Culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s confirmation that the government will give no further indication of when theatres can fully reopen until November is, and I don’t say this lightly, a disaster for the sector.
It means that – unless there is a significant change of heart from the government – Christmas will essentially be cancelled at most theatres of scale across the UK. Any optimism created by the announcement of a £1.57 billion emergency package has now evaporated.
Because the government is giving no more advice than ‘we’ll give you an update in November’, it will be impossible for anyone to plan a show of any scale or budget for this Christmas. Yes, some theatres will bravely and creatively attempt to stage some kind of Christmas show, but it will not be anything like what audiences are used to – they just won’t have the resources or the forward planning necessary.
Already, many theatres have had to take the decision to shutter until 2021 and make significant redundancies; Dowden’s statement on the Today programme this morning will, I suspect, push many more to make the same decision.
It will result in many more redundancies and more theatre closures. It will also significantly lengthen the amount of time that it takes British theatre to emerge from this crisis and it will drastically decrease the size of the sector that comes out on the other side.
Speaking to a producer who works across the UK a few weeks ago, we discussed how much UK theatre would shrink as a result of the current crisis. We agreed that – with the announced government support and pantomimes reopening this Christmas – we’d be looking at about 70%-75% of what was there before coronavirus. Without pantos?, I asked. Fifty percent?
“At best,” was their reply. “I fear it will be much worse than that.”
The biggest losses are likely to be felt outside London. The loss of revenue from pantomime season will be catastrophic for many venues who rely on the income to see them through the rest of the year. If they manage to reopen, the recovery will be slow, long and painful.
Meanwhile, we are going to see rocketing unemployment within an industry that – unlike most others – the government is preventing from operating and yet providing no special measures to protect its workforce. Yes, there is emergency funding for the culture sector, but the government has made it very clear this is for institutions, ‘crown jewels’, and the guidelines essentially encourage organisations to minimise risk and mothball. The workforce will have to go whistle from the end of October, many of them from the end of August.
Without something more from the government, theatre is faced with a decimated sector emerging from the ashes of a lost Christmas
The emergency funding may prevent theatres from going bust and mean they are able to employ people in the long term, but in the short term there will be a huge freelance workforce that continues to have minimal or no financial support, and a growing number of previously employed workers who have found their roles made redundant as theatres shutter.
I have heard talk of legal challenges to the government’s position. I would be surprised if this materialised, but certainly its approach appears deeply contradictory at a time when people are able to travel by plane without observing social distancing.
Its insistence that it is unable to give any forward-looking guidance of its intentions is also contradicted by a number of previous announcements - not least that theatres will be allowed to welcome socially distanced audiences from the beginning of August and its plan to allow fans back into sports stadiums from October, subject to a series of test events.
Why could it not - for example - say that it intends to allow theatres to reopen fully in late November, subject to a series of clear criteria being met, and it will confirm whether these criteria have been met in early November?
As Andrew Lloyd Webber said at the London Palladium last week: “Of course, we all understand that if there is another spike in the virus... we absolutely know we can’t reopen, but we need a target date when we can reopen without social distancing.”
Of course, there will be some activity in the coming months – at a small scale and employing relatively few people. But, without something more from the government, theatre is faced with the sobering reality of remaining essentially dark until late spring of 2021 at the earliest and a decimated sector emerging from the ashes of a lost Christmas.
If that is the reality, than we must fully turn now to convincing the government to protect our workforce – especially freelancers – who, as things stand, risk being left hung out to dry.