Jermyn Street Theatre’s artistic director confronts the financial reality of the venue’s shutdown, sharing lessons in maths and ethics by crunching the numbers from its cancelled production of The Tempest
The Tempest is Shakespeare’s farewell to theatre, according to legend. It’s his last solo-authored play, and it certainly has an elegiac quality: Prospero, the ageing sorcerer, gives up his art, breaks his staff, drowns his book.
He’s leaving his island, full of noises, fantastical shapes and spirits, and returning to the day job in Milan – as if a metaphor for Shakespeare quitting showbiz and returning to the family business in Stratford. “These our actors,” says Prospero, “were all spirits, and are melted into air – into thin air.”
The Tempest is on my mind because it’s the last show I directed. We’d just launched it at Jermyn Street Theatre in London, where I’m artistic director, when the skies opened. On its sixth performance, we announced our closure. Smug meteorologists say we should have seen this storm coming. Coronavirus was wall-to-wall news for weeks; the World Health Organisation predicted the pandemic last year. But we don’t think history will happen to us. We have stuff in the diary.
On Friday, March 13, I gave a press-night speech repeating the government’s assurance that there was no reason to avoid theatres. Three days later, and two hours after the prime minister ‘advised’ theatres to shut their doors, I was back on stage to announce our closure to 16 undaunted ticket-holders.
For anyone home-schooling, here are some practical case studies in maths and ethics. Right now, I don’t read plays; I don’t give notes on set designs, watch read-throughs, hire directors, lead casting, or even proofread brochures: from morning to night, I write budgets, and I think about ethics.
Maths: The Tempest’s costs – actors, stage management, design, marketing, core expenses – total £85,000. Jermyn Street Theatre has 70 seats; tickets are £15 to £31, so if we sell every seat for four weeks we might make £40,000. The Tempest sells out before it opens, but as tickets don’t cover costs, we find almost £20,000 of subsidy. That still doesn’t cover it, so we tour: The Tempest was heading for two major regional theatres. We end up with £85,000. We’ve broken even: congratulations to us.
Ethics: We’re closing after six performances of a four-week run. Nine actors and stage management are contracted under the Equity Fringe Agreement on a modest wage. We could wriggle out of it. The maths say we should lay off our freelances unpaid. But these wages pay people’s rents, mortgages, childcare and groceries. You can have theatre without fancy lights, big sets, and – embarrassingly easily – without directors, but not without actors. So we pay our freelances to the end of the run.
Maths: We keep the subsidy. We keep £5,000 of box office for the first six shows. For an exhilarating half-hour we think we might be insured, but of course we’re not. Nobody’s insured. We lose the touring money and the rest of the box office. We save a bit through not touring. We do some maths, close the laptop, do it again. We turn the spreadsheet upside down and self-isolate it in the garden. We look again. If we exclude our core costs, we’ve lost £44,000. If we count them, we’ve lost £60,000.
‘Our running costs are only £15,000 a month. But we have less than £80,000 in the bank’
Ethics: People deserve refunds. Everyone is hard up. Is it okay to ask people to donate their tickets?
Maths: We just lost £60,000. That’s almost 10% of our turnover in a single day. Please donate your tickets.
Ethics (and maths): We pay a self-employed core team of six, including me; plus dozens of casuals including all our front of house, bar, and technical staff; and more than 100 freelance artists a year. We are tiny. This crisis has exposed our collective precarity: millions of people spend every day a single step from financial ruin.
Maths: Our running costs – rent, rates, bills, staff, insurance, accountancy, IT, maintenance – are only £15,000 a month. But we have less than £80,000 in the bank, most of which is ticket credits, and we just lost 95% of our income overnight. Every month our doors are closed, we’re sailing closer to bankruptcy.
Ethics: People are dying; the NHS is under strain. Why worry about theatre? Because it’s what we do best; because it heals and nourishes people; because now we need it more than ever.
Little theatres like ours are adrift like a flotilla of leaky rowing boats – as Prospero describes his getaway craft, “a rotten carcass of a boat… the very rats instinctively had quit it”. We don’t have financial advisers, fancy lawyers, or billionaire supporters. We’re invisible to government. We don’t know anyone at Arts Council England (though that organisation has established an emergency fund).
Our post is inexplicably in a sorting office in Wandsworth. We’re desperate for rent relief, but so is every shop, restaurant and bar. We might be due a government grant, but we can’t get through on the phone. These are uncharted waters. How many boats will sink? We don’t know.
Only one thing stops this ocean being terrifying. Unlike Prospero and the infant Miranda on their escape from Milan, we’re not alone. Like unskilled skippers with crackly walkie-talkies, artistic and executive directors spend our daily government-sanctioned walks on the phone: have you heard about this fund? Are you furloughing? What pay cut are you taking? How long before you run out of money?
Days begin with coffee-drinking staff meetings on Zoom, and continue in a blur of WhatsApp, Skype and emails in between the endless budgets. Ironically, theatre’s community has never been more apparent or important.
We must do three things: comfort and entertain isolated audiences; bring together our freelance families; and gather the staff and funds to reopen.
‘Only one thing stops this ocean being terrifying. Unlike Prospero and Miranda, we’re not alone’
At Jermyn Street Theatre we announced the Brave New World Season soon after our doors closed. So far, we have a daily sonnet, an evening cabaret, and a ‘four castaway plays’ game that has taken over theatre Twitter like Japanese knotweed. More work is in the pipeline, including quizzes, showcases, podcasts, audio drama, and streamed productions. Our audience has responded with huge generosity of heart and chequebook.
Theatres have closed before. Sometimes they reopen stronger. The 1660 Restoration heralded a new wave of dramatists and the first professional actresses. We cannot know how long our difficult boat trip will last, or where we’ll land. We can keep working on our maths and ethics lessons: stay afloat and look after each other. There’s just a chance that if we can make it to shore, we’ll have learned something.
The notion of Shakespeare saying goodbye to theatre in The Tempest sounds like nonsense to me. He wasn’t planning to die. After his ‘last play’, he kept working as a producer, co-author and script polisher. The Tempest isn’t just the last production I directed – it’s also the next. When we reopen, Prospero will pick up his staff, retrieve his book, and get back on stage. Our revels are not ended – just suspended.
• Too many aquatic metaphors have tempted fate. I wrote this article little guessing that after the plague would come the flood – caused by a burst pipe in a nearby building. On the evening of April 8, the fire brigade pumped out 4ft of water from our theatre basement, which includes our workshop, dressing rooms, office, archives, furniture and prop store, costumes, tools and technical equipment. Our heroic founder and executive director Penny Horner was there late into the night. We think the damage will be very severe. Please keep us in your thoughts.
Tom Littler is artistic director and executive producer of Jermyn Street Theatre