We’ve all seen the shocking and slightly sick-making news of how our theatre buildings are in a perilous, precarious position. I am pleased we’ve finally gone public with that news, so that we can share with the rest of the world how important it is to get behind our industry so it can survive.
But within our theatre world, there’s another conversation happening: about the distance between theatre buildings and freelancers. I’ve heard many different voices chiming in about how freelancers are being ignored and should be brought in to help sort things out.
For what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve observed from the regular meetings I’ve had with the artistic director and executive directors running those buildings: they aren’t actively ignoring freelancers. How freelancers (including actors, writers, directors, designers, choreographers, crew and production staff) are coping, and how they can engage with and support them comes up in every conversation I’ve been in.
The truth is: freelancers aren’t being brought in because those buildings, as the news has revealed, are in emergency mode. Most buildings are on the edge of falling over the financial cliff in months – in some cases, weeks. The tragedy of the Nuffield is not an anomaly.
Even if they wanted to, most can’t bring freelancers in because they can’t pay them. The pot is empty. Bricks and mortar don’t pay bills. The venues that can, in any small way, are finding ways to do so. Let’s not forget too that many of the buildings are run by artists – the job title ‘artistic director’ is called that for a reason – but one thing is for sure: whether the buildings are run by them or by artist collectives, you’d be facing the same storm.
As the lockdown continues and opening by Christmas looks extremely unlikely, the situation gets worse. How they will find the cash to keep the leases, rent, bills and debts paid without precious box office income is beyond me. It’s fire-fighting: health and safety, HR, endless re-forecasting of budgets, pleas to government and Arts Council officers for help.
Only so many people can help at this stage. There’s no time, yet, to think about remodelling. Theatre has basically worked on the same model for more than 400 years, and there are too many immediate concerns. It might feel like forever, but we’re only eight weeks into this storm.
In most scenarios, a building’s Arts Council funding covers only about 30% of what it costs to run the place. Some a little more, some less. Without box office income, they’re caught very short. Trusts and foundations are reprioritising, individual donors are buckling up for the recession. What is the way out?
It is horrendous that freelancers have suffered at the hands of this pandemic and, worse, see others being furloughed when all their work has been cancelled entirely. If it’s any consolation, my observation is that the furloughed people are gutted to be so. But the extended furlough may well not solve the problem, and redundancies are still likely to happen.
That aside, I’m not going to defend the giant imbalance and insecurity freelancers face every day, but please, let’s not blame the building staff. Much of what they do is down to the sizeable amount of admin demanded of publicly funded organisations by the arts councils and governments that fund them. They have to be held to account after all.
My plea is to not make this a ‘them and us’ situation. We’re on a lot of boats on the same sea and it’s awful. When a building does something silly, give them a kick, but right now we need that infrastructure to exist because without it a massive portion of our industry will sink. They produce so much of our output.
Maybe there are better ways. Of course there are – the business models we work to have been on a shoogly peg for a while now. Freelancers deserve more security. But from what I see and hear, the buildings really do care.
When emergency measures are lessened and we’re allowed to get back in a real room together, freelancers will be celebrated again as they should be. But there’s a long road ahead. Let’s stand together to make sure that we’re all a part of it.
Artistic director and chief executive, Stellar Quines
I hope that, in this centenary year of his death, some attention has been paid to his grave in Highgate Cemetery. When I visited some time ago, it was in a poor, neglected state, and I hope the Frank Matcham Society has been able to restore it as a fitting memorial to this great designer and innovator of wonderful theatre buildings.
Erica Whyman’s article is a cogently argued and passionately expressed defence of theatre and all who contribute to the industry. It deserves a wider audience than those of us who are obviously in sympathy with the views expressed. Erica’s is the voice we need to tell truth to power.
Like thousands of other theatregoers, I am desperate to continue my life-long love affair with theatre.
Watching shows on a 14in PC monitor can never compensate for the thrill and buzz of an audience, the hush as the lights go down, the curtain going up.
Yes, I’ll go again, but for a while I’ll be as nervous as everyone else. Don’t we owe the actors and companies all across the country who have entertained me over the past 60 years? Shouldn’t we at least try? Oh, how I miss it!
Well they didn’t ask me. If the theatre is not supported we will lose it forever. Let common sense prevail. I’ve had tickets cancelled but am willing to take a risk, get on a train and have a fantastic night out.
We have missed three productions and another two coming up have been cancelled. I’m afraid I fall into the ‘worried about returning’ category. I’m concerned about the future of the arts.
I’ve had 10 performances cancelled in two planned trips. I miss sitting there live in the auditorium. But with breathing problems from an allergy, I have to be extra careful. I’ve donated what I can and hope my favourite theatres survive until a vaccine makes it safe for me to visit.