Festive productions support theatres throughout the rest of the year, provide employment to tens of thousands and develop the audiences and workforce of the future, says The Stage editor Alistair Smith
Three government announcements in the past two weeks should have left the theatre industry feeling optimistic: a £1.57 billion funding package for the culture sector, the return of open-air theatre and the planned return of indoor theatre in August with social distancing.
In public, theatre leaders have tried to sound upbeat, conscious they don’t want to appear ungrateful for a generous funding package when many industries are struggling. But, in private, the tone is despondent. I would say they are as pessimistic as I have heard them during this whole crisis. Why?
In a word: pantomime. Already, 26 pantos have been cancelled across the UK. The fear is that unless the government is able to give further guidance on when theatres can fully reopen within the next fortnight, all the others will follow suit. For reasons laid bare in this week’s Long Read, this would be devastating for the whole UK theatre sector.
The Christmas season’s importance to the UK theatre ecology cannot be overstated. It supports theatres financially throughout the rest of the year, provides employment to tens of thousands of performers and backstage staff and develops both the audiences and workforce of the future. Taken as a whole, the loss of the Christmas season has the potential to outweigh the positive effects of any support from the government’s emergency funding. Without it, the heart will have been ripped out of British theatre.
Without a Christmas season, we will be looking at a prolonged period of closure, and the £1.57bn will be used up long before theatres are able to reopen fully
Theatre leaders’ very real fear is that, without a Christmas season, we will be looking at a prolonged period of closure, potentially well into 2021, and that the £1.57 billion will be used up long before theatres are able to reopen fully. In the meantime, there will be some activity, but we should not kid ourselves about the scale of what we are talking about. Notice of the ability for open-air venues to resume performances has come late, part-way through the summer. It’s great that Educating Rita will perform at the Minack in Cornwall, but this is an outlier. Most operators of scale have not been able to mobilise in time.
A handful of productions, such as The Mousetrap, will be able to reopen under the extremely strict (some would say inconsistent and nonsensical) restrictions proposed by the government under Stage 4. But, again, these will be outliers and they will not be able to run sustainably like this for very long.
Meanwhile, the freelancers who make up 70% of the theatre workforce are facing a cliff edge at the end of August – assuming they have been able to access any government support so far. Many of them haven’t.
There is still a very long way to go and I fear the worst of it is still ahead of us. As Andrew Lloyd Webber (who is valiantly trying to develop Covid-safe procedures at the London Palladium) observed this week, what we really need urgently – certainly before August 3 – is clarity on when theatres can reopen fully.
Without it, British theatre’s future looks grim.