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Explained: Can Oliver Dowden save the UK theatre industry from coronavirus?

An empty street outside the Sondheim Theatre in London's West End where all performances are cancelled | PA Images

7 min read

The arts and culture sector has welcomed an unexpected £1.57bn cash boost from the Government. However, with a complex employment and regional picture, will the money go far enough for UK theatres and those who work in them?

After weeks of industry handwringing and campaigning, on Sunday night culture secretary Oliver Dowden announced a £1.57bn funding boost for the arts and culture sector to help them weather the Covid crisis.

Widely welcomed by senior industry figures, the announcement comes after award-winning arts institutions, including the Nuffield Southampton Theatre, Theatre Royal Plymouth, and the Manchester Royal Exchange, have started redundancy proceedings or even closed completely in recent weeks.

Even large global venues like the Royal Albert Hall said they would be bankrupt within the next eight months without Government support, while the Old Vic described their financial situation as “seriously perilous”.

The new Government funding pot includes £1.15bn of support for cultural organisations in England, made up of £270m of loans and £880m of grants and an extra £188m for the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland (£33m), Scotland (£97m) and Wales (£59m). As well as theatres and other arts venues, the £1.57bn will also be spent on museums, galleries, and heritage sites.

However, very little detail has been announced about how the “huge” support package will be divvied up or when the money will be available.

While the sector has greeted the announcement with a sense of hope and relief – Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director at The Young Vic theatre, told Times Radio yesterday that "when we heard last night we slept for the first time since March” – it remains to be seen whether it will be able to prevent more institutions from calling curtains, and what this will mean for those employed in the sector.

The emphasis in the announcement seems to be on London’s West End and on London

Saving the “Crown Jewels”: where will the money go?

Without details on how the money will be distributed, some are concerned that too much focus will be placed on saving globally renowned institutions based in London, while the regional theatres and arts companies will be allowed to close.

Trying to assuage these fears, Dowden stated on Sky that “we’ll prioritise those Crown Jewels… but we’ll also make sure we’ll help all parts of the UK”.

“The most important thing is to spread [the funding] across the industry,” explains Giles Watling, Conservative MP for Clacton and chair of the APPG on Theatre. “The smaller provincial and regional theatres feed the rest of the industry… so it is very important that we don’t take our eyes of that particular ball and let the smaller places die,” he adds.

Jo Stevens, Labour’ shadow culture secretary, agrees, warning that “the emphasis in the announcement seems to be on London’s West End and on London,” rather than regional theatres in towns and smaller cities across the country, which have smaller cash reserves.

Decisions on the grants and loans will be made in partnership with expert independent figures from the sector including the Arts Council England and other specialist bodies such as Historic England, National Lottery Heritage Fund and the British Film Institute. Dowden has also stated that the needs of institutions and how much they’ve exhausted from their existing funds will be considered.

However, Watling warns against treating the financials of theatres in the same way as you might treat the books of other sectors. “You’ve got to look at it from output, from what it gives to the community, rather than just from the financial aspect. It’s very difficult for people outside the industry to understand that but the value is in what it gives to the community,” Watling explains.

Andy Frain, Dods political consultant specialising in DCMS and employment, explains: "It is really important that this money goes to the venues that need it most – we've seen big names like Sam Mendes and Andrew Lloyd Webber praising this package, but the truth is that their experience isn't typical of a majority of British theatres.”

The industry is now desperate for a start date for when they will be able to open up – or at least, a “not before date”, as Stevens puts it – so that they can plan, both practically and financially.

“How do you tell if this money is enough if you don’t know how long the sector is going to be closed for?” she asks, adding that it could take “many, many months” to get performances up and running again even if they were allowed to reopen tomorrow.

Watling suggests a “theatrical furlough scheme”, where theatres open with around 40% capacity as soon as is safe. The Government could then top up theatres to a “break-even point” of income, focused on the smaller and regional theatres, in order to provide employment and entertainment.

Stevens, Watling and Frain are united in the importance of pantomimes through the winter season. Although dismissed by some, they provide regional theatres with up to 80% of their annual income, effectively subsidising the productions for the rest of the year. However, due to their more raucous nature, Dowden warned this morning that they would be difficult to make Covid secure, adding another layer of jeopardy even if other shows can open.

No business in show business: can jobs be saved?

Around 70% of those who work in theatres are freelancers. However due to the complexities of employment contracts in the creative arts, where actors, production teams and technicians may split their work between PAYE and self-employed work or use fixed-term contracts, many have now fallen through the gaps and are not eligible for support from either the Job Retention Scheme or the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme.

Some creative workers are now concerned that the funding will be funnelled into stopping venues from going bust – particularly the large, renowned institutions – rather than saving jobs or smaller theatres.

While there is a sense of relief for some that the industry will endure, there is also an acceptance that this may not save their current livelihoods. If theatres do not reopen until next spring, career changes will be on the cards for many freelancers or those made recently redundant.

Labour is calling for a sector-specific furlough extension beyond October, but Watling would like to see some of the money made available as individual grants to help people “overcome this hump”. “It would be good to see some of that funding go to keep that talent in the business, because we can lose them and we might lose great people permanently,” he says.

It does more than just the money would seem to do, and what it does is gives people hope, so they’re going to hang on

Stevens adds: “You’d hope that the sector can regenerate, but unless there is quick action to secure these jobs and make sure that the talent and the specialist skills stay in the sector, it will take years and years and years to recover.”

While some jobs have already been lost, and despite questions about its implementation, Watling and Stevens echo the industry’s mostly favourable response to the announcement.

“It does more than just the money would seem to do, and what it does is gives people hope, so they’re going to hang on,” Watling says.

As well as the culture secretary’s suggestion that outdoor theatres can open soon, Watling hopes companies will be able to restart the “periphery” work, like school visits, or even less conventional shows such as “promenade theatre”, where actors lead audiences around a town.

When the sector is able to reopen, says Stevens, it will be reliant on a fully functioning, effective test, trace and isolate system to minimise the risk. But even if the reopening means half empty theatres, without the crush of the bar and toilet rush at the intervals, Watling is hopeful.

“It’s going to be a very different experience, it’ll be a much sadder experience. But I would encourage people to go out and see live theatre because otherwise you will lose it,” he concludes.

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