Saving British Theatre: Can ‘Seat Out To Help Out’ Do It?

Photo Credit: Tim Bechervaise via Unsplash

The government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme finished at the end of August (although some businesses have extended their involvement with the scheme) and it was a huge success. The latest statistics show that diners claimed 100 million meals and it gave the hospitality industry, as well as the economy more generally, a much-needed boost. 

The arts and culture industry has, arguably, been the sector that has been the hardest hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, and would benefit well from a similar influx of money. Whilst theatres’ doors have been temporarily shut, we have seen our West End’s Waitress close, numerous regional theatres lock their doors for good, and restaurants and shops around London’s West End seriously suffering. 

In July, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden announced a £1.56 billion fund to help the arts industry get back on its feet. Since then, very few announcements have been made with further details on how the government intend to aid British theatres.

Until now, that is.

The Times have revealed that the team behind Eat Out to Help Out are working on a similar scheme called Seat Out to Help Out- a movement intended to benefit theatres and sporting venues.

On the surface, this is a great idea. The financial success of Eat Out to Help Out cannot be argued with, and financial support is what theatres need right now. Entertainment venues are unable to open with social distancing as it is financially impossible. Normally, around 70% of seats need to be filled for a show to just break even, so it is clear that social distancing and theatre don’t mix. 

Furthermore, theatre tickets (especially for West End shows) are incredibly expensive, often exceeding £100 per person. This makes theatre inaccessible for most families, who get by without a disposable income. As unemployment rises across the country, but especially within theatre, without a scheme like this, it will be incredibly difficult for theatres to sell as many tickets as they once used to. For someone like me, who has to travel (often by train) to see a show in London, it very quickly becomes too much with the cost of travel and accommodation, on top of expensive tickets. Seat Out to Help Out would undoubtedly help with this; accessible theatre is needed, and this is a step in the right direction. 

Sadly however, Seat Out to Help Out could cause more problems than it solves. During Eat Out to Help Out, hostility towards those working in the service industry rose rapidly. The scheme created an incredibly stressful working environment, which begs the question: would this happen in a theatre too? Eat Out to Help Out ran from Monday-Wednesday, if this was the case in theaters, what would happen on the other days? Would the demand on what is usually the busier part of the week lessen, or would theatres only open on the days included in the scheme? This is information that needs to be put out sooner rather than later. 

For me, the biggest worry about a Seat Out to Help Out is whether it would work for regional theatres. The majority of these venues (largely situated in the North) rely on touring productions. Nothing has been said about these kind of shows yet, but I struggle to see a time in the near future that is safe for large productions to travel across the country, especially as the rate of local lockdowns across the country rises. Eat Out to Help Out wasn’t really affected by local lockdowns, but theatres with no social distancing, and large casts and crews that are potentially from across the country, is a completely different problem which requires a different solution. Hopefully, that solution will come soon and our glorious regional theatres can open at the same time as those in the West End.

Oliver Dowden recently detailed his plan for “Operation Sleeping Beauty”, which aims to have theatres open by Christmas. If this is a success, we may be able to see the Christmas pantomimes up and down the country that, paired with Seat Out to Help Out, may see the festive period be a very profitable one for the theatre industry. 

I miss theatre. I miss it so much. I miss the atmosphere as you’re sat waiting for the curtain to go up, and the first notes of the overture. I miss sitting with baited breath during the interval, and most of all I miss going on a journey with the cast and those around me. I want theatres to open sooner rather than later, and be prioritised and saved. As Andrew Lloyd Webber said, “theatres are at the point of no return”. 

Words by Orla McAndrew.

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