Theatres Under Threat: Will The Industry Survive COVID-19?

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Hundreds of UK creatives have been making urgent appeals to the government, warning that our country’s rich cultural landscape could become a “cultural wasteland” by the end of the pandemic. The arts industries as a whole are struggling to keep afloat amid the crisis, but one of the worst affected will inevitably be theatres. Even outside of the context of Coronavirus, theatres are constantly under threat; a 2-year old Guardian article reveals that 35 theatres were at risk of being lost in 2018 alone. With dwindling amounts of government arts funding, it is no surprise that theatres are suffering in the current climate. In an average year, the performing arts contribute £5.4 billion to the UK economy, but with such a rich cultural heritage and countless social benefits, the detriment of losing our theatres would be far more than financial. 

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With income streams severed from the 23rd March, most theatres are already feeling the blow of lockdown. Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre has gone into liquidation – just 2 years after the City Council invested £3 million into reopening it – and there are serious concerns that other theatres around the country may face the same fate. Major West End producer Sonia Friedman has predicted that 70% of performing arts companies and over 1,000 theatres are likely to be out of business by the end of 2020. It goes without saying that this would be a devastating and catastrophic loss for the UK. 

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In face of these dangers, theatres are having to rapidly adapt to survive. Many are devising brand new ways to source funds in this locked-down, digital world. The prime example being the National Theatre, whose NT Live initiative – which launched in 2009 for the purpose of broadcasting live theatre productions in cinemas worldwide – has evolved into NT At Home. Each week they stream a show from the NT archives on YouTube, with an option to donate in return, whilst some productions, such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sell-out Fleabag, are available to rent. Other examples of fundraising ideas include “Read For The Globe”, a live-streamed Shakespeare readathon whose GoFundMe has already raised over £12k. The Old Vic has just announced an “exciting creative experiment”, in which Matt Smith and Claire Foy will virtually revive their 2019 performance of Lungs. This new, socially distanced version will be streamed live from the auditorium and available to watch at home for a minimum price of £10. 

Photo Credit: National Theatre At Home

Amongst the key decision-makers on the UK theatre scene, the general consensus is that theatres won’t be able to reopen until at least 2021. Producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh has explained that once social distancing has gone, it will take at least 4 to 5 months to get everything back up and running. Of course, this forecast assumes that theatres cannot open at all under current social distance rules. Whereas, other countries have started to think more innovatively. Namely, Germany’s Berliner Ensemble theatre has just opened its doors for a new season, but with less than half of its seating capacity. However, most UK theatremakers are dubious about this solution; health and safety measures do not just concern the audience, but actors, technicians, stage managers, front of house staff and many more. The entire process of running a theatre socially distanced, from ticket checks to communal bathrooms, seems a logistical nightmare.

Photo Credit: The Berliner Ensemble

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Arts Council England are planning an emergency response to COVID-19 as we speak, and organisations such as Theatres Trust and the Society of London Theatre are working tirelessly to support the performing arts sector. For the general public, theatre has never been as accessible as it is now. We are being given the chance to experience the magic of theatre from the comfort of our own homes, with neither location nor finance as a barrier. Perhaps this period will instate a newfound appreciation for the theatre amongst those who never had the opportunity or inclination to discover it before. And if absence makes the heart grow fonder, then existing theatregoers will be swarming to get their cultural fix as soon as theatres reopen. We just need to do everything we can to assure that theatres will still be there waiting for us after this is all over – what we, and the government, do now will shape the future of our beloved industry.

Words by Franky Lynn.


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