The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, and subsequent lockdowns around the world, has impacted on everyone. Every aspect of our lives has been changed radically – and many people have suffered as a result. The industry most disproportionately affected by Coronavirus is the arts and culture sector. Theatres and cultural venues across the UK were told to close their doors in March, with little guidance for when they might again be able to reopen. That is, until the Culture Secretary revealed his five-stage plan last week to reopen theatres and arts venues in the UK.
However, our Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, has faced intense criticism from theatre unions, industry leaders and employees over the lack of support and clarity provided by the plan.
The roadmap, which features no clear dates, begins at Stage One (which involves rehearsals and training abiding by social distancing regulations with no audiences allowed), and then moves on to performing for broadcast and recording, with social distancing remaining firmly in place for Stage Two. Audiences are finally allowed in some capacity at Stage Three, but they are limited, and performances are required to take place outside. The unpredictable weather in the UK is concerning to many theatre companies, who are unable to confirm dates for shows to take place outside. Indoor performances can take place under Stage Four, but with limited audiences that must still socially distance. Only at Stage Five can performances happen indoors with fuller audiences.
“We know the challenges[…], but I am determined to ensure the performing arts do not stay closed longer than is absolutely necessary to protect public health” stated Dowden, in an effort to reassure those working in the culture sector.
The roadmap has been welcomed by some industry professionals who are pleased with the time they now have to prepare for rehearsals and the government’s acknowledgement of the need to prepare the arts and culture business steadily.
However, for many, the confusing lack of time frames, and the complete omission of any sort of financial assistance package, means that the roadmap amounts to very little if they cannot afford to open their businesses when the time comes.
Jon Morgan of the Theatres Trust raised concerns over the lack of timescale provided by Dowden, stating that “theatres will still be unable to plan effectively for their reopening”. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that theatres will be able to sell tickets, or plan for box office reopening, when they have no idea about when this will be allowed.
Chris Stafford, executive director of the Curve Theatre in Leicester, said: “Unless this roadmap is accompanied by financial packages and a clear idea of timeframes, the status quo remains unchanged”.
Many venues are struggling to survive, and fear that the long-term impact of COVID-19 may cripple the arts and culture sector. Lots of theatres are worried that, when Stage Five finally arrives and it is safe for people to go to the theatre again, they will be unable to financially do so. As well as this, the psychological impact of Coronavirus will affect people for a long time, meaning that many may not feel safe enough to go to the theatre.
The Artistic Director of the Nottingham Playhouse (Adam Penford), among other management professionals, has warned that theatres may close forever; the impact that this would have on communities would be devastating.
The government have forgotten the role that arts and culture venues play in local communities and society as a whole. Their engagement with elderly people, schools and youth groups, prisons, the homeless, and the vulnerable more generally, it appears, has gone completely unnoticed.
The number of people who would lose their jobs if theatres collapse entirely would be detrimental to families across Britain. The Theatre Royal in Newcastle has been forced to make almost half of its staff redundant, and I fear that many other venues are experiencing the same job losses.
Other countries around the world have taken a much more proactive role in protecting their precious arts industries. In Italy, the government established a fund worth £220 million to protect workers and companies in the performing arts. A similar situation occurred in Germany, as the government ensured that €1 billion would be provided to the culture sector.
It’s not just Europe that has seen massive pay-outs to those in the culture industry; the Canadian government pledged the equivalent of £300 million to rescue culture, art and sports businesses, and the Madagascan government (among other African countries) dedicated £7 million in relief to artists struggling to survive. It really is shocking to compare the work being done by other countries, even those with low overall budgets and struggling to survive, to protect their culture sectors.
The UK government’s silence has been deafening.
When arts have been so crucial in helping people get through the emotional and mental toll of lockdown, proving the vital role that entertainment plays in making life enjoyable, the government should surely recognise the importance of ensuring that these venues survive.
None of us could have predicted how much life would change over the past few months, and there aren’t many people out there who can safely say that they know what will happen in the next few. Whilst it is probably unreasonable for theatres to be given a date for reopening, as the virus and its impact is so unpredictable, it’s crucial that the government gives the arts and culture sector the financial assistance it so desperately needs to survive.
Words by Lucy Martin.