‘This is our chance to pause, regroup and rebuild’
Let’s be honest, the situation for regional theatres is dire. Producing theatres across the UK have suffered a catastrophic loss of income and, with no discernible timeline for reopening, most are in a desperate fight for survival. Some are holding on in the hope that help will come from government. Others simply cannot afford to wait and are forced into action now to avoid administration.
It seems insensitive even to think about the future when, as I write, my team at Edinburgh Lyceum are facing large-scale redundancies as we reduce the company to a size small enough to be commensurate with our grant income: a heartbeat team to take us through the crisis to a point when we can reopen our theatre, bring employment back and start to make plays again.
Even then, the situation will be precarious. We face low box-office returns as audiences recover their theatregoing habit. We’ll have limited cash reserves to make work and we face the risk of further disease spikes or lockdowns. Even an optimistic analysis suggests it will be at least three years before we recover the levels of revenue we reached in 2019.
It’s not as if things were financially easy before. Most regional producing theatres have faced years of standstill grants and local authority cuts. Yet, somehow, with a mixture of co-productions, ingenuity, flexible ticket pricing, donations and Christmas shows, we have survived, and not only that, we were doing great work. The stories of success are numerous but Covid-19, the joyless bug, crushed show after show after show.
‘A city theatre should provide space for joy and tragedy, the profane and the sacred’
As we look around and survey the wreckage, one thing is clear. The theatre world of March 16 has gone and every day that we spend fighting to preserve it is a day we are not facing the future and asking ourselves the key question: what comes next?
One side effect of standstill funding has been that, for years, our artistic and creative spirit has been chained to the revenue-generating machines of the main houses. Feeding those great beasts has dictated the nature of our work, shaped our appetite for risk and discouraged us from seeking new audiences.
Could there be an opportunity for us in this swift and strange eviction? Without our buildings we will have to find new ways of reaching an audience. We can work online using audio and video technology to tell new stories and deliver them to people directly. We can return to the deep roots of theatre with work outdoors – in the local park, off the back of lorries and in football stadiums.
We can focus time and attention on local artists, makers, companies and projects. Freed from the urgent need to produce a show next week, our teams can spend time developing plays and projects that might not neatly fit into the categories we have become used to.
Lastly, we can empower our creative learning and engagement teams. When parents are struggling with home schooling, when loneliness and isolation is almost as dangerous an epidemic as Covid, and when young people are desperate to explore ideas and debate, we can be a place for making connections. We can bring people together.
A producing theatre is a city’s soul. To have theatre made in your town is to see your place represented, to have the great stories from the world told to you in person, to see your own stories propelled out into the wider world. Our great auditoriums were built to fulfil this civic purpose. Now they are closed, does our civic purpose have to be put on hold too?
A city theatre should provide space for joy and tragedy, the profane and the sacred, discussion and silence, comfort and disturbance, connection and introspection. It’s important that we provide this space for all the inhabitants of a city – not just the traditional theatregoers. At the Lyceum, we love our subscribers, they are our ultras, but even they want us to reach out more widely into Edinburgh to find more fans.
And, as we are forced to think in a new way about the work we do, so we’ll be forced to ask ourselves some fundamental questions: who is this work for? Whom does it exclude? How is it accessible? Who does it challenge?
Most regional producing companies were forged in 1945, when the government recognised that theatres with a civic purpose should be funded from civic sources and open to all. Over many intervening decades, as the value of that funding has eroded, the other side of that compact has eroded also. With public funds making up a lower portion of our income, it’s been harder for theatres to prioritise their civic aims.
Perhaps now is the moment for a new compact? A new promise between theatres and their communities? In return for the major injection of public funds we need to survive this crisis, we commit to spending our closed time out in our cities, meeting our citizens, discovering new relationships and relearning the shape of the world?
Such a journey will be hard and it will almost certainly involve making a lot of mistakes. But it would also be joyful.
On reflection, the theatre world of March 16 wasn’t so great. It wasn’t great to feel constantly one flop away from disaster. It wasn’t great for over-stretched staff working their socks off to keep the buildings afloat. It wasn’t great for freelancers. And, despite our best intentions, it wasn’t great for black people, it wasn’t great for disabled people, it wasn’t great for LGBT+ people. The constant struggle to keep our heads above water meant it wasn’t great for any of our mental health. This is our chance to pause, regroup and rebuild.
And, of course, soon, we will come back. The Lyceum will reopen. Our workshops will hum again with activity as we make sets. Our lights will come back on. Stage managers will call actors to the stage. Box-office staff will hurry to hand out the last tickets. Producers will anxiously check house numbers. Ushers will see the audience to their seats: the iron will rise; and when it does, wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone in the whole auditorium felt like the place, truly, belonged to them.
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.