The last person to shut down our theatres for a prolonged period was Oliver Cromwell in 1642. That lockdown lasted for 18 years.
Almost 400 years later, our theatres have been closed for approaching three months, and the impact has been devastating. At least three regional theatres have gone into administration, and many more are on the brink. We urgently need a plan to save them.
A solution is not easy, but it is possible. To begin with, theatre is a distinct and discrete world. There are well over 1,000 theatres – commercial, subsidised and independent charities – so it is possible to target them effectively, and build a clear picture of what is needed.
Oliver Dowden, the new culture secretary, could not have imagined what he would be facing when he took the job just as the pandemic hit. I know that he urgently wants to do the right thing, and is working hard to find a solution. It’s important to the sector that he is seen to be engaging and listening as much as possible.
Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre have put together a set of carefully thought-through proposals, which the government must take seriously. They have done exactly the right thing – herded the cats and put forward clear asks that the government can engage with.
First and foremost, what is needed is money. The Arts Council has made urgent funding available, and the furlough scheme and Self-Employment Income Support Scheme have both helped. But with no revenue from ticket sales, my preference would be for straightforward cash grants to tide the theatre community over until the end of the year.
Enhancing Theatre Tax Relief should also be considered, so that when productions restart, much more of the cost can be offset. Alongside it, government loans to support investment in theatre should be considered.
Dowden also needs to engage in the practicalities of getting theatre going. Michael Grade, a member of the newly-convened cultural renewal taskforce, has highlighted concerns that the insurance industry is failing to pay out to theatres that have been forced to close. Dowden should get the industry around his Zoom table and knock heads together.
Dowden should get the industry around his Zoom table and knock heads together
If theatre survives this trauma, a new partnership must emerge. Government can do a lot, but theatre must help itself as well. In a socially distanced world, new and different venues may be needed for performances. There should be many more partnerships, between theatres and other cultural venues. Technology should be a first thought, not an add-on – theatrical performances could and should be shared more widely online, and data shared to ensure new audiences are engaged.
The past three months have been a tragedy to see. I’ve enjoyed many plays online, but it has also reinforced not only the sheer breadth and quality of British theatre, but also what we are sorely missing. Curtain up cannot come a minute too soon.