The theatre and arts sector is facing a bleak future and there have been many calls for emergency government funding.
This funding may or not be forthcoming, but, faced with an economic catastrophe so great that whole swathes of industry and retail could disappear, we have to recognise that government funding of the arts is never going to live up to the demands emanating from some quarters. We need to focus on what people working in the sector can do to help the situation.
In recent years, we have seen a number of productions that have sold out, sometimes months in advance, on the strength of a ‘name’ familiar from films or TV. If the actors who are in this fortunate position revived their productions for a month or two, they could guarantee full houses at any theatre – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in London.
People who succeed in the arts often explain their involvement in voluntary activities by saying they feel the need to give something back. Well, now is the time. One phone call from a ‘name’ could change the whole financial picture for a theatre that may be facing closure.
The survival of our theatres is now at stake as the continuing Covid-19 pandemic drains so much that we hold dear.
I read about the fundraising appeal by Malvern Theatres, something that must surely mark yet another grim milestone on a tragic journey that has already seen the closure of the Artrix at Bromsgrove and a number of other theatres in peril across the Midlands.
I fear there may yet be more bad news before this pandemic is through. We have to ask ourselves how much we value an industry that brings great wealth, both financially and spiritually, to the Midlands.
But, where are the people with the real money – the celebrity actors and musicians who made their breaks in provincial theatres?
Where are the ageing millionaire rock stars, who have banged on the tables and harangued politicians about their particular pet causes?
And where, too, are the big international players who have pocketed their fat fees in the provinces and then toddled off to whatever second, third, or fourth home is appropriate for the time of year?
Neglected by national newspaper editors, virtually ignored by the BBC, we are witnessing the slow, agonising death of the arts.
The great 18th-century writer Jonathan Swift memorably observed: “A wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart.” Noble words indeed… and ones to which some people should most certainly pay heed.
We would like to bring your attention to an open letter addressed to Maureen Beattie, president of Equity UK, and to Julian Bird, chief executive of UK Theatre. This has been published online as a petition and we are collecting signatures in support of our extreme disappointment with the Covid-19 Variation Agreement that was announced on June 1 (‘Touring contracts to include unpaid ‘weeks out’ and three-show days’, June 4, p2).
Theatre workers have already suffered great financial hardship. This pandemic has exposed how precarious our industry is and how little many of us have to fall back on in hard times. This being the case, it is deeply concerning that UK Theatre and Equity have agreed to balance the risks of a production between the workers and the managers. Managers who in the past have made huge profits and now want to pass the financial burden on to us.
Although union deputies and committees were consulted, the wider community was not balloted and we are being forced to accept this temporary agreement. We are opposed to theatre associations and trade unions being able to make amendments to negotiated agreements without members’ consent.
Nadia Javed and Sarah Thomas
For now, I work in the entertainment industry but the future is unknown. Our industry is floundering. We are all trying our best to stay afloat and help each other but we’re in unchartered waters and we are lost.
As this crisis goes on and we see more redundancies, the more people will realise there are other jobs with socially acceptable hours and better pay. Every day, I hear of someone retraining or planning to return to a previous job.
This situation is different to anything we have ever encountered and we are not sure how to adapt. There are discussions on streaming work, drive-in events, outdoor or promenade performances. There is a lot of talk, but little action. What we want to achieve is difficult, as the government guidelines are constantly changing or don’t exist. We don’t know when to plan for and when (if) we can produce again, we don’t know if anyone will want to come to theatre – if they fear being too close to strangers.
Income generation is going to be difficult as there will be smaller audiences and longer runs, with rehearsals taking longer. Stage builds will take longer as staff numbers will be reduced to allow for social distancing. There will be new health and safety guidelines, possibly new training and infrastructure. Budgets will be smaller and audiences will have less money, so we can’t put up ticket prices. If we do, we are in danger of becoming more elitist. So many variables bring so many questions – with no answers.
In this uncertain world we need help. The show must go on, but in a new, unknown, socially distant way.
In all the discussions about timings, fears and problems concerning the reopening of theatres, I have seen no mention of the challenges offered by air-conditioned auditoriums.
A study by biologist Erin Bromage, released in early May, included the example of a restaurant: “An infected person sat at a table and had dinner with nine friends. Dinner took about an hour to an hour and a half. During this meal, the asymptomatic carrier released low-levels of virus into the air from breathing. Airflow (from the restaurant’s various airflow vents) was from right to left. Approximately 50% of the people at the infected person’s table became sick over the next seven days. 75% of the people on the adjacent downwind table became infected.”
Given that most theatres have air-circulation systems, and most are fairly basic – without the sophisticated filtration systems that hospitals have – then, even with social distancing, the problem will not go away.
The cost of adding good-quality filtration should be lobbied for, and, once in place, advertised. It could give audiences confidence.
Michael Poynor, Ulster Theatre Company artistic director