The loss of Nuffield Southampton Theatres is the "canary in the coal mine for British theatre", industry leaders have warned, as the sector continues to appeal for urgent government support to survive the Covid-19 crisis.
It was announced last week that the Southampton theatre has been placed into administration after falling into financial difficulty due to the pandemic.
Administrators Smith and Williamson are seeking buyers for the brand, which operated NST City in Southampton City Centre and NST Campus at the University of Southampton.
Theatre leaders across the country have paid tribute to the organisation and warned that without government support "more closures will sadly follow".
Donmar Warehouse executive director Henny Finch told The Stage: "Nuffield Theatres was a huge part of my life when I ran Headlong; they were great and generous co-producing partners on many projects and the team were true friends.
"The closure of both spaces is the canary in the coal mine for British theatre - the government must not ignore this warning sign.
"Even the best-run theatres have been hugely damaged by this crisis, and without swift and significant cash support more closures will sadly follow."
Joanna Read, director and chief executive of Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, said she was worried this would be the first closure of many.
"I was shocked when I heard the Nuffield had gone into administration. It feels as if we’ve lost an old friend," Read told The Stage. "Over the last 20 years, the South East has lost a number of important middle-scale venues. Now there is us and then a great big hole until you reach Portsmouth or Chichester."
She added: "The government must consider what additional support the sector needs to recover from the brutal effects of the pandemic. It needs to listen to the industry and be long-sighted about our recovery."
Roy Alexander Weise and Bryony Shanahan, co-artistic directors at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, described the news as "heartbreaking" in a joint statement.
Weise and Shanahan said: "They will leave a huge gap in our theatre ecology and an even bigger gap for their audiences, artists and communities.
"Our hearts go out to them and our fighting spirit stands with them. Because what we need to do now is stand up and say this should not be thought of as an inevitable consequence of this extraordinary situation.
"What we must all do now is fight: for our theatres, for the livelihood of the artists we make our work with and for our audiences."
They also urged the government to ensure the sector was supported until theatres reopen, adding: "The love and support we have received in the past few weeks has been humbling and uplifting. It is the fuel to the fire in our bellies.
"So, we will continue to shout from our rooftops, make and share our work, bring our communities together and stand alongside one another - because our world would be nothing without arts and culture and we are ready to fight for that."
Tom Morris, artistic director of Bristol Old Vic, described the news of Southampton Nuffield Theatres going into administration as "really chilling for anyone running a theatre".
He said: "Over the last five years, that theatre proved beyond doubt that it’s possible to have a really successful producing theatre in Southampton.
"If you were looking for a theatre to illustrate what is most valuable and important about having a network of independent producing theatres all the way across the country, Southampton is an extremely good example of that. It told local stories extremely successfully."
He added: "Every producing theatre is being kept alive by the job retention scheme and when that goes, on the assumption that we [still] won’t be able to sell tickets, every producing theatre will be looking at a very extreme financial situation, while at the same time having a huge amount to offer both to the economic and social recovery after this period of time is finished, and also to our communities now during the lockdown."
Chief executive at Nottingham Playhouse Stephanie Sirr said it was "very worrying and very, very sad news".
She added: "The implications of losing a producing theatre of this calibre are far-reaching. We are an arts ecology not a series of individual companies.
"The loss will be keenly felt by audiences, artists and co producers. The government needs to act swiftly and at an appropriate financial level because once lost these resources are almost impossible to resurrect."
Rufus Norris, director of the National Theatre, expressed hope that Nuffield Southampton Theatres would reopen in the future.
He told The Stage: “NST has always had an extraordinary commitment to working with their community, to nurturing emerging artists and creatives and to supporting and inspiring young people through its wonderful youth theatre and work with local schools.
“Just as lockdown began, NST was about to produce its 2020 Connections Festival, where 11 local schools and youth theatre companies would have had the opportunity to perform a new play on its stages. It wasn’t to be. We very much hope that it will rise again and we look forward to working with it when it does.”
Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, said he was "very saddened" to hear the news.
He added: "SOLT and UK Theatre remain totally committed to lobbying on behalf of the whole industry to ensure that the social, economic and cultural importance of the UK theatre industry is recognised and that the complex needs of the sector are clearly understood by government so that we are supported through this crisis."