VIEWS: Fifteen-month late government insurance scheme denounced as not fit for purpose

The live theatre sector has consistently been given less support than other business areas to survive the ravages of Covid – and that neglect continues.

Just look at the evidence – the government leaps to help industries like the aviation industry, with EasyJet doled out a whopping £600million of taxpayers cash within a month of the start of the UK-wide shutdown in 2020. Two months later the TV and film industries get a comprehensive insurance-backed scheme to allow them to restart and claim for Covid-related shutdowns in their supply chains. But what about theatre and other live events? It has taken over one year later until the government announced something similar for the live entertainment sector.

As soon as it was announced, as a Lloyds-backed scheme valued at $750million operating for a year from September, it was clear to see that it was not going to be much help.

Why? Because the offered insurance is heavily front-loaded, meaning that most (if not all) producers will simply find it too expensive to even contemplate. And therefore of zero help.

Leading producers have criticised the scheme, describing it as too little, too late and not fit for purpose. If Sir Cameron Mackintosh considered it “prohibitvely expensive”, then you can immediately imagine what other producers might think of it.

Mackintosh added “(the) insurance on offer explicitly excludes some of the protection the theatre desperately needs, namely for cancellation of performances caused by illness or enforced isolation and the negative effect of the reintroduction of limited capacities, which would make most shows financially unviable”. Another leading producer, Sonia Friedman, described the insurance as adding £750,000 of cost onto a twelve-week run, which even the public can see is utterly unviable.

Rather than support the theatre and live events industries by talking to them about what they need and then fashioning support accordingly, the government has once again evidenced that they do not understand the sector, nor do they have the slightest interest in educating themselves to understand it. It’s just another piece of the government mess born of disinterest, idleness and incompetence.

You can read more about the scheme via the Guardian newspaper here

STATEMENT FROM SOLT AND UK THEATRE about the offered insurance scheme

Society of London Theatre, representing over 230 producers, and UK Theatre representing over 240 theatres, made this statement when this announcement was made in August:

“Today’s announcement of a government backed insurance scheme for the live performance and events sectors, which is accessible also to theatres and productions is a welcome demonstration of the need for insurance to protect against the severe impacts of the pandemic. These have led to costly cancellations of theatre productions, and a major inhibition to producers, venues, and external investors from making the commitments necessary to bring our world leading theatre sector back to normal levels of activity, with all the employment which that creates, right the way across the UK.

Theatre generates £1.4bn in revenue annually and we estimate that as a sector our total economic impact including to the hospitality, travel and the tourism markets, coupled with the vibrancy theatre brings to our city centres, is worth at least treble this number to the economy as a whole. We also provide critical international earnings as our high quality productions are exported around the world. The sector will not be able to flourish and return to pre pandemic levels without an effective insurance scheme in place, that provides cover for Covid-19 related risks.

Currently commercial insurers are unwilling to offer such crucial cover without government backing. We therefore welcome government intervention to help plug the gap left by this market failure – especially in relation to possible future national or regional lockdowns.

However today’s proposal addresses only some, and not all, of the major risks that theatre faces. Self- isolation regulations have been forcing the closures of shows at short notice. Social distancing audience number caps have been a constant burden to an industry which requires high audience occupancy levels to be economically viable. The threat of their possible reimposition represents a major risk, that we need to obtain insurance cover for – especially if larger, high cost productions are going to resume at normal levels. Theatre productions need long term sustainable cover for shows running daily over a considerable period of time. These risks and requirements are not addressed properly by the proposal. For any scheme to be effective it has to be comprehensive, and it also has to be affordable.

We recognise the considerable engagement that has been made by DCMS and HMT, over the past year, in working closely with the theatre sector on the issue of insurance. It is important that we continue those negotiations and discussions as we work through the specific detail of the proposal announced today, but also to find ways to mitigate cover to include more of the risks that the sector is facing due to the pandemic, and to making the costs involved significantly more viable.”

VIEWS: A time for focus

Well, I hadn’t expected for this to be a continuing series ,but things are changing quite quickly so I felt it was important to take a few moments to make a few observations.

Since the West End (and other shows) have reopened, albeit piecemeal, it has been a turbulent time. Some shows have realised that it will take longer to get back to pre-pandemic audiences, and have consequently postponed or cancelled national tours, adding further uncertainty to the ever-shifting schedules of regional theatres.

In the West End, shows at the Coliseum , the Dominion and Royal Court have had backstage or cast members register a positive COVID-test, which meant that their show had to close down for 10 days while everyone isolates. Let’s compare this to a footballer, who tests positive but the team can continue training and playing. Level playing field, I think not.

While 10 days closure seems very cautious indeed, what we must also remember are the knock-on effects of this. Hard-pressed Box Offices are beseiged with calls from customers wanting to reschedule their visits, not all of them happy or empathetic, with all the accompanying stress that brings (not all customers are lovely about changing their plans, believe you me!).

Further, you may not know but everyone who is forced to isolate receives no pay whatsoever. Can you imagine how precarious this all feels to a performer or backstage worker who was so elated at getting a job after 16 months, only to have the financial lifeline it provides pulled from under their feet. Requests have been made to adjust the quarantine requirements, but of course we see how slowly this government acts- if at all. This is a key impact of the Government not providing support in the form of an insurance-backed scheme to compensate producers for any losses due to Covid stoppages. Exactly the same sort of insurance coverage helped the Film and TV industry get back to work over a year ago. Why did the Government not help theatres too? You decide.

I am sure you can appreciate this makes no sense at all, but then why should we ask for sense from a government which clearly hasn’t a clue, with no concept of right or wrong, fair or discriminatory, compassionate or cruel. They just don’t care.

I have heard that performers in cancelled shows are receiving abusive or threatening messages via social media, which is utterly unacceptable. If any performers or crew member receives abuse, they should report it to the police immediately. It’s understandable that people are upset. A LOT of people are upset. But being upset at the wrong people is wrong – and no way to get anything sorted.

This COVID mess , if it is anyone’s fault, is the Government’s -from mistiming lockdowns and unlockings, to giving incorrect and confusing advice from start to finish which now leaves us back in the situation we were in at Christmas, with cases likely to soar to new heights, putting evermore pressure on our valued NHS.

Big shows like HAIRSPRAY at the Coliseum are taking on 12 extra performers to try to cover them for any future COVID- related restrictions, but very few shows (if any in this appallingly difficult time) could afford the budget to do that. And just imagine how that is cutting into the profit margin for what was already a tightly-forecast 12-week run.

Meanwhile, another change to contend with is that audiences are now sitting up close and personal to each other in venues packed to full capacity after the misleadingly-titled Freedom Day. My projection is that many will not feel ready for this after more than a year of separation – and that consequently, they will feel desperately uncomfortable, unsafe and unsure – they will reschedule where they can, others will simply not go and others wont buy tickets until they see the case numbers going down in a big way.

The Summer is usually one of theatres’ boom times, as tourists flock to our world-beating entertainment scene. The tourists aren’t here this year, so venues have to work even harder to get UK audiences in- and it’s not easy in a heatwave as we’ve had this last week, even in normal times. Theatres will be more than ever subject to last-minute booking which brings uncertainty as to their financial projections, and may certainly cause some producers to slash ticket prices in a panic to get any price for a seat. I hope this won’t happen, but rising case numbers and extreme weather make this more likely. I hope not, but,….

APAC’s 2021 online study day explores the impact of Covid

On Thursday 17 June 2021 from 2.00pm-5.00pm the Association of Performing Arts Collections will host an Online Study Day. Entitled *Waiting in the Wings: Review, Reflect, Respond* the presentations will explore the impact of Covid-19 on performing arts collections.

APAC’s 2021 Online Study Day will reflect on the events of 2020, discuss the challenges & opportunities, and explore how APAC members are preparing for the future.

You will hear from APAC’s members about what they have learnt from their experiences of the past year, what challenges and opportunities have arisen, and what they plan to do differently going forwards.

Presentations will include:

Alice Bloom, Wimbledon College of Arts: Challenges and opportunities of supporting performance students online

Louise Manico, Early Dance Circle: The Early Dance Circle’s Shift to Digital in Response to Covid-19

Clare Wood, Southbank Centre: Keeping Connected: Southbank Centre Archive and the Art by Post project

Paul Roberts, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama/ABTT: An Archive in the Making: 60 years of the Association of British Theatre Technicians

Lucy Powell, University of Bristol Theatre Collection: Theatre and live art records at risk: survey, emergency response and capacity building at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Ian Abbott, Hip Hop Dance Almanac: The (mis)adventures of Ian Abbott and his attempts to build an archive of Hip Hop dance from scratch

Hannah Jones, The National Archives: Re-opening your archive service: strategies and scenarios

This event is free for APAC members or £5 for non-members. You can become a member of APAC from as little as £10 a year.

Book your tickets here

All Party Parliamentary Group for Theatre takes evidence today

Today the All Party Parliamentary Group for Theatre was taking evidence on “How Local Authorities and Theatres can help each other recover from Covid-19”.

MPs and Peers were joined by Speakers from The RSC, HOME Manchester.Islington Council and the Local Government Association.

The background to the session reads as follows:

“Councils have played an important role in supporting the theatre sector. During the COVID 19 pandemic and theatres have worked to support their local communities in a variety of ways. It has been a year of incredible challenges, and would have been even bleaker were it not for national Government support schemes, including the Cultural Recovery Fund, JRS, and SEISS, and support by local authorities for their theatre venues.

This session aims to look at what is needed next for theatres to succeed locally, and for local areas to flourish. As a result, this session forms one part of many conversations across the UK, about how local government can work with the theatre sector to deliver a sustainable, national and local recovery.

Theatre can play a vital role in recovery from supporting high street renewal and the night-time and visitor economies to delivering against social outcomes including mental wellbeing, educational achievement, and social cohesion. But theatres cannot do it without strong local partnerships.

The theatre industry understand the extraordinary pressures on local government finances, and the difficult decisions that they will face in the coming years, however, this is a critical moment, to ensure that local cultural provision is protected as once lost, it is difficult to recover.”

My friend Dr Maria Barrett, who is a valued contributor to these events, noted that Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Leader of Portsmouth City Council began by pointing out what is often overlooked – local authorities are incredibly important in supporting local theatres – they represent £1bn of funding (2x the Arts Council’s budget), they run 116 theatres directly, and own over 500. Hugely important points to remember.

More information and video of the presentations will be available shortly on the APPG Theatre page of the UK Theatre website which you can find here

VIEWS: “So great to be back!” – West End theatres first audiences report…

If there’s anyone reading this who is feeling a little unsure about returning to theatre, let me assure you that you are not alone. Many people have contacted me over the last few weeks asking about how it’s all going, are the protocols in place working, how do people feel, etc. So this seemed like a good time to take a survey some of those who have already made their way into our West End theatres. So I did. And here are the major takeaways from what they all said. Respondents visited a sample of all the West End theatre groups which are currently open and showing work, and the feedback is intended to give you a general overview, as opposed to a theatre-by-theatre approach.

Did you have instructions when to arrive on your tickets? All respondents said that their confirmation email containing their e-tickets outlined when doors would open, where to enter, and what time they needed to be seated by.

What were your feelings of anticipation of returning to the theatre? The general response was that they were really looking forward to returning, particularly supporting the industry and enjoying a night out after so many months away from live theatre.

What were your feelings upon arrival at the theatre? One respondent responded they felt a little cautious, but the rest said they felt absolutely fine, and were eagerly anticipating their show.

Were there temperature checks/bag searches/any other entry processes? If so, were they conducted well? Anything they could improve upon? All respondents reported that Front of House processes were very well managed, and that there were separate queues, depending on where in the theatre one was sitting. There was unanimous praise for the helpful staff on hand to guide patrons to the correct queue. At all venues surveyed, our respondents were asked to scan the NHS Covid check-in QR code, but there were few temperature checks reported. All of the surveyed theatres were operating bag searches before entering the theatre, and hand sanitisers were noted as being widely available throughout all the theatres surveyed. Audiences were specifically instructed to keep masks on at all times when not drinking, and staff were reported as wandering the aisles throughout to ensure compliance. Some were reported as carrying signs to remind people about wearing masks.

Did you have any ticket issues? One respondent mentioned having trouble accessing her ticket PDF on her phone, and so she was redirected to the Box Office where paper tickets were made available. Respondent noted that the staff were very helpful and unflustered by this.

Re scanning the NHS QR code, did you each have to scan or could one person do it for your party? Each person had to scan separately. Patrons who didn’t have the app were asked to manually complete a form which were readily available on entry to the theatre.

How were the staff? Were there more than you expected or less of them? Staff were very friendly and helpful and clearly delighted to be back – but also very vigilant with ensuring mask compliance throughout. It was noted that staff were doing a great job, being firm but friendly and helpful. It was also noted that there were significantly more Front of House staff than previously seen around venues.

Any issues around queuing? One respondent had to queue to buy a programme, but was not fazed by this.

How was navigating your way around the building? Very easy, with clear signage. One respondent noted that “Pre-pandemic there was always a sense of rushing in the foyers, but this was all well-ordered and good-humoured”

Any problems? None reported

Any issues with your seats or surroundings? No issues, with appropriate seats blocked off to ensure social distancing at all venues surveyed.

How full was the theatre? Very mixed reactions to this one. The lowest was from a respondent who reported around 35% of socially-distanced capacity for their performance, albeit in the first week of reopening, on Friday. Several more mentioned varying percentages, up to 100% of socially-distanced capacity for a Saturday matinee in week two of reopening.

What was “the buzz” like? Several people noted the reduced numbers affected the “buzz” in the auditorium, but for several that was compensated by the excitement of those who were there. Very few reported any feelings of nervousness or anxiety, perhaps a sign that the Front of House teams are succeeding in helping people feel comfortable, by being so vigilant and friendly. All respondents described a level of “comeback high” at the end of their performance, a step towards normality that all were grateful for.

Did your show have an interval? Was it well-managed by the staff? Several shows had an interval and overall it was reported that they were well managed, with staff and patrons being mindful and kind.

Any issues around loos/queuing/bars/etc ? No major issues, with all mentioning that patrons were bring sensible and considerate, especially in queuing for the loos, still sadly an issue for the ladies. One respondent noted an issue at the bar – “restrictions meant only one person in each party could buy drinks from the bar to prevent crowding. A gentleman went to the bar to buy 3 mini bottles of wine/bubbly and was told he couldn’t take glass back into the theatre, and had to pour these into glasses before returning, however the glasses themselves weren’t big enough to hold the volume of liquid in each bottle, and he struggled to physically carry these back”.

Another respondent noted the strict queuing system for the bars at her show’s interval. “It was just like going to the bank!” she said, “personally, I think this is a brilliant idea that should be kept.”

Were there any issues with leaving the theatre? None reported.

What was your overall impression of the theatre’s handling of the safety processes and procedures. Overall we would say staff had been very well briefed and protocols were good

Would you recommend a theatre trip to others? “Yes, absolutely!” was the unanimous response from all those surveyed. One respondent mentioned “Although the theatre was relatively empty we more than made up for it in encouragement and appreciation of the performers, and it was such a lovely evening.”

Any tips on what to look out for? Issues to avoid? Nothing specific was noted by any of the respondents.

Conclusions My thanks to all the respondents for giving me their views and sharing them with all of us. It certainly appears that West End theatres are doing a splendid job of welcoming audiences back, taking sensible measures and enforcing them with a professionalism and warmth that the West End is famous for. I hope that these responses will help you make up your own mind about when and how you return to the West End – it has certainly helped me to feel much more confident about getting back to theatre, and Seeing It Safely!