November is a long way away. How are theatres going to survive?

5th August 2020

At 12pm on 31st July, Boris Johnson delivered a devastating blow for our industry: "We are postponing changes for at least a fortnight. Indoor performances will not resume, and pilot performances will not take place".

I am saddened by the governments decision but understand the reasoning. However, I am outraged by the timing of this communication - less than 24 hours before many theatres were due to reopen. Could it not have been made much earlier? 

Think of the money that has been spent by numerous theatres on carrying out pilot tests, castings, show preparations, bringing in staff, deep cleaning, advertising and more. They will have taken a significant financial hit at a time they cannot afford to.

The 15th August is now not far away and hopefully it will not be pushed back again. Theatres cannot continue with this uncertainty.

Think also of the staff and freelancers who were involved in these long-awaited productions. The many freelancers who are not getting the financial support they need from our government. As Equity said: the “11th-hour announcement” was “distressing news for members working in variety and indoor performance who were hoping to start earning again tomorrow.”

How is this decision going to affect our industry friends and colleagues? Many have already lost their jobs, with thousands more in just the last few weeks. According to figures by the Bectu trade union, theatre job losses in the UK have risen from 3000 to 5000 in less than a month. Around 2700 came from London, with a further 1200 from ATG, one of the biggest British theatre employer, announced recently. These figures include freelancers as well as permanent and casual staff.

News of ATG’s redundancies came at the same time that the Southbank Centre and the National Theatre announced they were both cutting 400 jobs roles. This led to employees demonstrating against the cuts on the Southbank on 1st August. Amongst the protestors was actress Vanessa Redgrave who called the plans “complete madness” And I absolutely agree.

BECTU head Philippa Childs has said that big theatres like these “tend to set a trend”, and she is concerned that other theatres will be following suit in the very near future.

If things don’t start to change for the better we are going to lose our pool of talent very quickly.

This is a disastrous time for the industry, but there are some great people out there who are doing what they can to support theatre workers. 

Director Sam Mendes we know has set up the Theatre Artists Fund and has raised £1.6M. Sir Ian McKellen has kick started a new fundraising initiative for front and back stage workers in collaboration with The Theatrical Guild, by adding £40,000 to the pot. 

More recently, Phoebe Waller Bridge, Olivia Colman and Francesca Moody (producer of Fleabag) have launched The Theatre Community Fund, which provides UK theatre professionals with grants. To date they have received a total of £1M from the likes of Gillian Anderson, Danny Boyle, Richard Curtis, James McAvoy, Emma Thompson and Daniel Radcliffe.

Waller-Bridge is also working alongside Udderbelly to raise vital funds for Edinburgh Fringe.

The comradery and support within our industry is just incredible.

The past few months have been excruciatingly hard for many of us. I hope that theatre can resume on 15th August – even if it is with a reduced crowd – the show must go on. But come November, things may have improved further for us.

Oliver Dowden has announced that in November we will find out if we have reached stage five of the roadmap, which allows larger audiences into indoor theatre performances. 

This is positive news, however, it will come at the time that panto season usually starts, so it doesn’t leave theatre producers time to prepare. Pantomimes are crucial to theatre survival as it is a such a good way to generate money for the following year. Many theatres are on the brink of collapse and without this funding there may be no recovery for some.

The panto season is still going ahead for some including The Stag Sevenoaks. Their cast will be giving up their Christmas with their family and instead creating a cast bubble. Over 3 weeks they will be performing to an audience of 8000 rather than the usual 20,000. Some theatre companies are changing their productions so they can reduce the number they have in their cast and backstage.

Other theatres have cancelled or postponed their pantos with the fear that they are not able to deliver a show. Some say it would be irresponsible financially and others believe they may not be ready, which would ruin their return to the stage and also their reputation. Preparing a live show takes time and as professionals, they want to get it right. 

However, many theatre companies and artists are taking their productions to the great outdoors as these performances are still taking place. Some are being inventive and setting up in parks. They just want to be able to perform live and get back to some kind of normality.

We are dealing with so much uncertainty at the moment. We are told one thing that gives us hope, and then it’s snatched away from us. We need clarity and some assurance about the future, so we have something to work towards and something to get excited about. 

It is going to get better for our industry. The only thing we can do right now is stay strong and positive and prepare for a huge comeback!