UK touring theatre productions - Fighting red tape and restrictions

30th January 2021

We all hoped that 2021 was going to be the year that theatres up and down the country would come to life again, and our world class productions would start touring and wowing audiences around the globe. Sadly, it just isn’t the case.

Following the Brexit trade deal at the end of last year, which gave our industry a devastating second blow, it leaves us with huge concerns for our future.

The deal now means that our creative and cultural workers now lose the free movement we used to have between European countries when touring. We’re now faced with a mountain of red tape, endless paperwork, work permits and expensive visas. Those coming to work in the UK will face the same ordeal.

If a touring production travels to a number of EU countries, it does get very confusing as to what permits and visas are required, as each state controls its own rules. None it seems are the same! This is not going to be easy.

Free movement within European countries has always been central to the industry to let our performers and creators hone their skills, whether it is performing or training. It has been the same for people from other countries coming to the UK

Working in this way is fantastic for theatre and its people, as it enables us to see things from new perspectives, seek alternative ideas, hear different experiences, and be inspired by culture. This is what theatre and creativity is about.

Our theatres have been closed for almost a year, we have already lost huge numbers of incredible talent and we will only lose more if touring cannot go ahead.

However, it doesn’t just end there with costly drawn-out processes for individuals, further challenges threaten logistics of moving performances e.g. sets, costumes, sound etc to Europe. 

What happens with transportation delays? How can a show carry on with no set? What happens to shorter running performances? Cancelled tickets? These rules and restrictions have not been thought out, there has been a real lack of insight.  

Speaking of concerns of threatened runs, David Hutchinson, CEO of Selladoor Worldwide, stated in an opinion piece in The Stage recently: "We have started modelling with our touring partners, taking a lease on a set-storage facility in Amsterdam, as we can no longer trust passing through our own borders in time. Our international tour of “We Will Rock You” will sail an extra six weeks early to get to South Africa, just in case".

Perhaps this is the way forward? If we can’t trust our own dire processes, then we need to start looking elsewhere for ways to continue showcasing our much-loved productions abroad. Unless visa requirements and border delays are solved, anything we create both outside of the UK will be severely affected. 

As Louise McMullan from Equity said that the agreement will have: "A massive impact on the working opportunities available to Equity members working across the creative industries". She is seeing many jobs now advertising for EU passport holders only, which is bound to hit young and emerging artists hardest.

McMullan also states that: "For now, it’s essential that all creative workers immediately get behind campaigning efforts to change the work permit situation".

Which we have.  

Over 280K people signed the petition Seek Europe-wide Visa-free work permit for Touring Professionals and Artists’, which was taken to Parliament for debate. However, on 14th January it received the response: "During our negotiations, we proposed measures to allow creative professionals to travel and perform in both the UK and EU, without needing work-permits. Unfortunately, the EU rejected these proposals".

The EU though deny this. 

This was absolutely devastating. It is as though we weren’t even heard. It’s like David Hutchinson said in his opinion piece: "Why did we only hear about fish quotas for the last months of the Brexit negotiations, when theatre dwarfs the fishing sector in terms of jobs and economic impact?"

In this fascinating article from Composer Howard Goodall he quite rightly states: "The creative industries and financial services are our biggest foreign earners, by a gigantic margin. Between them their earnings for the UK would pay for all state education and the NHS annually".

We know our industry makes a huge contribution to the UK economy - around £10.8bn at the last count in 2016. But does the Government? Really? 

These regulations need to be changed to make it easier for our creatives to work within the EU. We’re going to lose vast amounts of talent from our industry, fewer productions will be seen by audiences worldwide, and our monetary contribution will diminish.

More has to be done to protect our industry, and quickly. We are under threat.