A shiver ran through the industry on Wednesday afternoon with the news that the Nuffield Southampton Theatres, a national portfolio organisation, in receipt of almost £1 million a year, had gone into administration.
It came the day after Arts Council England warned it did not “have the resources to secure the income of individuals or the future of shuttered organisations through an extended lockdown, nor the ability to support the costs of reopening under changed circumstances”.
The crisis in Southampton demonstrates that ACE is not being over dramatic, and that even if theatres were able to reopen next week (which they will not) the industry is going to need long-term government support.
I caught my first glimpse of Robert Icke’s potential as a director at the Nuffield Theatre
This means not only will it be necessary for the furloughing of theatre staff to continue potentially much longer than in other industries, but that theatre will require considerable investment to revive, thrive and nurture the talent that pays back to the country in so many ways, and not just in terms of the Treasury’s VAT receipts.
Several industry leaders have talked to me about the current situation being a bit like a phoney war. There will almost certainly be further casualties during this period of closure, but the real danger point is probably several months or more down the line. There will be no business as usual as soon as theatres reopen. Government investment is crucial.
Like some other theatres across the country, the Nuffield was already in a fragile financial position with its most recent accounts indicating it had made a £500,000 loss. Its expansion into a second theatre and the costs of establishing a new twin venue in the city centre may have added to its difficulties.
Nobody in their worst nightmares ever imagined this situation
But without the sudden catastrophic loss of income brought about by lockdown it might have been able to find a way through and secure its future for the people of Southampton and its essential place in the wider theatre ecology.
This development reminds us of the precariousness of many theatres (even those with reserves). Not for want of good housekeeping, but because of standstill funding – which has brought about a reduction in real terms – and the earned income drying up overnight in the pandemic. Nobody in their worst nightmares ever imagined this situation. Across the ‘Big 13’ major regional houses, the proportion of earned income stands at around an average of 77%.
Nuffield going into administration will not itself set off a domino effect, but it will cause immense distress, most immediately for those who may lose their jobs and future opportunities; unless a buyer is found and its future secured, this will have an impact in many other ways.
Co-production has already been the name of the game in British theatre and that is more likely to be the case in a straitened post-coronavirus world. At a time when touring on all scales is under so much pressure, the model threatens to break, Nuffield Southampton Theatres has always been a welcoming and brave venue for touring companies including groundbreakers such as Headlong. I caught my first glimpse of Robert Icke’s potential as a director at the Nuffield Theatre on the university campus. It will leave a big hole.
On Wednesday afternoon the grief of the profession was loud and the shock palpable. Because the truth is that everyone knows that while Nuffield Southampton Theatres is sadly the first major casualty of the pandemic, it is unlikely to be the last.