In football, there’s a memorable phrase to describe the final, tense, decisive moments of a season: ‘squeaky bum time’.
Whatever you want to call it, this is where theatre finds itself.
These will be a defining few weeks in the history of theatre. If there is a chance for the sector to reopen in any meaningful way this year, the government needs to take urgent action in the next fortnight, at most the next month. Otherwise, more theatres will be forced to follow the example set by the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh and mothball themselves to protect the last, precious funds they have left, so that there is some hope of reopening in 2021.
If this becomes widespread, it will be a disaster. Theatres will miss out on the Christmas period, which – especially outside London – is absolutely crucial.
Whatever happens, the sector is going to be reduced by this crisis but if closure is extended into 2021, what is left could be truly skeletal.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people will have been left without work for more than a year. There is a very real danger of a talent drain to other industries or widespread unemployment. Probably both.
There are very few people who can afford to ride this crisis out
What should government do? Well, its focus must be on the workforce. There are plenty of other things that need working out, but the government could buy itself and the sector a little more time by doing two things very quickly: extend a sector-specific Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme until theatres are able to reopen and put in place equivalent support for the self-employed workers who make up 70% of its workforce.
I began with a football analogy because we need to make our argument in a way that politicians understand; and they seem to have been much faster to understand football’s urgent need to get back up and running than theatre’s, despite the oft-quoted stat that more people watch live theatre every year than visit a top-tier football match.
Theatre is like football in many ways. Both are rooted in their local communities, both are big drivers of tourism and key to Britain’s global image, both can have a hugely positive impact on the general public’s mood and well-being.
But there is one way in which theatre is strikingly different: the precarious nature of our workforce.
Theatre can be a hand-to-mouth existence even for those in more privileged positions in the sector. There are very few people who can afford to ride this crisis out: you can probably count them on the fingers of one hand.
There is insufficient money within the sector itself to see it through an extended lockdown. Government help is desperately required now to make sure it’s not the final whistle.