As the industry ramps up its campaign to pressure the government for support to prevent the industry from collapse, Matthew Hemley, Georgia Snow and Giverny Masso round up leaders’ pleas
Producer Sonia Friedman, writing in the Telegraph, warned British theatre is on the brink of “total collapse”, with statistics showing 70% of performing arts companies will be out of business by the end of the year and more than 1,000 theatres are at risk of closure.
“All the performing arts are facing the possibility of complete obliteration. I know it sounds melodramatic. It beggars belief – but it is a statement of fact,” she said, adding: “We need our government to step up and step in. There is no time to waste.” Friedman highlighted the precarious situations faced by the likes of London theatres Shakespeare’s Globe, the Old Vic and the National Theatre.
“Unless there is intervention, we’ll watch the Royal Shakespeare Company close, the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells, even the National Theatre: all will be gone by December. We cannot let this happen,” she said.
The Royal Court artistic director told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Royal Court was facing financial ruin. Vicky Featherstone said: “Without income we are nothing. By Christmas, 70 years of investment will be wiped down the pan unless we get extra support.”
While acknowledging that other industries are in danger, she said theatre was “disproportionately affected because we can’t resume the business”. She added: “If we can get support to cover this bridge, we can come back flying. What we are asking for is a drop in the ocean to be part of the recovery of the nation,” highlighting measures – including extending the furloughing scheme – to survive.
Rebecca Kane Burton, chief executive of Lloyd Webber Theatres, has said the industry not only requires a financial package if it is to survive, but also needs assurances that the furlough scheme will be maintained while venues are closed, and more clarity over timelines.
Theatres will be forced to make “huge swathes of redundancies” if the job retention scheme ceases while they are still closed and financial support from government has not been confirmed, she said.
She told The Stage the pandemic had turned “a thriving, busy, growing industry” into having “zero revenue, overnight”.
“We’ve never needed this level of help, and therefore the engagement and understanding and the relationship with people in government is largely non-existent.
“We haven’t had to rely on government before – we don’t want an indefinite handout, we want to go back to being self-sufficient, but we can’t get there alone,” Kane Burton said.
There may be “too big a gap” for theatre to fill if the job retention scheme is curtailed and sector-specific support is not in place, she said
‘irreparable damage could be inflicted on Britain’s theatrical infrastructure’
The Society of London Theatre chief executive told Radio 4’s Front Row programme that venues have “zero income”. “We are at the vanguard of the troubles,” he warned, pointing to the £330 million losses that have already been incurred since theatres shut. “It’s a genuine crisis for our sector and we have seen organisations go to the wall,” he said.
He said social distancing for most theatres would not be an option, adding that most need to run at a capacity of “well north of 65%” to survive”.
Commenting on the situation faced by theatres up and down the country, he said: “They all operate on tight margins with very low levels of reserves. We call on the government as an industry to continue to work with us to put money into this world leading industry that is at risk of failing – and failing not through anyone’s fault but through this external event that has happened."
Royal and Derngate artistic director James Dacre wrote a piece in the Times claiming his venue is in “financial intensive care”.
“The maths is brutal: nearly 90% of our income is earned through ticket sales and bar revenue. All of this was wiped out overnight with the enforced closure on March 18,” he wrote. He also urged the government for support, writing: “We need an immediate cash injection to help us to survive lockdown, and estrategic mid-term support as the industry works out new business models. This could include a student loan-style payback scheme, increases to theatre tax relief, or VAT exemption for ticket revenue.”
Without such a package, “irreparable damage could be inflicted on Britain’s theatrical infrastructure”, he warned.
Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah said a world without the arts would be “soulless and a soulless nation is not something you want to be part of”. Speaking to Front Row Late he said he did not know how theatres would operate with social distancing in place.
“One of the beautiful things about artists is that we are determined to find a way,” he said, adding: “As things stand that is going to be really hard, not just in terms of the audience or the economic model, but in terms of backstage and rehearsal rooms and the requirements of some texts where people need to be close.”
Kwei-Armah said people would get “bored of seeing socially distance kissing quite quickly”.
“It’s going to be have to be something new, something created for this [time] and that is going to be the interesting thing – how we create for the world we are living in,” he said.
Prince Charles has added his voice to calls to save the arts, warning that organisations are facing a “desperate” situation and urging for ways to be found to protect their futures.
In an interview on Classic FM, the Prince of Wales said: “They are so utterly vital for this country and play such a huge part in cultural diplomacy. At the moment, of course, they’re completely silent and unable to operate and unable to work.”
He said he believed it “absolutely crucial that arts organisations can come back twice as enthusiastic as before”.
He added: “The Royal Opera House, of which I’ve been patron of the chorus and orchestra for 45 years, and loved going there more than anything since I was seven years old, is in terrible difficulties of course, because how are they going to be able to restart?
“We have to find a way to make sure these marvellous people and organisations can survive through it all.”
‘It’s not economically possible for us to even operate’
London’s National Theatre confirmed it was looking at having to make redundancies of up to 30% of its staff, because of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Executive director Lisa Burger told The Stage the theatre will have used all of its reserves by the end of the financial year.
She said the NT was facing “massive cuts” to production budgets and other areas of the organisation as a result. “Without an extension to the job retention scheme and additional grant support or loan support, we are in deep trouble,” she told The Stage.
Burger said the theatre was losing £5 million a month in net income and would have used all its reserves by the end of the financial year in March 2021.
“We have worked really hard to come up with a business model over years now that takes advantage of [our] different commercial forms of income and that is why we have been financially successful for a number of years. But the impact of Covid-19 is that we have been using all our reserves – and all of our reserves will be gone by March 31,” she said.
She said the NT was looking at the prospect of having to make cuts to production budgets and warned social distancing was not viable in theatres.
“What we do is bring people together in closed dark spaces and clearly it’s not safe to do that at the moment, so while medical advice says we need to socially distance we can’t operate. It’s not economically possible for us to even operate,” she said.
She told The Stage her biggest concern for the sector was the loss of “all the people who make the work in the very widest sense”, and what that would do to the pipeline of talent.
“It’s taken years to get to this place – of Britain being the world leader in theatre. It seems, at a stroke, because people won’t have the opportunity to work, that is all going to be lost,” she said.
Royal Shakespeare Company executive director Catherine Mallyon told The Stage 90% of RSC staff had been furloughed.
“We’re lucky that we have Arts Council England income, ongoing philanthropy and the job retention scheme, so we can hold this position for as long as the job retention scheme continues, but we’re also conscious that so many of our freelance artists and self-employed colleagues have a terrible lack of clarity about [their futures] and the future of our organisation depends on that as well,” she said, adding that if the government furlough scheme is not extended for the sector, the entire theatre industry will be “very much at threat”.
She said the industry needed emergency investment and rebuilding funds “in order to be able to open ahead of the box-office advances” and said the sector would need “some way of catalysing a commercial reopening with some sort of investment”.
Mallyon also called for clearer government guidance around mass gatherings and how theatres can reopen in the future. “The completely urgent task is to get money into the system to protect people and to protect the arts, but also it’s about the confidence of people coming back and the risk if that doesn’t happen. All the great work around diversity we do as an industry and the importance of arts education hangs on the success of our sector,” she said.
‘In order to get through this, we’re going to need every ounce of our ingenuity’
Playwright James Graham appeared on the BBC’s Question Time to make the argument for supporting the arts. While many parts of society will be reopening, theatre will be among the last to restart operations, Graham argued, adding that social distancing offers “no real, viable” solution to get audiences safely back into theatres. “They would have to be 20% full if you did the measures, and they need to be about 80% full in order to sustain themselves economically. So that’s just a problem, because the cultural sectors are so profitable. It’s not like the 1970s and we’re bailing out industries that are not profitable,” he said. Graham said a government support package should not be seen as a bailout “because it really is an investment”, and would support an industry that “can contribute substantially to the revitalising and the reopening of Britain”.
“The money we need to cover this shortfall until we open is almost instantly paid back in the annual tax revenue and the VAT. In London alone, tourists bring in £2 billion of cash every year specifically for London theatre,” he said.
According to chief executive Alex Beard, the Royal Opera House has lost three out of every five pounds of its income due to the Covid-19 crisis. He warned the company’s reserves will have run out by the end of the year, describing it as a “serious situation”.
He added: “In order to get through this, we’re going to need every ounce of our ingenuity, we’ll have to do whatever we can to reduce costs to make sure all of our sector gets through. We’ll also need the generosity and commitment of those close to us and we will also need government support.”
Beard called for an extension to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme as well as a fund to help theatres start producing again once they reopen.
“The overall picture for me is that this is a really serious situation,” Beard said.
“The Royal Opera House has been through two fires, two world wars, we’ve dealt with riots in the 1800s, but this is right up there and if not the most serious crisis we’ve had to navigate.”
He warned the timescale for decisions that will have long-term consequences is not even six months.