Theatres and industry bodies have outlined the “colossal” damage facing the sector – with the strongest warnings yet of widespread venue closures and the huge financial ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic – in the first tranche of responses to a government inquiry.
The submissions outline the severity of the situation facing theatre and the performing arts, with respondents including Shakespeare’s Globe, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society and Really Useful Group warning of “catastrophic” consequences for the theatre industry well into 2021.
They warn of job losses, venue closures, a decline in audiences for theatres when they are able to reopen, the near impossibility of operating with social distancing in place, and the potential of years of recovery for the sector. They also highlight the dramatic number of people in the sector who have been furloughed, with some companies putting up to 90% of staff on the scheme.
The government comes in for heavy criticism in the responses, for failing to order theatres to close on March 16 and opting instead to issue general advice that they shut.
Responses to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on the sector reveal:
In a joint submission from industry bodies SOLT, UK Theatre, the Federation of Scottish Theatres, Creu Cymru and Theatre and Dance Northern Ireland, the organisations warn the impact of theatres closing has “been immediate and devastating”, adding “the medium and long-term consequences are threats to economic, social and cultural well-being in communities all over the country”.
The organisations also warn that “we do not yet know how audiences will respond” when theatres can reopen, and state “early indications are that people in the UK are feeling particularly anxious about public assembly, particularly indoors”.
“Theatres will need to change the way they operate to respond... Older audiences are a particular concern: indications that older people may be asked to continue to self-isolate beyond the lifting of lockdown means those theatres and companies who have strong older audiences will be affected for longer,” their response states.
The joint submission from the national bodies also warns that social distancing measures will “reduce available seating such that auditoriums will only have between 15% and 30% of seats available to sell, depending on the building”.
“It is highly likely that theatres will be operating below usual capacity for many months after reopening. It is therefore vital that clear information on timelines for lockdown and social distancing are shared as quickly as possible. There is a clear capacity below which it will be uneconomic for theatre buildings to open without additional funding,” they warn.
The industry bodies also claim the UK touring sector is likely to “be decimated for some time as producers cannot take the financial risk”.
Echoing a number of responses, the trade bodies’ joint submission is critical of the way the government implemented the closure of theatres in March and argues that the “government should have mandated theatres to close earlier than they did, rather than just suggest they do”.
“A greater degree of advance notice to industry bodies (even 24 hours, as was the case with retail businesses) would have been helpful in avoiding the panic and uncertainty,” they state, adding: “The government must learn the lessons from this as it announces reopening plans in that clear communication needs to be in place, that is understood by theatres and the public.”
In its submission to the inquiry, which is accepting responses until June 19, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group urges the government to look to South Korea as a way to successfully reopen theatres.
“It is believed lessons can be learned from the management strategies that have been employed in other territories, such as the strategy of increased testing coupled with track and trace which has been employed successfully in South Korea and enabled its theatres and venues to largely remain open throughout the duration of the epidemic,” it states.
“As the producer of The Phantom of the Opera in Seoul, RUG has a unique insight into the effectiveness of the measures taken in South Korea,” it adds, claiming the government needs to “to provide a clear set of safety guidelines and procedures to enable a consistent approach throughout the industry”.