More tragedy than drama: the fate of UK theatres hangs in the balance thanks to COVID-19. Fer Gregory via Shutterstock

Coronavirus: theatres are already closing – the UK government needs to act now

The executive director of Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre, Steve Freeman, could have been speaking for the whole performing arts industry when he said recently: “The current economic landscape is desperate for theatres up and down the country.”

Announcing that the theatre, which in better times has an annual turnover of more than £10 million, was entering into redundancy discussions with staff, the company forecast it might have to make as many as 65% of its permanent staff redundant.

Hot on the heels of that announcement came the news that Nuffield Southampton Theatres (NST) is to close permanently, with the loss of 86 jobs. The theatre company, one of the leading arts institutions in the south of England, went into administration in May but no buyers have been found and administrator Greg Palfrey announced the closure on July 2.

As of 2014, more people go to see a London theatre show than attend a Premier League football match. In 2018, UK theatres generated ticket revenue of £1.28 billion, employing 290,000 workers. Many of those jobs are now at risk, with an estimated 70% of theatres due to close by the end of the year without urgent financial support.

A vital part of Manchester’s arts scene. Royal Exchange Theatre, CC BY-NC-SA

“We know we can’t operate as a venue while social distancing measures are still in force,” Peter Doran, the artistic director of the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven, recently told Wales Art Review.

“At two metres we could have about 20% of our seats available and at one metre, it’s still only about 30%, meaning it’s impossible to make it work financially; so unless there is a big change in the thinking around social distancing, we probably won’t be able to operate for a while.”

On June 25, I attended a “townhall meeting” held by Wales’s largest producing theatres and companies via Zoom for theatre freelancers. Here, the artistic directors of Theatr Clwyd, Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre and the Torch laid out the existential crisis they faced.

One of the big concerns was the fate of their Christmas shows, which produce substantial income. In order to create these large-scale shows in December, theatres need to invest the money in July.

Should another coronavirus wave cancel these shows, such investments could cause immediate bankruptcy. This is why theatres such as the Torch and Sherman theatres have had to make the agonising decision to cancel this much-needed source of income.

The case for emergency support is compelling. The creative industries have been growing faster than any other sector of the economy, contributing over £111 billion in 2018. The public support underpinning that growth has been vital, enabling creative talent across all social classes to make Britain a world leader in the arts, to the benefit of the whole country.

In 2018, theatres across the UK attracted more than 34 million visitors. In 2019, the audience in London theatres alone was 15.3 million, nearly a million higher than New York, establishing London “as the world’s leading theatre destination”.

Theatres are also crucial to the UK’s TV and film sector. One striking example is the phenomenally successful BBC series Fleabag, whose creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, has since written Killing Eve and co-written for the Bond film, No Time To Die. But Fleabag owes its life to a ten-minute slot in a live comedy show to an audience of 70.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the production team behind the hit TV series Killing Eve with the award for best drama series at the 2019 BAFTA awards in London. Ian West/PA Archive/PA Images

From this, it grew into an hour-long Edinburgh Fringe play, produced by DryWrite Theatre, resulting in a Fringe First Award, a London transfer and the BBC commission. Like Waller-Bridge, many freelancers who write and act on our screens are only able to do so by supplementing this with live theatre – and by developing their skills onstage.

But the benefits of a vibrant creative sector are more than economic. “Arts and culture will be needed more than ever as we re-emerge,” Lilli Geissendorfer, director of Jerwood Arts said.

“Artists, curators and producers of all kinds contribute immense joy, compassion, and meaning to our communities and are critical to alleviating the social, health and wellbeing challenges of COVID-19. They are going bust now.”

Quality of life

A growing body of studies reveals this positive impact of creative culture on quality of life. One survey of 10,000 respondents found that – even when allowing for age, income, area deprivation, qualifications, disability or longstanding illness – those who’d attended a cultural place or event in the previous 12 months were almost 60% more likely to report good health than those who had not. Those who had participated in a creative activity were 38% more likely to report good health.

Despite government intervention, many creative freelancers have no access to support because more than 50% of their income is taxed as PAYE. This disqualifies them from the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, despite being on insecure short-term contracts.

TV presenter Jodie McCallum has started a petition asking Downing Street to extend its support, noting that:

People that are working class aren’t going to be able to afford to survive. It’s going to affect the diversity, and it’s just devastating for these people who have worked really hard and paid their taxes to be discriminated against simply for the way that we’re taxed.“

In Germany, the response has been dramatic. Berlin’s city council alone committed €1.4 billion of grants (£1.24 billion), while the federal government has produced a €50 billion bailout package for freelancers and small businesses, including artists.

But in the UK, with public arts spending already lower than France, Germany and the EU average, the country’s creative industries – including theatres – need all the support they can get.

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