Theatre performances have been yet another thing left cancelled or rescheduled indefinitely by the coronavirus pandemic. While many industries have struggled over the course of the pandemic, few have felt such a sting as the arts industry and its now-darkened theatres. March’s national lockdown ordered any theatre which had not yet drawn their curtains to do so immediately. Now, almost five months on, the future of theatre in Britain remains as uncertain as ever.
As growing fears of the coronavirus pandemic spread in the weeks preceding the lockdown, many in the arts industry began to feel the toll. Even before the announcement of a national lockdown, advanced ticket sales at UK theatres saw a decrease of 92%. A 2019 study conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business calculated that the arts industry contributed roughly £11 billion per year to the UK economy. But with venues shut, arts industry employees have been hit hard. The Telegraph reported that approximately 45% of the industry’s workforce has been placed on furlough. Recent trade union figures show job losses, including redundancies of permanent employees and layoffs of casual staff, at theatres across the UK have jumped from 3,000 to 5,000 in less than a month. There has also been reported that vacancies have fallen by 87% compared to the same time last year, more than any other industry in the UK.
While some theatre companies and performers across the UK, such as the National Theatre, have adapted to lockdown by making filmed or completely new virtual performances available to view online, this does not solve many of the problems plaguing the industry. Venues in London’s West End and regional theatres across the country will have to develop new and innovative ways to welcome back in-person audiences. Here in Sheffield, Sheffield Theatres, the group which runs both The Crucible and The Lyceum, announced in July that their theatres will not fully reopen until at least Spring 2021. While many of their staff were already placed on furlough, this extended closure brings with it increased concern that staff redundancies will only increase. Sheffield Theatres reported that almost one-third of their staff were at risk of being made redundant by the closures.
The news of the cancellation of the 2020/21 pantomime season brings with it renewed concerns for the survival of many venues across the country. Sheffield Theatres is one of the several production companies to have already made the decision to cancel their annual productions for the season. While most pantomimes are primarily performed during the holiday season, the pantomime season’s cancellation will have long lasting effects. These productions take months to prepare for and their cancellation will mean that many actors, among other creative professionals, will be out of work. It has been predicted that the cancellation of the pantomime season will result in over £90 million in losses . This will make a dent in many theatres budgets as many rely heavily on these performances to boost their yearly revenue.
However, all hope is not lost, and the sector that is defined by its creativity and resourcefulness is exploring new options that embody the rallying cry ‘The show must go on!’. In June almost 100 creative figures signed an open letter urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, and Secretary of State for Culture Oliver Dowden to intervene to offer support to the struggling arts industry. Arts Council England has opened several emergency relief funds including The Cultural Recovery Fund, which may make grants of up to £500 million or £270 million in long-term loans available for struggling arts organizations.
As lockdown measures are eased across the country, there is also a dim light at the end of the tunnel. Outdoor performances have been able to take place since July, and as of August 15th, Covid-19 government guidelines have allowed socially-distanced indoor performances to resume (excluding venues in areas still under local lockdowns). However, even with the hope that socially distanced performances may gradually resume, smaller theatres will continue to struggle without substantial aid. Many small performance spaces will not have the space or financial capacity to make socially-distanced performances viable. On average, a performance needs to sell at least 50% of their tickets to break even, but it has estimated that in order to socially distance effectively there will be an average of an 80% reduction in seats.
For now, performers and theatre-lovers alike will have to continue to seek out new ways to experience shows and hope that government schemes like the Cultural Renewal Taskforce will adequately protect and support struggling creative organisations.
Image Credit: George Tuli