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22 July 2020

The final curtain call: How Covid-19 has left Britain’s theatres in crisis

Despite the government’s £1.57bn support package, theatres across the UK are being forced to make redundancies – or even to close for good. 

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to Britain’s theatre industry. Since March, when curtains fell around the country, its future has hung in the balance. From 1 August, theatres can open with socially distanced audiences, but the 30-40 per cent capacity that these new rules require will not be economically viable for most institutions.

In recent weeks, Nuffield Theatre (located on the campus of the University of Southampton) announced its permanent closure with the loss of 86 jobs; Leicester’s Haymarket went into liquidation; the Royal Albert Hall in London announced that it will run out of money by early 2021; the entire artistic team at Theatre Royal Plymouth was made redundant; and both Exeter Northcott and Manchester’s Royal Exchange announced potential redundancies.

This is happening despite the government’s £1.57bn support package “to protect Britain’s world-class cultural, arts and heritage institutions”. The entertainment sector has welcomed the government’s initiative, but not without recognition of its lateness. There is scepticism, too, over the extent to which it will support regional organisations as well as national ones.

In July, the Royal Opera House made its casual staff redundant, while the National Theatre (NT) told 400 casual workers they will lose their jobs at the end of August. A part-time staff member at the NT’s box office, who wishes to remain anonymous, noted that the theatre meets diversity quotas by hiring “a wealth of casual staff, but doesn’t take into account that these contracts are the first to get cut”. As a National Portfolio Organisation, the NT must commit to diversity to receive funding through Arts Council England. With little racial diversity across its permanent staff, cutting casual contracts means a far less representative workforce.

More often than not, casual workers contribute to the theatre world creatively too. Bryony Tebbutt, an actor who supplements her onstage income with front-of-house work in London theatres, estimates that 80-90 per cent of her colleagues “also pursue other dreams”. “From the person who manages the door to security, the people behind the bar, the backstage crew… they have a creative asset, too, whether it’s performing or writing or designing.”

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What else will be lost, if fewer lights come back on? Carl Woodward is creative learning manager at the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster, and is on furlough. He said that theatres are important for education, particularly following the removal of some arts subjects from state school curriculums. The projects he manages – a 150-member youth theatre, an initiative for people with dementia, and drama workshops for young people with learning disabilities – are community services unavailable elsewhere. If regional theatres close, these services will not be available at all. “The problem is that people see the theatre as a glossy West End show,” he said, “but it’s not just that. There is no acknowledgement from our government that not all performing arts happen in major institutions. It’s not just about opening the doors; it’s about making people feel able to walk through them.”

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The government’s arts rescue package came later than efforts to support other industries, despite live entertainment contributing £11.25bn to the UK economy each year and supporting 600,000 jobs. “The government needs to help us overcome this hurdle,” said Tebbutt, “because theatre is and should be for everyone. Theatre is there to open people’s minds up to new perspectives. We are capable of doing better in this world. For me, that is a very big part of theatre, performance and human expression.”