Government support for theatres needs to be secured as soon as possible or the industry could face many more redundancies and venue closures, Julian Bird has warned.
The Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre chief executive said the sector was “at the start of a very worrying time”, as major organisations prepare for job losses in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bird was speaking to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee as part of a parliamentary inquiry into the impact of the crisis on the arts, and argued that a government support package for theatres is more urgent than ever.
“The timing is clearly very acute,” Bird said, pointing to theatres such as Pitlochry Festival Theatre, the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh and Birmingham Hippodrome, which this week announced it may have to make nearly half of its permanent staff redundant if it is to survive.
“Unless there is a change in some of the government support, you will see more and more theatres like Birmingham Hippodrome having to make very difficult decisions around their workforce in order to try to preserve themselves,” he told MPs.
SOLT and UK Theatre have said they are in advanced discussions with government about financial support, including a relief fund for the sector, higher levels of theatre tax relief and a package to support the industry’s employed and freelance workforce.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has vowed not to “stand by and see our world-leading position in arts and culture destroyed”, claiming he is working on a deal with the Treasury.
Speaking to the committee, Bird also stressed the urgency of proposed timelines for reopening.
Theatres need to know whether they will be able to reopen for the Christmas period within the next eight weeks or risk losing out on the “lifeline” that festive revenues provide, he said.
Pantomimes and other family shows and musicals staged during December and January are vital sources of income for the theatre industry, with some venues making nearly half their revenues over the extended festive period, Bird said.
He said the decisions about whether to go ahead for the end of this year need to be made by early August, meaning potential government help and long-term guidance on social distancing must be clear by then.
“The sector needs understanding around the support that might be available to it, and we need that in a timely fashion because most theatres have to make a decision about their Christmas production by early August. It’s vital in terms of families, in terms of communities and it’s vital economically for each theatre,” Bird said.
He added: “To state the obvious, Christmas for theatres is absolutely essential. It’s a time when most theatres are at their maximum capacity. Pantomimes, Christmas musicals, Christmas shows – it is the lifeline for most theatres across the country.
“Annually, it’s the time when they can bring more audiences in and where they can make profit that they can use later in the year for other productions and all that community and education work.”
However, for theatres to benefit from this period, mandatory social distancing cannot be in place, Bird said.
Implementing a two-metre rule would mean venues could operate with a capacity of between only 12% and 25%, depending on the venue type. If this is reduced to one metre, capacity could increase to about 30 or 35%, but neither option is viable.
“Clearly that is not an economic or business model that any venue can operate on in any sort of timeframe,” he said.