The theatres have shut. It last happened on this scale at the outbreak of the Second World War. And before then? Not for centuries. Nothing like it has happened in many of our lifetimes, so how do we respond to a global crisis that brings our industry to a halt?
For me and Kris Bryce, Pitlochry’s executive director, the first 10 days unfolded in the most challenging and devastating way. Like everyone, it demanded inner reserves only ever used for survival and we had to rely on each other like never before.
Even before closure, we could see how the pandemic was developing and had begun adapting our critical response plans. Yet nothing could have prepared us for the speed that things changed – and that the speed of change would not match the speed of support offered by government. This disparity of information caused the biggest challenge.
Since we closed our doors, we have endlessly scenario-planned, led emergency board meetings, company meetings, conversations with insurers, legal and HR advisers, other colleagues, our local council and other funders, the bank and, of course, anyone who might be able to give us money. I love a cash-flow forecast, but I never imagined it would become the theatre’s only production.
We really felt the first blow from this crisis when the prime minister advised people not to go to the theatre. We were forced to close our show Barefoot in the Park after only five performances. Due to it being advice, rather than demanding we close, we had no access to insurance. Our income stopped.
Without action, we were headed towards bankruptcy. Immediately, we had to start asking our audiences for more support than ever while laying people off to keep the theatre alive. It was horrendous. In three days, we laid off more than 60 people – from the box office, marketing, finance, our theatre bar, cafe, front of house and production.
This was before the government had announced the Job Retention Scheme. We worked out how to bring forward all annual leave and then we held our breath. Kris and I desperately hoped this would see us, and them, through to a government plan. We continued to furiously and aggressively fundraise.
We held it together. And we held the theatre together. And on March 20, when the government’s announcement finally came, we had a big cry. Kris and I knew we could, at the very least, offer people 80% of their wage for a time. This was going to save people’s homes, families and, in essence, their lives.
At this time, we were still making our summer season with a skeleton staff. Unlike some other organisations, there is no way we could abandon producing. PFT must make 85% of its income, a significantly higher sum than other theatres in Scotland, many of which receive greater amounts of subsidy. If we stop making work during this closure, when we can all finally reopen, PFT will have even less chance of survival. And, as the largest employer in Highland Perthshire, it is our moral duty.
So, on Monday we started rehearsals for our 2020 summer season. We had already moved these rehearsals to Skype, Zoom and FaceTime. However, Boris Johnson’s announcement on the Sunday evening changed everything again. As rehearsals unfolded, Kris and I worked all day to put the theatre to sleep. This is how I am referring to furloughing.
From 3pm we began speaking to our actors, creatives, freelances and our remaining staff, to let them know. We furloughed 95% of the staff team. This was the hardest and, yet, the most inevitable decision we faced. We have spent the past three days working out how to pay creatives and freelances as much as possible, and how to offer actors alternative contracts with guarantees of future equivalent work.
This brings me to the question of how to respond to a global crisis that brings the industry to a shuddering halt?
PFT’s purpose is to bring people together, like all theatres, to create empathy in audiences – to help them make sense of the world around them through drama. We are here to entertain, inspire, delight and excite people. So, what do we do now? Well, we have to re-imagine how we connect with people, especially in these times of uncertainty, loneliness and isolation. This is when they need us most.
Last week we launched a new PFT online series called #PFTLightHopeJoy. Every day we will share at least two pieces of art and entertainment online. We will continue to engage, entertain, inspire and comfort people.
This will include performances of poems, short stories, plays and songs, and, later in the series, new writing, all performed by members of our ensemble, who are creating this with us from their homes across the UK. We will also produce children’s arts and crafts activities and demonstrations so everyone can learn new skills while we spend more time at home.
We will create 750 pieces of content for #PFTHopeLightJoy. It’ll be a 12-month programme and more than 20 other theatre partners have already confirmed they want to join us. This will support them to engage their communities too.
We have also launched Telephone Club. We don’t want people to be lonely. From last week, if people are home alone and they want to talk to someone, Pitlochry Festival Theatre will call them. Spread the word. They call 01796 484623 to register.
Finally, just last week, BBC Arts and BBC Radio 3 confirmed they will co-produce one of our 2020 summer season plays: Adventures with the Painted People by David Greig.
We are still going. Right now, Kris and I can’t do anything other than continue to work night and day to make sure Pitlochry Festival Theatre survives. And we have worked out ways to create moments of art. Almost like dreams for the audience.
I believe this is the time to dream. Surely, we must dream together while our theatres sleep and we will be ready for a new dawn when it arrives.
Elizabeth Newman is artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre in Scotland