Theatre stands on the brink of ruin
21 May 2020
An article by Sonia Friedman in The Telegraph, 21st May 2020.
British theatre is on the brink of total collapse. All the performing arts – theatre, dance, opera, comedy, theatre in education, Christmas pantomime, community shows – are facing the real possibility of complete obliteration. I know it sounds melodramatic. It beggars belief – but it is a statement of fact.
Without an urgent government rescue package, 70 per cent of our performing arts companies will be out of business before the end of this year. More than 1,000 theatres around the country will be insolvent and might shut down for good.
The loss is inconceivable. What we take for granted has taken generations to create. It would be irrecoverable. We need our government to step up and step in – sharpish. There is no time to waste.
Imagine the next six months. One by one, our arts and cultural organisations will have to spend their reserves until there is nothing left. They will have no alternative but to enter administration: the Young Vic in November, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Old Vic shortly after. Southampton has already lost its producing theatre, the Nuffield. Others could soon follow: Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds, Sheffield. Unless there is intervention, we’ll watch the Royal Shakespeare Company close down, the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells, even the National Theatre itself: all will be gone by December. All West End theatres will be mothballed. Dark. We cannot let this happen.
Theatre is my life – my company has shut down and suspended over 18 productions globally in the past 10 weeks – but I know very well that theatre is not alone in the struggle against this historic crisis. It is not a special case, but the problem it is facing is a unique case and painfully simple.
Since shutting their doors in mid-March, theatre companies have had virtually no income at all. The business of commercial and subsidised theatres is built on box-office revenue. Everything else is extra. We’ve no other means of earning money. Theatre can’t offer takeaways. It can’t shift its business online, welcome though the streaming of our shows has been.
Arts and cultural organisations have lost 95 per cent of their income. Theatre has been hit hardest of all. The three-month shutdown has meant £330 million of income lost. As of now, we’re staring at a closure lasting six to nine months. It could even be a year or more.
Costs carry on regardless, of course, even reduced to the bare minimums. Basic overheads alone are patently unsustainable without income. It costs £30,000 a week to keep a West End playhouse closed. The National is losing millions every month. Many theatres missed out on insurance claims. All have watched advance ticket sales fall away. Reserves are already running dangerously low. Only the Government’s brilliant job-retention scheme has kept our industry afloat this far – and the second it stops, theatres will sink. I am pleased to hear of the appointment of Neil Mendoza as Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal and hope his arrival will mark the beginning of a swift and productive dialogue between government and the arts sector.
This damage is not just limited to theatre buildings. Across the country, commercial theatre productions have closed. Without assistance, many of these productions will not reopen. Even large-scale, long-running hits are at risk. Regional theatres dependent on income from tours will lose the very shows that might help them survive.
We know the lockdown will not last for ever, but when it ends theatre’s problems don’t disappear. To put it bluntly, theatre is incompatible with social distancing. It just doesn’t stack up. Putting to one side the problems of staging plays (imagine keeping Romeo and Juliet two metres apart), social distancing would limit theatres to selling one seat in six. Most theatres need to sell 60 per cent of seats just to survive. The shortfall is not sustainable. If we want theatres to re-open, they will, for a time, until another solution is found, still need financial support.
The economic logic of such support, long-term, is self-evident. Theatre makes this country far more than it receives in subsidy. Its value to London’s economy alone is roughly £5 billion a year. Restaurants and many kinds of retailers benefit from, some rely on, our audiences. Theatre adds £2 billion to the capital’s critical tourism sector. As we face an uncertain economic future, theatre can and must play its part in our recovery.
But that’s not the true value of theatre. Imagine our cultural landscape without it. Imagine our country. The performing arts are part of the fabric of our lives. Nationwide, 40 per cent of households go to the theatre every year: family outings to pantos, school trips to Shakespeare, the free-for-all of the Edinburgh Fringe, the largest arts festival anywhere on the planet. Britain’s theatres draw annual audiences of 34 million – twice that of the Premier League. Our theatre makers are world-class and world-leading. British-born shows have spread around the world, from Broadway to Beijing.
Theatre is a broad church – big-budget musicals to rural tours, large-scale community shows to cutting-edge performance art. Together they provide the key pipeline for talent, feeding Britain’s burgeoning television and film industries. Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag, and John Boyega of Star Wars; Oscar winners Sam Mendes and Danny Boyle; Marianne Elliott, Phyllida Lloyd and Stephen Daldry – multiple Olivier and Tony award winners – all cut their teeth on stage. Lose theatre and we lose a launch pad that is second to none.
But theatre is also far more than the shows on its stages. Arts organisations are woven deep into our society. They play a huge and, often, central role in local communities. They are beacons of civic life, public spaces open to all, where youth groups, tea dances, spoken word sessions and education programmes can take place. Across the country, theatre companies reach out to all manner of people, from Clean Break’s work with female prisoners to Slung Low’s management of a working men’s club in Leeds. Theatres are the buildings that bring us together – and if anyone ever doubted the necessity of that, the current lockdown surely provides a rebuttal. Our stages will hold the stories that help us collectively process what this country has been through. Theatres will play a huge part in helping our society – our nation – to heal.
Like never before all these organisations are vulnerable. They are inextricably interconnected: a cross-country network of artistic collaboration. Once gone, British theatre is lost for good. An ecosystem as intricate and evolved as ours, shaped over 70 years, is beyond price. It cannot be rebuilt from scratch. As of now, without support, it is in grave danger.
Protecting and preserving what we have will cost far, far less than reconstructing it from the ruins. It is time to act.