Updated: Jun 11
Like many industries, theatre is collapsing due to Covid19. The enforced lockdown on the UK has had a detrimental effect on even the biggest of theatre giants. The past 3 months of quarantine have, without a doubt, crippled all ticket sales and forced theatres to refund thousands of ticketholders across the country. The thought of reopening theatres in a few weeks, whilst enforcing social distancing, and encouraging a feared nation to return to a cramped dark venue with strangers, provides very little comfort. Rufus Norris, artistic director at The National Theatre quoted a few weeks into lockdown, “There are “months” of reserve funds remaining in the theatre’s coffers, which they are trying to make stretch to a year – but when we have run out of reserves then what’s next is called insolvency.”
Sonia Friedman, producer behind countless renowned productions, including, ‘Book of Mormon’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ mentioned in her article for The Guardian in mid May, “theatre is incompatible with social distancing.” Most theatres need to sell 60% of seats just to survive. Friedman had closed more than 18 shows just 10 weeks into the lockdown and had already estimated to have lost approximately £330m for the theatre sector. When things are running smoothly, the UK’s theatre industry is a complex and an excellent business model. Generating nearly £1.28 billion and selling tickets to a whopping 34 million people in just 2018 alone. This figure is approximately the same number that attended Premier League and English Football League matches in the same year.
Director Sam Mendes, the genius behind ‘American Beauty’ and, more recently, ‘1917,’ has been praised by leading theatre professionals for his plausible and effective suggestion in his article ‘how to save our theatres’ for the Financial Times. He invites the government to become a “theatrical angel,” not dissimilar to the private individuals who invest in productions and share in the profits of successful shows. “This is not a request for a handout, or for long-term life support,” he writes, calling on the government to commit to a Cultural Investment Participation Scheme. “It is an offer for the government to become partners in a successful business.”
The theatre culture has been evolving and creating for hundreds of years, but it has also driven some of its most talented into your living room. Film directors such as, (the man with a plan) Sam Mendes, Orson Welles, and Danny Boyle were born there. James Graham, who won an Emmy for his drama ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War,’ spent the early years of his career writing for the Finborough Theatre, a 50-seat room above a bar in West London. Lucy Prebble, who works on HBO’s ‘Succession’, had her first professional play staged by the subsidized Royal Court in its 90-seat studio. ‘The Fleabag’ and ‘Killing Eve’ creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge started out in theatre. The Tudor musical ‘Six,’ (which had to shut down hours before it was due to open on Broadway, because of the coronavirus) written by students originally performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, before going on tour around Britain. Mendes joins this school of thought in his article, “It would be deeply ironic if the streaming services — Netflix, Amazon Prime et al — should be making lockdown millions from our finest acting, producing, writing and directing talent, while the very arts culture that nurtured that talent pool is allowed to die.”
In the storm of a pandemic, it would be understandable to point, aghast, at the many other people and industries terribly affected by this sudden economic and societal shift. Some may reiterate the Los Angeles Times theatre critic Charles McNulty, who wrote recently: “Call me callous but the fate of our hospital system straining under the weight of desperately sick patients [seems] more urgent to me than the budgetary death spirals of experimental theatre companies.” Patience and empathy for the arts may be thin on the ground, dwindling more than ever. But now is the time to end the stigma that theatre is just an artistic unstable bubble, irrelevant to the majority. We must begin to think of it as a confident, necessary contender in the economic infrastructure of our society. If theatre is allowed to die, the future of film, television and radio will be devastatingly different without the immense impact it has had upon the entertainment industry.