In the past week, the headlines have become increasingly worrying as theatres and arts organisations, large and small, have reported the perilous financial position in which they find themselves.
Leading industry figures have also called on the government for a bailout, together with extensions to its furloughing scheme, that are both urgently needed. Without them, the industry will suffer.
Within any extension of the furloughing scheme, however, there are conditions that need to be examined by the government if it’s to help get the industry back on its feet quickly after restrictions are lifted.
The scheme carries the condition that employees are not allowed to undertake work for their employer while they are on furlough. In principle this makes sense, and viable if you look at its application within many industries. However, in theatre, team members’ roles are often multiple and closely interconnected across a company or building.
It has become increasingly difficult for some companies and producers, who had been scheduled to present performances later in the year, to get updates and information about what’s happening.
Many organisations’ email responses are no more than an ‘out of office’ after they have furloughed staff, and often alternate contacts are not provided or the message notes that it will not be responded to. Trying to get information and a response can add further to the anxiety to the whole situation.
It is not the fault of the theatres or arts organisations; they are trying their best with reduced staff and multiple daily issues to deal with. Many remaining staff members are valiantly picking up on matters from furloughed colleagues but sometimes with only limited information.
These theatres and organisations must also follow the government’s legal instructions in relation to the furloughing scheme, because any breach of these conditions could be disastrous for employer and employee alike.
In the arts industries, you cannot instantly flip the switch and be back in business
However, it raises concerns that when the furlough scheme is lifted and reopening dates set, there will be much less time to get things on track than should have otherwise been afforded for staff. This includes reconfiguring auditoriums to be made fit for purpose and theatres getting their marketing and associated campaigns up and running.
When theatres can reopen, time and care will be needed to get it right. In the arts industries – unlike some others – you cannot instantly flip the switch and be back in business.
Aside from the processes required to restore audience confidence so they return to theatres in the numbers needed to make the economics viable, to get the show on the road again all aspects of production and delivery must come together swiftly.
No theatre is any use if there’s nothing to put on its stage. However, it is the hard work of those across all departments coming together, from backstage to front of house, that makes a production and a theatre succeed; through their relationships with audiences, companies, artists, producers and suppliers.
Many of these frontline and grassroots industry workers are the ones to have been furloughed and on whom theatres or arts organisations depend for their smooth delivery.
Theatre is one of the most collaborative industries. So the government must be implored to look at the specifics of our industry and reconsider moving to a model that allows some conditional flexibility for furloughed staff.
For instance, those on furlough could still contribute to the theatre reopening or its first productions after lockdown, as well as contribute to longer-term planning. That also hinges on a bailout to ensure that theatres, artists, producers and companies can continue to make work for theatres open to present it.