THE show must go on, they say — except that at the moment it can’t. From the Royal Albert Hall to the tiniest regional theatre, the government’s Covid-19 restrictions have kept a lid on business since March.
Hopes of a socially distanced return to indoor performances were dashed at the end of July, when prime minister Boris Johnson announced that he was delaying the opening of indoor shows until at least August 15, even with precautions in place.
The decision has profound implications for theatre and music businesses and the freelancers and employees who work in them. Actors, musicians and stage hands have all found themselves out of work since March, and theatres across the UK have made huge numbers of redundancies in recent weeks, as the furlough scheme comes towards its end and they have to pay national insurance and pension contributions for furloughed staff.
Think of a big-name venue, and chances are it has made redundancies. The Southbank Centre has announced plans that could result in 400 job losses, while Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) — the biggest employer in UK theatre — is to lay off around 1,200 staff next month. The majority of cuts are in London, but ATG also runs the Liverpool Empire, the King’s Theatre Glasgow, the Swansea Arena and a host of other venues that will face job cuts.
According to Bectu, the entertainment industry union, there have been 5,000 people made jobless in the theatre industry due to coronavirus, 2,700 of them in London. The number has risen by 2,000 since July’s government announcement of a £1.57billion support package for the arts that was designed to save theatres, museums and music venues.
‘In July we warned that a storm would turn into a tsunami without further assistance,’ says Bectu chief Philippa Childs.
‘But despite details of the arts recovery package being announced, we are still nowhere closer to the money being distributed.’
‘The tsunami we predicted is about to reach our shores as the timeline for action from the government has been too slow, and there has been no flexibility for the industry and its access to the furlough scheme.
‘Freelancers are crying out for help and support and having to rely on charity. Their future in the industry is deeply uncertain.’
THE STATE OF PLAY(S)
The current restrictions on entertainment venues remain severe.
Guidelines state that professionals may rehearse and train as long as they adhere to social distancing guidelines, and performances may take place — without an audience — to be recorded and broadcast.
Performances may also take place outside, but plans for socially distanced indoor performances have been shelved until August 15 at the very earliest.
Pilot performances that have taken place indicate that, even when socially distanced indoor performances are allowed, they will not allow most venues to break even. A Frank Turner concert at the Clapham Grand hosted less than 20 per cent of the venue’s usual capacity in order to comply with the rules, and organisers admitted that it had not been a financial success, with the show not covering operating costs — and that’s even without paying the performer.
Some outdoor performances are going ahead, with entrepreneurs hoping that there will be sufficient uptake to make a profit. However, Guy Robinson, founder of live talent business Coalition Agency, who has been running drive-in theatre, comedy and karaoke in towns across the South of England, says there is still very little appetite for live shows at a social distance.
‘People are coming up with a lot of creative solutions, but the reality is that there is a lot of fear about going out,’ he says. ‘We’ve undersold tickets by 30 per cent and made a loss. People are happy to go to the supermarket, but because this is a gig it doesn’t feel like something they should do.’
TO BE, OR NOT TO BE?
One of the most difficult issues for the theatre industry is that the government has not yet given a date for when venues can reopen fully.
Recent local lockdowns have scuppered plans even for outdoor performances, with a drive-in tour of Six The Musical being cancelled by promoter Live Nation before it began, citing uncertainty following the Leicester lockdown.
Jon Morgan, director at the Theatres Trust, which exists to protect and support small theatres, says uncertainty is the single biggest factor leading to cancellations and job losses.
‘I have sympathy for the government’s position,’ he says, ‘as they are dictated to by conditions.’ However Jon adds that now there will likely be no announcement until November about whether or not social distancing will be dropped before Christmas 2020, most theatres will have to plan not to open until March next year.
Qdos Productions runs many of the UK’s Christmas pantomimes. ‘We had been very clear that we required clarity from the government by today in order for our pantomime season as we know it to take place,’ the company said last week.
‘We are left with no choice but to begin the consultation process with our partner theatres about the viability of each show.’
LITTLE BUT FIERCE
When larger theatres such as the National are struggling, the situation is even more difficult for smaller venues. There are 1,100 theatres in Britain, two thirds of which are small venues with under 400 seats.
A number of smaller theatres have already closed, including Southampton’s Nuffield, which collapsed into administration in early July.
Greg Palfrey, national head of restructuring and recovery at Smith & Williamson, administrator for the theatre, said it had been impossible to find a viable buyer for the company due to current difficult economic circumstances, and 86 staff were made redundant. Greg said: ‘This is a sad day for the theatre industry in the UK. Our thoughts are very much with employees and their families, as well as freelance artists and theatre makers.’
THE POOR PLAYERS
Venues are not the only issue when it comes to putting the showbiz industry on pause. Thousands of actors, musicians and backstage crew are now out of work, and many of them are not receiving a single penny in support.
‘Seventy per cent of those in this industry are freelance,’ explains Jon Morgan at the Theatres Trust. ‘Some are eligible for the SEISS (Self Employment Income Support Scheme) but others are not. And both this scheme and the furlough scheme are due to end soon.’
Other smaller venues, including the King’s Head Theatre in Islington and the Clapham Grand, are fighting back -and some have turned to crowdfunding in the hope that they can keep their theatres alive.
Clapham Grand has raised more than £50,000 through its crowdfunding campaign, which the venue’s manager, Ally Wolf, says has paid the rent for August, and will hopefully keep the venue going until it can get an emergency grant via the Arts Council.
‘Our crowdfunding has been a success because we’ve tapped into the history of the venue as well as talking to the people who come to the theatre now,’ he says.
The Grand has produced quality recorded content for its supporters, and says that theatres should expect to work for their patrons if they want them to stump up money to keep going.
‘You can’t shake a piggy bank and expect people to simply donate £20 from behind their sofas,’ Ally explains. ‘You have to build a campaign on being personable, and on social engagement.’
THE STUFF DREAMS ARE MADE ON
As well as successful crowdfunding and socially distanced concerts, there are glimmers of hope elsewhere, including the possibility of government funding.
The government has announced a £1.57billion package for the arts and Britain’s cultural heritage, although theatres and other venues will have to apply to the Arts Council, and prove they are of regional or national significance.
‘I think when it was announced people thought the money would just have turned up in our bank account and saved us,’ says Ally from the Clapham Grand.
‘That’s not the case. It’s a rigorous process, as it should be with taxpayers’ money.’
Jon Morgan, at the Theatres Trust, is worried that the cash will be spread too thinly.
‘It sounds a lot, but it has to go round a huge number of different venues,’ he says, pointing out that the money must save Britain’s museums, historic houses and castles as well.
‘We fear that small venues will miss out.’
London’s Wigmore Hall is running concerts featuring solo pianists, singers and string players — without an audience.
‘We are supported by sponsors but losing money in ticket sales,’ says director John Gilhooly. ‘But at least this means we can pay the artists.’
He says the concerts are intended to be ‘a symbol of hope for the industry’, but cautions that the situation cannot go on indefinitely.
For all theatres and venues, there’s really only one long-term solution, and it’s not one they can do anything about, he suggests.
‘We are all waiting for a vaccine,’ says John. ‘Until then, both venues and performers need to be supported. We can’t save one without the other.’
■ Philippa Childs, head of entertainment industry union Bectu
■ Ally Wolf, manager of the Clapham Grand
■ Jon Morgan, director of the Theatres Trust
■ John Gilhooly OBE, OSI director of the Wigmore Hall in London
‘We’re worried all the money will go to the big theatres’
AS A small regional theatre, the Palace Theatre, in Paignton Devon, has few reserves to get it through a prolonged period of closure.
‘We’re a community interest company (CIC),’ explains operations director Maureen McAllister. ‘We took over two years ago and it was going brilliantly. Our last performance was on March 14, a Freddie Mercury Tribute Band. At the end we were all hugging each other because it was going so well. It feels like a world away now.’
Maureen says that regular theatre visitors are missing the community aspect.
‘Our audience comes from very nearby and many are older,’ she says. ‘One of our theatregoers is 91 and she rings me up and asks when we can open. She comes round for a cup of tea and we make her sit outside.
‘She brings cake and we say that we have to quarantine it even if she’s just got it from the local Co-op.
‘She says she’ll come and see whatever we are able to put on next, even if it isn’t her sort of thing.’ The Palace Theatre CIC, called Jazz Hands, has the theatre on a fully repairing lease, and Maureen says that it is becoming too expensive to maintain the theatre, which opened in 1890.
‘We call her the Old Girl,’ she says. ‘Though we’ve had some help from the Arts Council and with business rates, we need to know when we can open to make some money.
‘We worry that, although there will be more money available from the government it will go to the big theatres and there won’t be enough to go round the smaller players.’ Community groups that operate within the theatre have been absent too, due to the restrictions, which has left the theatre quiet.
‘We did have three children in to make umbrellas for a socially distanced carnival parade recently,’ she says.
‘I kept telling them to make more noise just so I can hear something going on.
‘It’s a bit lonely here when it is just me and everyone else is on furlough.’
‘We had 24 hours’ notice that we couldn’t open’
COLIN SAVAGE’S Phoenix Arts Club in London had sold £2,500 of tickets for its comedy, grassroots music and cabaret shows reopening on August 1, but had to cancel every one after Boris Johnson’s shock announcement on July 31 that he was delaying reopening.
‘Everything was in place. We’d bought all the equipment, the screens and the decals,’ he says. ‘We had 24 hours’ notice, and even though we had sent emails, we had people hammering on the door asking why we weren’t open.
Now, Colin (below) says, the club will have to remain closed until the government comes up with a more certain date. ‘Businesses need certainty, and we don’t have that.’
Colin adds that he is concerned about paying the costs of his 15 furloughed staff, since from this month he will have to cover their national insurance and pension contributions even though the government guidelines do not allow him to open.
‘There needs to be a two-tier system depending on whether you are allowed to open or not,’ he says.
The club has received an emergency grant, and is now hanging on for more funding from the Department Of Culture, Media And Sport in September.
‘I’m not bleating about this or saying “poor us”,’ he says. ‘We were ready to reopen and we really wanted to. And now we can’t.’
‘I haven’t been able to work since March’
MARK ETHERINGTON, a freelance musical director and piano player who plays for West End shows and their auditions, last worked just before Easter.
‘It was Friday, March 13, and I was playing for the auditions for the Lion King tour,’ he says.
Since then, Mark (pictured) has been unable to do any work due to coronavirus restrictions and — like thousands of other musicians, actors and dancers — he’s also been unable to claim a penny from the government’s furlough or self-employed financial support schemes.
Freelancers who are paid through limited companies, or those who have earned trading profits over £50,000 a year are not eligible for the bulk of government help.
‘I had a few good years,’ Mark says. ‘It wasn’t the norm. Now I’m not entitled to anything.’
Mark, from south-east London, says he is encouraged to see Andrew Lloyd Webber and others running tests to see if theatre can work with social distancing, but believes that most of the West End needs to be fully occupied to turn a profit.
And now Mark is wondering whether he’ll be able to continue in his career.
‘I’m hoping I’ll be able to ride this out if we are back performing in spring, and perhaps rehearsing in autumn. But if not, I’m wondering what I’ll do. As musicians our training is quite specific and I don’t know what else I can do, really. It’s not just a job, it’s everything — where we meet our friends and our social lives, too.’