Stark figures show just how detrimental the pandemic has been on our sector

3rd November 2021

The future of the theatre industry looks positive. Theatres are slowly coming back to life, we are able to work again and audiences are returning with confidence.

However, we are all aware that since March 2020 we have been hit hard by the pandemic. It is going to take time to rebuild the sector to get us back to where we were. 

Having now read the official figures released recently by Arts Council England (ACE), it’s a stark picture of how brutal the past 18 months have been.

The survey looks at the impact of the pandemic across the sector and how its funded National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) have been affected. The key findings, stated in The Stage  shows: 

  • Subsidised theatres in England saw earned income plummet by almost 90% last year
  • ACE-funded theatres staged fewer than 2,800 performances in 2020/21. In the previous year it was more than 35,000.
  • Attendances at theatres fell from more than 7.8 million to less than 127,000.
  • Earned income for theatres dropped by 87.5% between 2019/20 and 2020/21.
  • Earned income made up just 15% of total income in the pandemic year, whereas in the previous year it contributed 63%

Now, with theatres in darkness for over a year you would expect this sort of result; but to see these figures in black and white is devastating. To think that prior to Covid the arts industry was growing at five times the rate of the UK economy and we employed over two million people. 

The data does only go to April 2021, so does not include figures from when theatres began to open in May. The next set of results should be more positive.

Throughout the pandemic, ACE continued to support and invest in the arts so that theatres, theatre companies, groups and more could keep going through the dark times and bring creativity and culture to their communities. 

We were extremely lucky to receive emergency funding for our lockdown project ‘Invisible Visible’ which explored the concept of invisibility in society. We included a range of local groups in the project and showcased the outcome at MK Gallery in September and October this year.

Our most recent project, ‘Hidden Stories’ We received no funding whatsoever for this and our director paid for it herself.  She was missing theatre so much and just wanted to get back there. Such is the dedication of many arts practitioners. 

This project saw four local professional theatre practitioners each write a short hidden story based on true events or personal experience. Rosemary herself wrote her first play “Darlint Peidi” and will be developing it further.  

Shirley Jones wrote “The Saltiness Of Time” about the plight of carers in the UK. 

Then Lisa Lovell shared her own jaw dropping story of how the  Windrush generation and their families have been treated in “Daughter Of The Waves”. It was a brave, raw and devastating story for which Lisa received a standing ovation. The audience collectively wanted to give a her a massive hug.

Carly Halse then performed her poignant monologue about Ruth Ellis in “Now You See Me” and then  Lisa Stenhouse and Caroline Mann (Rosemary our director) performed “Darlint Peidi” about the case of Edith Thompson, but it had a twist which wasn’t quite what was expected.  

The theme which ran through all the playlets was injustice and unfairness.  We then had a Q & A session where the audience asked some really pertinent questions. We also had some incredible feedback from audience members, including: "Congratulations on keeping live theatre going in MK. And continuing with relevant, interesting, up to date and thought-provoking work". 

"Thanks for a stimulating evening focusing on the hidden stories of women and issues of expectations, voice, and power. They are in our past, our present, but should not be our future. Great to be back in live theatre which challenges us". 

"Congratulations to all the writers and actors and to you Rosemary for last night, and for your commitment to bring us more Hidden Stories and more theatre".

As part of our “Hidden Stories” project showed the film “Sing, Freetown” a documentary by Sorious Samura about theatre in his home country Sierra Leone. Samura has been based in London for the last twenty years and has covered many stories for the Western media about Africa. Tired of telling negative stories he wanted to tell a positive one. With the help of his former teacher Charlie Heffner he wanted to build back theatre in Sierra Leone. The film shows the trials and tribulations of putting on a show and it almost broke their relationship. Getting funding was an enormous hurdle and then so many more difficulties followed. The film is funny, poignant and up lifting, but any director or producer knows full well what they went through. Like our own director they also put some of their own money into it. So determined were they to push through and do something. It was wonderful that so many people from the Sierra Leone community in MK attended. It was a fantastically diverse audience. We intend to show more work like this and engage with new audiences.

You may remember that in September 2019 we organised a ‘Taking the Stage’ event, where we celebrated women in performing arts. We are extremely pleased to say that we will be bringing another ‘Taking the Stage’ to Milton Keynes in March 2022

We are now delighted to announce that we have been awarded Arts Council funding for this. We were turned down on our first submission, but we re submitted after strengthening the application and we were successful. It’s been a long hard road and we were also turned down by other organisations too. Competition is so very fierce, but the moral of the story is never give up. Persist, persist, persist. Exciting details will be announced shortly. We have commissioned new plays and there will be more films and talks and seminars. We have quite a line up.

Through our projects we try to support as many professional artists, local people, groups as possible to give them a voice and a platform to be seen. As a theatre company with a strong local presence, it is incredibly important for us to do this.

We have been determined to keep going and continue sharing our stories. The pandemic will not stop us from producing great theatre, especially when we have the kind support of so many people!

The work we are doing will hopefully help raise those statistics for the next ACE survey. There's only one way that we can go from here - and that's up.

Please keep supporting your local and regional theatres.