Coronavirus could lead to a ‘cultural crisis’ as experts question whether the theatre industry can survive the pandemic.
A report from Oxford Economics is predicting a loss of 400,000 jobs and £74 billion lost earnings from across the arts industry.
What’s been happening?
We have already started to see the impact COVID-19 is having on the theatre industry with redundancies and theatre closures.
So far we have seen local theatres such as Middlesbrough Little Theatre close their doors with no reassurance that they will, in fact, be able to reopen.
On average, theatres need to hit 70% audience capacity to be viable. Even if theatres reduced social distancing measures to one metre, they would still only reach 40% capacity, making it impossible to reopen right now.
This has led to redundancies for theatre workers.
Furthermore, 70% of the arts sector is made up of freelance workers, who have been without work and government support for months.
Due to mass unemployment within the industry and the real risk of theatres closing permanently, the future of theatre for many is looking bleak.
How theatre is carrying on
But resilient creatives are continuing to find new ways to adapt in order to keep the industry alive and safely deliver theatre to audiences.
Artists are now delivering theatre through live streams, bringing the action straight to the living room of audiences.
One such theatre company is Coronavirus Theatre Club, which was founded by three North East actors, Brian Lonsdale, Sam Neale and Michael Blair.
They set up the company in order to give artists the opportunity to carry on working and showcase their efforts through live streams on Twitter during lockdown.
Brian Lonsdale, from the Coronavirus Theatre Club, said: “I was inspired to set up the Coronavirus Theatre Club after it occurred to me after the announcement that the theatres were closing indefinitely, that this year’s Warhorse may well be people streaming monologues from their bedrooms.”
It was a little lightbulb moment. Why don’t I provide the platform to allow people to do just that?
“We’ve been in contact and collaborated with actors, writers and directors from all over the country and the appetite to be involved and to just do something in this time of crisis has been staggering.”
The group live stream performances and have a collection of these on their YouTube channel.
But no amount of live streaming can ever replace the experience and atmosphere of live theatre, and so artists in the theatre industry need support to bring it back.
The government have said they are working with the industry in order to support it and in July they announced a £1.57 billion investment in the UK’s cultural, arts and heritage institutions.
The emergency grants and loans were said to act as a ‘lifeline’ for the arts sector and were designed to help organisations keep their heads above water throughout the coronavirus outbreak.
Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said: “This money will help safeguard the sector for future generations, ensuring arts groups and venues across the UK can stay afloat and support their staff whilst their doors remain closed and curtains remain down.”
Arts Council England has been working to boost government aid with their own grants available to people within the industry.
They have reopened National Lottery Project Grants to make £75 million available to individuals, communities and cultural organisations.
In addition, they are increasing their budgets in other initiatives to help creatives and freelance workers to ‘step up their work in new ways’.
There are lots of other companies working to provide support and raise awareness about the issues the theatre industry is facing.
Jon Morgan, Director of Theatres Trust, said: “Theatres Trust is the only organisation in the UK that offers free advice to all theatres. This work has become even more critical during the pandemic.
“We have repurposed some of our small grant schemes as the Theatre Reopening Fund offering grants of up to £5 thousand to not-for-profit theatres to cover the expenses associated with reopening.
“We have been making the case to the government for support for theatres throughout the crisis. This has included being on the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s Entertainment and Events Working Group which has been looking at how venues can reopen.”
Theatres Trust have also partnered with Crowdfunder to launch the #SaveOurTheatres campaign in September which helped theatres fundraise to keep up with their costs. So far they have raised over £1 million for 55 theatres.
Is it enough?
Jon Morgan, Director of Theatres Trust, goes on to tell TUXtra that more is needed for the arts sector to survive and thrive. “The government’s £1.57 billion Cultural Recovery Fund was very welcome but it was always evident that it wouldn’t be enough to support every organisation or save every job, so there will be organisations left without support.
“The furlough scheme was a lifeline for theatres and protected many jobs in the sector, but unfortunately the replacement Job Support Scheme won’t be as helpful when most theatres are unable to reopen. We are continuing to call for a sector-specific furlough scheme for the performing arts industries to ensure our sector’s survival beyond this crisis.
“For those theatres who received funding, the Culture Recovery Fund will have provided a lifeline, but this funding is only until the end of March. The sector’s future is still looking very uncertain.”
And many more are joining Theatres Trust in calls for the government to provide additional support to the industry.
Petitions have been circulating asking the government for more financial support in the arts sector as well as a better outlook on the profession.
Matters have been made worse by an advertisement circulating encouraging performers to abandon the industry and retrain in different jobs, which has caused uproar.
Rob Clilverd, who teaches Drama and Performing Arts at Prior Pursglove College in Guisborough, is among those calling out the government for their empty promises and lack of support.
He said: “The theatre industry has been absolutely decimated by the coronavirus. All sectors of the profession have essentially had to shut down – many performers, technicians and administrators have lost their jobs and incomes, some venues have gone already, and others are at risk of closing.
“The government said it will support 1,300 Arts organisations with a £250 million bailout, but we’ve heard those sorts of promises before. Generally the Arts in this country is not well funded, so in this unprecedented crisis it seems unlikely that the current government will provide anything like enough, based on their track record of undervaluing the contribution the Arts makes to British life. Conservative governments have always downplayed the importance of the Arts.
“The only light at the end of the tunnel is that artists will always find a way – online shows, radio, socially distanced TV. We are people with a calling, and we will follow that calling in any way we can.”
The government have been accused of neglecting the theatre industry for years, with latest Arts Index figures showing that public investment in arts per head of the population fell by 35% in the last decade.
The future of theatre
At the moment, the future of theatre is very uncertain as most are playing a waiting game hoping that when they finally get that green light to open their doors, they are financially able to do so.
Until then, actors, writers, directors, producers, technicians, costume designers and many more and banding together to fight for the support they need to come back from the pandemic even stronger than before.