It’s a week since we shut down the West End in the most shocking way, and the world has changed beyond all estimation. We are waking up to a nationwide lockdown. It feels like an extended and terrifying episode of Black Mirror. None of this feels real. But it is.
Our industry is coming to terms with a prolonged closure. That’s not in our nature. It is human nature to socialise, to come together, to commune – particularly in times of crisis. Some theatres stayed open throughout most of the Second World War, Broadway bounced back after 9/11. This time around, we had no option. Shutting our shows was the right thing to do. The only thing to do.
Our industry has done the unimaginable this month. My company alone shut down or suspended 11 shows worldwide over the course of just five days, with more to come. All other organisations have had to do the same. Hundreds of thousands of shows, big and small, have come down in no time at all. The inconceivable quickly became inevitable.
Of course, shows don’t just stop. They have to be shuttered safely. That took a herculean collective effort right across the board – from casts, stage management, crews and ushers to stage management teams overseeing depleted and confused companies. From venue staff welcoming anxious audiences to box-office workers issuing exchanges and refunds en masse.
And then there’s the producing and admin teams who are having to go through the unbelievably complex and emotional process of closing down or suspending their productions against a backdrop of huge uncertainty and lockdown. Everyone has played a part in something truly historic, and the professionalism and dedication on show has been utterly inspiring to watch.
We will need more. We know that many freelance and self-employed workers in the theatre will be in desperate need if further government measures are not put in place very soon to support them financially.
British theatre will bounce back from this, but it will take time and it will need support
British theatre is facing a challenge like never before. In the commercial sector, our margins are very tight even in the best of times and we survive by the box office; with our productions shut, we are not only in limbo but in crisis. None of us know how long these closures will last. As an industry, we’re working this out in real-time and we are, frankly, facing only the first of many, many challenges to come. We will rise to them, but to do so, we will need to work together.
British theatre will bounce back from this, but it will take time and it will need support. Ours is a resourceful and resilient art form, but just as shows don’t simply stop, they can’t simply start up again on the other side either. Our world has changed and it will not simply change back.
Because, for theatre, an extended closure is not just a pause or a period of hibernation. We won’t be in a position to pick up where we left off. Normal service won’t resume straight away. The nature of our business means we can’t store stock to sell next summer or fire up production lines once this is over. Shows will need re-rehearsing and companies reforming. Audiences will need encouraging back into theatres and advances will have to be rebuilt. Tourism will take a long time to recover. All this as investors are being hit by a global slowdown.
Theatre is not alone in facing challenges, but it is among this country’s greatest assets. The West End remains a major economic driver, contributing almost £800 million in revenue annually and generating more than £133 million in VAT alone. We are worth the support we will need to bring back in – not just from government, but from our audiences too, and from each other.
We will all have to work together – producers and theatre owners, artists and agents, backstage and front-of-house staff – with the single objective to get our beloved industry back on its feet as soon as possible.
In the wider social context, British theatre will have a huge part to play once this is all over. It will be a time to come together again, to celebrate our existence, to reflect, to entertain and escape. It will do its bit for a wider recovery.
We are in the business of bringing people together. That is the very reason we’ve had to shut our doors temporarily and, in due course, we will need and value that all the more. The world may have changed, but people have not.
Sonia Friedman is a producer behind West End and Broadway shows including Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Book of Mormon, Funny Girl and Dreamgirls. She has won The Stage Producer of the Year Award for three consecutive years (2015-17). In 2017, she was number one in The Stage 100, becoming only the second woman to hold the position alone