We are just over a week into a crisis that will represent the biggest change to our day-to-day lives we have ever experienced.
What is going to happen? Nobody has all the answers yet, but for theatre, there will be three key phases to the coronavirus crisis. The first will be about immediate survival, the second will see people consider how theatre carries on creating art during the crisis, and the third will focus on rebuilding the sector when the world has returned to something approaching normal.
Most people are still in phase one. A few brave souls have started to think about phase two. Nobody has any idea about phase three yet.
Companies have been given significant support from the government to help them stay afloat – and continue paying employees. There may soon come a time when they can start thinking about phases two and possibly three. But if you are self-employed, as much of the theatre sector is, you are still in survival mode.
At the time of writing, the government has not announced anywhere near sufficient support for freelance workers. The government should extend its Coronavirus Job Protection Scheme (which offers to cover 80% of earnings of people who are unable to work) to the self-employed and use recent tax returns as a way of judging eligibility. This is what the unions want – it is a perfectly reasonable request presuming the technicalities of delivery can be ironed out.
For theatre, this would be transformational. It would allow more people to turn their focus to phases two and three, both of which will be crucial to ensure theatre survives and, we all hope, thrives in the future. It will also have a significant impact on any wider, sector-specific response to this crisis.
If the government does not implement some kind of safety net for the self-employed, then this responsibility is going to fall on, for example, the arts councils, the unions and the trade associations. This would mean they would have far less – maybe no – resources for phases two and three. Meanwhile, any extra government money allocated specifically to theatre would need to be spent on supporting its workforce, before anyone could think about using it to create and rebuild. And rebuilding is going to require a lot of money.
Research by Purple Seven and TRG Arts has shown that advance sales dropped 92% year-on-year after theatres closed last week. The estimates I have heard about the monthly impact on the funded sector are in the region of £80 million. Yes: £80 million losses every month. It will be significantly more than that once the commercial sector is taken into account.
The Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre’s decision to close theatres, despite no clear government directive, was absolutely the right call
Most arts organisations, including commercial ones, operate with very low reserves. With these kind of drops, it will only be a matter of time before we see insolvencies. Theatres will go dark permanently. And if that happens, there will be a significant knock-on effect on the workforce.
Last week, I ended my column by calling on the sector to pull together. Of course, there is more to be done, but theatre’s initial response has been impressive.
The Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre’s decision to close theatres, despite no clear government directive, was absolutely the right call – and was in stark contrast to pubs, which carried on trading until they were officially ordered to close.
Since then, SOLT / UK Theatre has spearheaded the sector’s response to the government. It also seems to be talking to a wider constituency than producers and theatre owners – for example, by hosting a meeting with suppliers to hear their concerns. This is crucial: we need the entire sector to come out of this crisis in one piece.
Others are also doing their bit. Spotlight has generously suspended its membership fees. Employers have offered West End performers interim payments on shows that have been affected by the closure. Meanwhile, artists around the country are doing to support each other financially.
The Stage would like to support organisations in our industry that are doing everything they can to support theatre workers and the rest of the sector.
We are already offering extensive rolling coverage of the coronavirus crisis in front of our paywall and we are creating a resource to collate all the support available to organisations and workers, which will also be free to access.
If your organisation is offering practical, financial or emotional support at this time, please let us know and we will do everything we can to amplify awareness of it.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith