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Culture in crisis: the impact of the pandemic on theatres

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on countries around the world. A huge number of services and businesses are struggling: the NHS, airlines, retail and charities to name a few. With the economy under pressure, there have been calls for government action regarding many sectors, including the performing arts industry.

The priority of course has been, and should be, the health service. But as some semblance of normality begins to return, it becomes ever more noticeable that the doors of theatres remain closed until August, with massive financial implications.

The future of theatre seems bleak, as most establishments depend on their box office takings, which have been non-existent. The director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, says that only 15% of income comes from subsidies, and the remaining 85% from ticket sales. The predicament theatres have faced is how they can sustain themselves until the start of August, when the prime minister has announced they can reopen with social distancing.

Theatres shut without warning in March, and since then have remained empty. The possibility of reopening is now imminent, but this will come as too late for some. Already, Nuffield Southampton Theatres have announced their closure, there are possible redundancies at Manchester’s Royal Exchange and 400 job losses by the end of August at the National Theatre.

The Society of London Theatre & UK Theatre estimated losses for the sector at £630 million by mid-June, and by now, this will have only increased. Many theatres have asked for the ticket money from cancelled performances as a donation to maintain themselves whilst they are in dire need of aid.

We cannot let the theatres die during this time. They are a place for entertainment and a tourist attraction, and theatre is central to UK culture. They may seem less important in the midst of a pandemic, but if the theatres shut their doors forever, there will be vast implications that will affect the UK as a whole, with the risk of thousands of people being made redundant and of a serious blow to the economy. Not only that, it is also a forum for debate and challenging perspectives. Dan Romano, a current drama student at Manchester Met, reflects on the importance of theatre: “Theatre is an incredibly powerful art form and tool that we can use to influence culture, actually affect people and instigate change in the world around us. It’s something that is necessary not just as a form of entertainment or escapism, but as a platform for real change. So we can’t lose it.” 

So what is the government doing for the arts industry? On the 25th June, Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Culture, announced a “five-step roadmap” for the return of live theatre and music. The first two phases are already allowed. These are physically distanced rehearsal and training with no audience and physically distanced performances for recording and broadcasting purposes, such as the play Lungs with Claire Foy and Matt Smith at the Old Vic that has live streamed performances to a paying audience. The third stage is allowing “performances outdoors with an audience”, which has been possible since the 11th July. Stage four is allowing indoor performances with social distancing and this will be able to begin from August. Stage five will be fuller audiences indoors. By the time theatres will be allowed to open, pubs, restaurants and cafes will have been doing business for a month. Why has the hospitality industry received preferential treatment over the arts? It seems that the government has obvious priorities: pubs before culture.

The arts sector is still in limbo. Jon Morgan, director of Theatres Trust welcomed the news that theatres could reopen as “a step in the right direction”, but he said that “for most theatres it will not be economically viable to reopen with 30-40% audience required under social distancing“. The theatres will need continued support to be able to maintain themselves if they are to avoid bankruptcy.

When Dowden revealed the five-stage plan, there had been no funding to help keep theatres afloat. The £1.75 billion rescue package was only announced on the 5th July, almost four months after the closure of theatres. By this point, the industry was struggling and redundancies had already been made. It seems that this ‘rescue package’ came rather late. If, as Boris Johnson says, arts and culture “make our country great and are the linchpin of our world-beating and fast-growing creative industries”, I do wonder why it took so long to provide this funding that the arts industry was clearly desperate for.

This matter is close to home for me, as I have grown up with Sheffield Theatres, the largest theatre complex outside of London, on my doorstep. They put on a huge variety of shows, from touring performances in the Lyceum to their own plays and musicals in the Crucible. The hit West End musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was a Sheffield Theatres production before it transferred to London. 

They also run a community theatre group called ‘Sheffield People’s Theatre’ with ages ranging from 12 to 85. SPT puts on full-scale productions every year, which gives many people the opportunity to become involved in theatre no matter their age. But these sorts of projects are expensive. What will happen to them if professional theatres can barely support themselves, never mind community endeavours? Jane Norburn has been in a number of SPT productions, and before COVID struck, was part of the ensemble of the Crucible’s professional production of Coriolanus. She talks about the impact of the pandemic on community theatre projects, “From a personal perspective, [SPT] had become a life changing experience for me being part of the team…for the SPT people who rely on the workshops and support from the theatre community to keep them strong, I really worry.” 

It is both strange and sad to see the theatre stand empty and lifeless in the city centre. But not all is doom and gloom. Theatres are still trying to have a positive impact despite their circumstance. Sheffield Theatres is promoting ‘Free Cheers for Sheffield’ that involves recorded and live performances, links on the website to online streaming of theatre across the country and virtual workshops. The aim is clear: to keep theatre accessible even in this time of crisis. Rob Hastie, Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres, stated that, “Theatre is what we do, not just the buildings where we do it. With Free Cheers we’re reaching beyond our walls to celebrate the joy and the sense of community that theatre gives us.”

Similar initiatives have been started around the country. The ‘National Theatre at Home’ and ‘BBC Culture in Quarantine’ have offered access to online performances, and Disney+ has a filmed version of Hamilton available. Even without the physical spaces, theatre has still been a part of people’s lives.

Now, there is a chance for the return of live theatre, but the government’s announcement that theatres can reopen with limited capacity in August does not bring relief for many. Sheffield Theatres have released they “will not fully reopen until spring 2021” and “have entered into a consultation with our staff team which could reduce our numbers by 29%.” Whilst it was a difficult decision, a socially distanced Christmas was not financially viable and touring shows have cancelled or rescheduled to next year. The main issue for Sheffield Theatres is the uncertainty. They are awaiting information on socially distanced audiences, there is no confirmation about when full audiences would be possible and the financial situation is unstable. Sheffield Theatres received the Art Council’s Emergency Funding, which will sustain them until September when they hope to apply for money from the government’s £1.75bn package, but lack details of the amount they would receive or whether an application will be successful. Theatres across the country are facing the same concerns, leaving the future of theatre in doubt.

Putting on a show is an expensive project, and with limited capacity audiences it is not sustainable. Many, like Sheffield Theatres, will have to remain closed, and inevitably face serious financial difficulties. They need more certainty with further information and urgent support. The government has been delayed in their approach to theatres, and this needs to change. The arts must not be forgotten.

If we neglect the arts now, we will undoubtedly regret it in the future.

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