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Theatres Say The Government Must Act To Save Them After The Latest Delay In Unlocking

5 min read

Theatres have said they urgently need financial support after it was announced that social distancing requirements will stay in place for at least another four weeks, but that no extra support for culture will be provided in the period.

The lack of support includes the much-demanded government-backed insurance for productions. 

Theatres Trust director, Jon Morgan, said the delay was “wholly understandable”, but that for theatres “continuing to operate at significantly reduced capacity is economically unsustainable.”

Grandees such as actor Simon Callow and composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber had warned that the move could devastate theatres, most of whom have not been able to open for 15 months.

Before this evening’s announcement, twelve West End shows were meant to re-open without social distancing in the four weeks following the original 21 June reopening date, including Lloyd-Webber’s new show Cinderella. He told the Telegraph this weekend that he would open the show on 25 June “come hell or highwater” and invited the police “come to the theatre and arrest us”.

He is currently spending £1m a month to keep his six theatres dark. He has remortgaged his London home, and reportedly borrowed more than £50 million.

However, the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson confirmed today that, with the exception of some live event trials, theatres will still be required to follow social distancing requirements until 19 July. 

This legally caps theatres at 50 per cent capacity, or 1,000 seats, whichever is lower. In practice, many theatres which have been able to open with social distancing have been limited to a third of their usual capacity. On average, West End productions need to fill 55 – 65 per cent of seats to break even, which is not currently possible. Popular shows like Phantom of the Opera regularly sold 95 per cent of their seats before the pandemic.

Morgan said: “It is vital that the additional £408m allocated to the Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) in the Budget is distributed quickly and targeted to those organisations most impacted by this setback.”

So far, theatres and theatre companies in England have received nearly £180m in grants from the CRF and nearly £8m from a capital kickstart fund. 

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) told The House earlier this month that it had lost £46m in income over the pandemic. It received a £19.4m loan from the CRF in November 2020, which will not be repaid until 2040. The RSC is not planning any indoor performances in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford until October 2021.

Not all have been so lucky. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden was criticised this weekend for claiming on Twitter (now deleted) that the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, which entertained world leaders’ spouses at the G7, had been a recipient of the fund. 

The theatre responded: “Sorry @OliverDowden, but this is not true. We did not benefit from any CRF money as we were not eligible to apply. It turned out having a good level of cash reserves meant we had to fend for ourselves and utilise our own reserves.”

SOLT & UK Theatre Chief Executive Julian Bird said: ”Particularly at risk are large-scale commercial productions, which have received little or no CRF support and cannot survive under social distancing.”

While vital for survival, the CRF has also been criticised for “mothballing” institutions, while the freelancers who make up the majority of the industry were excluded from self-employed support. 

Head of Bectu, the media and creatives union, Philippa Childs said: “As the furlough scheme winds down, job losses remain a great concern. After almost 18 months of falling through the gaps of government support schemes, a delay in the reopening of theatres and getting back to work is going to be a struggle for many freelancers.”

Potential mooted solutions to allow theatres to re-open without garnering future losses include an ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ style model, where the government could match the cost seats sold while social distancing remains in place, or an government-backed indemnity model in case productions have to shut due to Covid-cases.

While DCMS sources say work is continuing on an indemnity model, it will not be introduced while social distancing is still in place. “We are only going to have an indemnity scheme once everything is open. We will look at it if insurance is the only barrier remaining to reopening,” they said. 

Bird said: "We urge government to consider greater support for affected theatre organisations, by offering a tailored insurance scheme, allocating the remainder of the Cultural Recovery Fund, and extending full furlough and the Business Rates holiday."

Shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport Jo Stevens said: “Boris Johnson’s decision to commit to 21 June to appease his backbenchers has now come crashing down with severe consequences for our cultural venues which were working to that timetable.  

“Venues still haven’t received the latest tranche of the CRF - despite only having until the end of the month to spend it, freelancers are still excluded from government support, while the secretary of state boasts of giving money to venues which were ineligible because of his lack of understanding of the sector.”

Arts Council England, which distributes the CRF, said: "88 per cent of first grant payments to Culture Recovery Fund Round 2 recipients have already been made. The Arts Council is working at pace with government to provide updates to organisations affected by delays and deliver outstanding grants as soon as possible.”

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