurance was important, but almost more important was the clarity. What we didn’t get was clarity, what we got was a muddled message.”
This put Bird in an unenviable position. He and his team took the decision that – with only a few hours’ notice before curtains were about to go up on hundreds of shows across the country – they would have to advise all British theatres to close with immediate effect, essentially shuttering the entire sector for the first time since the beginning of the Second World War.
“I never ever thought, doing the extraordinary job I have had the privilege of doing, that I would ever be in the position where I had to basically tell the industry it had to close down,” says Bird wistfully.
It was not, he acknowledges, a universally popular decision. Nor was it one that SOLT/UK Theatre could actually enforce – they are not regulatory bodies. But it was advice that for the most part theatres up and down the country followed, and by the end of the day on Tuesday, March 17, the entirety of British theatre was dark.
Presiding over an industry in peril
Bird and I are talking over Zoom. He is sitting in his central London home, which has been transformed into a makeshift office and recording studio. From here he is coordinating SOLT and UK Theatre’s attempts to save an industry that is in serious and immediate peril, and – perhaps incongruously – that he records his weekly radio show for the digital radio station Magic at the Musicals.
Ever since that day in early March, Bird has played a pivotal role linking government to theatre. And while the organisations he runs remain trade bodies primarily representing theatre operators and producers, he has tried to assume a role advocating for the entire sector.
“For better or worse, government looks to us as the conduit to them for this sector. That’s not to say other people aren’t having conversations – of course they are – but the government has to work through organisations and people and in the main that is us and in the main that is me.
‘I never ever thought that I would have to tell the industry it had to close down’
“We’re getting all the intelligence we can from everybody, asking: ‘What do we need?’, and then negotiating, lobbying government, describing what the problems are.”
SOLT and UK Theatre have “changed irreversibly” because of the crisis, he says. Both were set up more than 100 years ago to look after theatres, producers and general managers.
“One of my observations,” he continues, “in the first couple of days of all this was that the rest of the sector was effectively being left out of anyone looking after them.” He points to the huge numbers of small businesses that operate within the theatre ecology: suppliers, agents, castings director, press and marketing companies. The list is endless.
“While absolutely our membership is theatre and producers, we have evolved: we are definitely playing – and I’m proud we are – a broader role across the sector in terms of trying to understand that ecology and getting them [small businesses] to feed in, so that we are representing the entirety into government.”
He admits this could put the organisation in a position of conflict in the future – SOLT and UK Theatre are still membership bodies and have to represent their members’ interests – but feels that “at the moment, we’re talking about: ‘How do we preserve an entire world-leading sector to come back from this?’
“Of course, I spend more of my time with the theatres and producers than anyone else, but I think all of our board members acknowledge that unless the whole ecology can survive and come back, the whole of theatre is damaged beyond belief.”
SOLT/UK Theatre has done a number of things to try to bring other parts of the industry into the conversation and act as a focal point for conversations. SOLT/UK Theatre’s wide-ranging webinars have played a part, and Bird and his team have also helped unite the various theatrical charities in a bid to provide a central approach point for people in need.
“I’m not pleased we have to do that, but I’m pleased we’re doing it. To hear them all describe the need that is coming to them, the pick-up in applications, the fact that one or two charities are already having to prioritise their grants to people who explicitly need the money for food, as opposed to anything else, and we’re at a relatively early stage of what might be coming: I find that terrifying.
“We’re in danger of demand outstripping supply and we’re working on a plan for a major fundraising drive for the theatrical charities as a whole that will kick off in mid to late June. Lots of people have raised huge amounts of money already, but we’re going to need to go into another league if we’re to help people.”
Scale of the threat
It’s now two months since lockdown officially started. The situation has only worsened for theatre. About 80% to 90% of employees in the industry have been furloughed on the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Meanwhile, for the 70% of the theatre workforce that is self-employed, the situation is worse. Some have no access to government support at all, others have managed to receive money from the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, but as things stand this covers only three months’ pay. Not even the most optimistic think this will come close to covering the length of time that theatres will remain closed.
“For our sector, the JRS up to the end of July without doubt has saved tens of thousands of jobs,” says Bird. “I’m terrified by the thought that from August 1, employers might have to start contributing toward the furloughed person’s salary. In a sector with no income, how do you do that?
“Secondly, I think the government is failing the freelance, self-employed community. I think it’s failing them in a major way. As we sit and talk today, the self-employed scheme is for three months, the JRS – I know there’s going to be some changes to it – but that’s going to run for eight months [until the end of October]. That feels like a fundamental mismatch to me.
“Vast numbers of freelancers are missing out. The fact that anyone who wasn’t working in the 2018/19 tax year isn’t eligible has counted out an awful lot of people, including every single graduate from last summer.
“And, of course, you have lots of people who work between PAYE and self-employed. In our sector, the average wage of people not eligible for the SEISS is not £200,000. There are a lot of people whose net profit is just above £50,000 who are left with nothing.” He adds: “We have a huge freelance community where the risks are enormous.”
As well as individuals, established institutions are also at risk. Earlier this month, Nuffield Southampton Theatres went into administration. The day before we speak, Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum announced it would remain closed until 2021. The morning of our conversation, the Daily Telegraph published a piece in which West End producer Sonia Friedman warns that UK theatre is threatened with “complete obliteration”. Later in the day, it emerges that the National Theatre has started preparing for “substantial” redundancies.
In a bid to convince the government of the scale of the crisis, Bird and other senior figures within British theatre have spent much of the last few days talking on radio and TV shows and writing in the mainstream press, trying to convince the government and the public of the scale of the threat.
“We are not scaremongering,” stresses Bird. “We surveyed the industry over the Bank Holiday weekend: 70% tell us they will run out of cash by Christmas; quite a few will run out of cash a long way before Christmas.”
The industry’s campaign has been ramped up because, Bird stresses, time is running out to save theatre: we are fast approaching crunch time. “We are in a period when multiple factors come together that do not help us time-wise,” he says.
“We’ve got the JRS, where potentially from the beginning of August people have to start paying a proportion of somebody’s wage. By law, if you want to make people redundant under collective redundancy and you employ more than a certain number of people, you have to give people 45 days’ notice. Well, 45 days’ notice from the beginning of August is the middle of June. So for some of the bigger organisations, that’s a huge factor.”
Pantomime and the lucrative Christmas period is also approaching fast on the horizon. It is hard to overstate the importance of this two-month period to the theatrical economy – especially for theatres outside London, where it can account for most of their annual revenue.
“We’ve asked everyone: for every theatre in the country, the drop-dead date for people to make decisions about Christmas is the end of August. For some it will be a lot earlier than that, but pretty much across the board the end of August is the absolute deadline. That is not a long way away.”
If theatres don’t manage to open for Christmas, they are unlikely to re-emerge in the traditionally slow period around February, meaning many venues may not turn their lights back on until the spring of 2021.
Seeking a vital lifeline
But to even get as far as August, theatre will require further significant support from government. And it needs it now. Securing this will be a difficult task at a time when nearly all sectors of the economy are facing potential ruin, but, says Bird, a few things do set theatre apart. Not least the fact that it is completely unable to trade and will likely be among the very last sectors of the economy to reopen.
‘Unless the whole ecology can survive, the whole of theatre is damaged beyond belief’
“Most sectors have lower income than they are used to,” he says. “Our sector has no income. That’s the fundamental thing. At the end of the day, any business can only go on so long if they don’t have cash. The cash either has to come from someone giving you a grant, loaning you some money or you have to begin to trade again, we have to get our doors open again. There are only three ways through this.
“Every sector of the economy is arguing for something. And they’re all arguing for something completely significant. But the factors our sector is facing make us unique, and we do lead the world in this industry. We want to get back to that position.”
The ‘ask’ to government is still being finalised but is likely to include the following areas: a request that the furlough scheme be extended, fully funded, until theatres are able to reopen; likewise that the gaps in the current self-employed scheme are filled and that too is extended; an emergency grant for the sector as a whole; the introduction of a loan scheme that works for theatres in a way those currently available do not; reforms to Theatre Tax Relief to help encourage economic activity; and deregulation of certain restrictions to help some venues reopen.
There is also the extremely complicated issue of insurance: an area that has already been a massive stumbling block, as insurers proved very reluctant to pay out even to those producers and venues who believe themselves to have been covered for an event such as coronavirus.
His hopes for the industry after reopening:
“Coming out of this, I believe we have to find a way to keep the connectedness with other people in the industry. I’m very proud we’re trying to think of the whole ecology.”
Theatre’s challenge processing ticket refunds:
“No one could ever have envisaged cancelling performances for months at a time. People have operations geared up to dealing with shows being cancelled for a night for whatever reason. Of course, relationships and how ticketing works – particularly in London – between theatres, theatre owners, producers and ticket agents comes into sharp focus in all this. It functions brilliantly until the point when something like this happens and then you think: ‘We’ve got to reinvent it all.’ I’m sure that will all be looked at by everyone in the industry going forward as to how that works better in the future.”
The Olivier Awards:
“I’m proud of the Oliviers and the progress we’ve made with that – and the fact it’s theatre’s biggest marketing tool of the year. On a personal level, the thing I’m most disappointed about is that so far the extraordinary nominees have not had a chance to have that experience together, which is what that night is about for them, and we have not been able to announce the winners yet. So the industry hasn’t had the chance to come together to celebrate those extraordinary people who have done amazing things. Who knows when we’ll be able to do that. We will do something this autumn to celebrate the winners, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that will involve getting everyone together. But we are working on a TV-related plan I hope we will be able to announce soon.
If that was complex, returning to operation is likely to prove even more so. Bird describes it as “the massive, horrific area around insurance and liability” and it will be one of the key barriers preventing theatres from reopening prior to a vaccine being found.
“Even if a production and venue could reopen, could they even get insurance in the market to cover them?” asks Bird. “If not, do we need to be asking the government to step in with a scheme to enable this sector to get back up and running?
“A producer will need some assurance that if their production gets shut down for two weeks because someone in the cast takes ill and everyone has to isolate that they’re covered. Of course, there are also liability issues around people who welcome audiences into buildings.”
All of this will have to be settled quickly. To have any hope of being open in time for Christmas, Bird believes theatres will need “heavy indications that the government is willing to support the sector to a substantial extent” in June. He adds: “Detail takes time to work out but we need clear indicators, which we have not had so far.”
The danger, he stresses, is that the longer the situation drags on – with no clarity for theatres – the more venues will be forced to take that same decision as the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh.
Bird describes the position the Lyceum found itself in: “To stand a chance of that organisation having a chance in the future – and having a future – it is unfortunately better to take the very hard decision now to essentially mothball yourself until you stand a chance of opening successfully, rather than keeping going through the weeks and months ahead, gradually burning through your relatively small reserves of cash until you can’t even mothball with the hope of coming back. And that’s a horrific position for any theatre director to find themselves in.”
He adds, grimly: “I’ve had that conversation with multiple people across the country.”
While Bird and other senior figures lobby government for support to keep theatres afloat until they are able to reopen, work is also underway to examine how and when they will be able to function again.
Last weekend, the government’s Cultural Renewal Taskforce met (virtually, of course) for the first time. Its members include English National Ballet’s Tamara Rojo, Arts Council England chair Nicholas Serota and Mark Cornell, chief executive of Ambassador Theatre Group. The group’s brief is to develop a blueprint for “how and when closed businesses and venues can reopen safely”.
It is something that Bird has been lobbying for since the enforced theatre closure and he will be involved in the three working groups that feed into the taskforce.
“Finally, we have the entertainment and events working group, which I’ve been working on hand in glove with Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport officials to get to a point akin to sport, where we have a route to talk about how we open up again with public health officials in the room. We now have a mechanism for that. We’ve been arguing for it for some time. It may be too late, but we have to get on with it quickly.”
One of the key decisions the group will have to consider is whether social distancing can work for the UK theatre industry. Bird is clear: it won’t.
“The clarity over social distancing and whether venues can open is so fundamental. Our analysis says social distancing doesn’t work in most auditoriums, whatever part of the sector you’re in. That’s the whole nature of this work now: can we possibly reach an agreement about opening without social distancing in place? What would that look like? Would it be allowed at all? Could it be contemplated at all by the medics and scientists and if it was, what would it look like? How quickly we can get answers to that is pretty fundamental to going forward.
“We’re all looking at South Korea. It’s the only country in the world that has a theatre open as you and I are talking, which is not socially distanced. Various European countries are talking about opening, all with social distancing in place, all with low capacities.”
‘The big question now is: can we possibly reach an agreement about opening without social distancing in place?’
That, he stresses, is only possible because of the higher level of government subsidy for the arts in continental Europe – it won’t work in the UK.
Despite all these challenges, Bird remains hopeful that theatres could still reopen in time for their Christmas shows. “Clearly the best-case scenario is a quick vaccine or a treatment that would help everybody, or fast movement on controlling the virus in the UK such that government medics agree that every part of the economy can open without social distancing, but with precautions in place.
“For us, Christmas is vital. But we need those decisions quickly to make Christmas happen.”
How are you coping in lockdown?
You just have to keep going, don’t you? The thing I find therapeutic is that I love cooking. So I’m indulging my passion for that. That’s a great focal point at the end of the day. I’m still doing my radio show Magic at the Musicals, which is all pre-recorded from home with some fancy kit. It’s important to me to try to keep hold of some of those other things in life, otherwise you could literally be glued to a computer or your phone 24 hours a day. That wouldn’t be good for me or anyone I represent. I’m also doing lots of walking. We tend to go for a walk very late in the evening when it’s quiet and there’s nobody else around.
What was the last show you saw live in a theatre?
Blithe Spirit on March 10.
Have you watched much live-streamed theatre during lockdown?
I’ve watched shows I didn’t get the chance to see, which has been lovely. I’m looking forward to revisiting A Streetcar Named Desire and to the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s new radio play from Alan Ayckbourn. I didn’t get to see Pieces of String at the Mercury in Colchester last year, so on VE Day night we sat down and watched that.
What else have you enjoyed?
I won’t deny that to switch off you have to read a bit of trashy fiction and watch some rubbish on television that doesn’t have anything to do with the industry. You have to try to clear your brain and get away a little bit at times.
What can the sector do to help you?
We need to hear from people if we’re going to represent the entire sector. If people have a brilliant idea or something we may not know about, please get in touch: email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. What’s the worst that can happen? Someone gets in touch with an idea we already know about. But what also happens then is that at least once a day someone emails me with an idea we haven’t had or a piece of information we didn’t know that helps make the case stronger. That’s the best thing anybody can do.
He adds: “It’s still realistic, some would describe it as optimistic. I know that the vast majority of theatres and producers would like to be open in advance of the Christmas period. We need to try to see if we can get to that. It may be we can’t, but we have to try. If not, I fear we’re looking at the spring or beyond. At that point, the decisions and discussions become more difficult.”
‘I’m trying to do my best for the industry’
Together with his reduced team (all staff of the TKTS booth in Leicester Square that SOLT oversees and nearly half of SOLT/UK Theatre staff have been furloughed, leaving 26 staff remaining), Bird has clearly been working around the clock to find a way out of the current situation for the whole of the industry. He pays tribute to his team and the boards of both SOLT/UK Theatre, who are having to balance emergency planning for their own organisations with a responsibility to the industry as a whole.
He also – perhaps more surprisingly – is keen to celebrate the officials at DCMS, who have been crucial to the process of making sure that government ministers were properly briefed on an industry that was still new to them.
“For huge parts of the economy, this came after a period when there had been a huge ministerial reshuffle. Without doubt, DCMS ministers have had to get up to speed. I’d like to pay huge credit to the team of officials. They are all working from home and the amount of work they are turning around and their knowledge of the sector and the way they engage with people like me is extraordinary.”
Mistakes will have been made, he acknowledges. “The volume of change and information all the time is extraordinary. That’s hard,” he says.
“When you think what they did with the JRS in a few days, that is the sort of thing a government would normally spend two or three years doing, testing, surveying. Thankfully they made the changes to things that didn’t work for our sector and others after they’d introduced it. But we’re all working on fast forward at the moment and sometimes we have to remember that.”
He continues: “Always I have to say, hand on heart, that at any one time I’m trying to do the best for the industry. If I can look myself in the eye and say I’m doing that then that’s what matters to me at the moment.”
Bird’s message to government is clear: do not risk “destroying a part of this country where we lead the world” and one where the payback both directly to the economy and indirectly is so significant. “The culture of every town, village and city, and our place in the world, is at risk. It’s as grave as that.”
He genuinely does not know what the future holds for theatre, but there are two things that keep him awake at night. The first is the well-being of his team at SOLT/UK Theatre.
And the second? “I’m terrified that none of it is going to be enough. That’s the thing that keeps me awake at night: that despite everything we’re trying to do, at the end of the day, it might just not be enough. But all we can do is keep going.”