VIEWS: Two Years On: Covid’s unseen costs to theatre

March 16th 2020 was the fast-moving day that theatres closed their doors for the longest period in modern history. To mark two years since that event, I wanted to remind us all of what has changed – and to highlight an area that most theatregoers aren’t aware of.

Make no mistake, Covid has been a seismic event in the creative arts.

These last two years have seen theatre companies, buildings and related workers put through the wringer as they fought to survive this unprecedented crisis.

Two years later, most of our theatre buildings are still with us, but theatre’s infrastructure has suffered huge damage. Freelancers, already an undervalued and underrepresented group of creatives, found they had been forgotten in financial contingencies. It was the people within the industry itself that at least partially came to the rescue, raising millions of pounds from supporters both colleagues and grateful audiences. Two years later, how many of those valuable creatives have been lost to the industry?

Stuttering, inconsistent and inadequate financial support by the human blancmange that was Oliver Dowden (the ex-Culture Secretary) piled unnecessary pressure and pain on the whole sector, further compounded by the cowardly approach by incompetent central Government (not requiring but advising theatres to close, giving their insurance pals a get-out for not paying off on insurance claims). The less than £2 billion for the arts and culture was dwarfed by comparison with the £36 billion wasted on the failed test and trace scheme. And let us not forget that a large proportion of taxpayer’s money given to the arts were LOANS, not grants. theatres have to spend the next few years trying to pay it back. What a different approach to, say, easyJet, who came whining to government in April 2020 and found themselves with £600 million of taxpayers money in their back-pocket. Level playing field, my arse.

Actors took to social media to try to support others and boost morale, but the idea of artists who had worked hard for years being relegated to supermarket shelf fillers was a real gut punch.

Theatre companies did inspirational work with their local communities and deepened their relationships with their constituents as they filled the gaps in local authority services, handled donations and became whatever the community needed, food banks, vaccination centers, free entertainment providers. The scope and range of work has been truly breathtaking and moving. This is why creativity and the arts matter.

Creatives being creatives, many chose to dive online and produce work which was able to be broadcast to an external audience. Many started sidelines they had been toying with for years. Others later in their careers felt able to wait and ride it out.

Theatres themselves suffered their longest closure period ever. It is worth remembering that theatres do not stand still in time. You cant just lock the doors and expect to start up as if nothing had happened two years later. Theatres need just as much maintenance, repair and upkeep as our own homes do – much more, in fact. And with theatres these things don’t come cheap. Let us also not forget that the Restoration Levy paid on many tickets which helped contribute towards the upkeep of our most valued theatres has also been lost to theatre owners, digging another financial hole of tens of millions of pounds cumulatively over two years. Some of you may not have much sympathy for theatre owners, but our highest profile landlords like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh undoubtedly love their theatre buildings in similar ways that we love them.

Some took the opportunity (as Lloyd Webber did) to progress major renovation work while it was impossible to open to the public. From that, we have a restored and rejuvenated Her Majesty’s auditorium and a wonderfully-restored Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

And then of course once the film industry had started to get back up running (very quickly thanks to government insurance backed guarantees – which were denied to live theatre), creatives piled into filmmaking and television work. There has been much annoyance at the National’s Rufus Norris recent carping about Netflix taking talent away from the stage, which was a really dumb and insensitive thing to say. In an industry where over 75% are not in work, his kvetching may be seen as unhelpful and disrespectful of the wider talent pool that would love to be at the National, but will likely never get the chance. Perhaps Mr Norris might ponder the fact that if the government hadn’t handed over millions of taxpayers money to support the National (never forget where that cash came from!), he might be out looking for work too.

So now, as we reopen theatres and try to navigate a new normal, we can see that the whole landscape of theatre and theatregoing has changed. People are jumpier, audiences rowdier, the jangled nerves of separation will take time to settle.

There are many untold stories to be shared in coming months about this time, but for now I would like to focus on one particular aspect of theatre that audiences don’t see. Its about the damage to theatre financing.

It takes a considerable amount of money to put on a show, even a small-scale, fringe show. At a time when inflation is rising, the costs of putting on a show are rising too. Small shows with limited runs most often do not return their costs, let alone turn a profit. Larger shows which have the potential to run in London’s West End and/or tour the UK have much more potential, but also cost much more to stage and run.

Long-running shows, after recouping their production costs, can go on to produce a regular financial return to investors. Although many shows lose money, some break even and others go on to cumulatively make a lot of profit due to their low running costs or length of run – or other factors.

The money to put on shows is raised from investors -some still call them “angels”- who have a commitment to the project or those involved with it, or simply someone who wants to help a production get up on its feet. They can be industry insiders, other producers, wealthy folk with money to spare or small investors like the general public. Anyone can invest in a show- and usually you’ll be most welcome.

It is underestimated how many of those investing in shows are small to mid-scale investors. Some have a family history of investing, others had a particularly affinity with a particular production.

What is usually unseen and therefore not understood in the financial equation, is that many of these smaller/mid-scale investors, when they get a profit return, will very often use that money to put into another show, in this way keeping the money going round within the theatrical “body” as it were.

2020’s halting of all shows, big and small, hit or miss, West End or touring, means that not only have incomes been denied to theatres, producers, theatre-workers, show companies, ticket agents, marketing companies, agents, scene-builders, artists and so many more. What it has also meant is that the steady flow of returns in the shape of profit cheques were also halted in the first instance of this happening in theatre history.

What does this mean? Well, speaking as a smaller-scale investor, for me the abrupt halt of profit cheques meant that I could not help upcoming and emerging producers with the financial support for their shows to be presented, which support is most critical to allowing new and untried work to be seen and for all concerned to gain valuable experience.

We have to stop and think what these profit cheques have enabled. Not only the payment of salaries, office space rental, together with all the usual costs of running a business – accountancy, legal work, etc, but also of looking after those they may in some way be responsible for.

Once we get past this initial impact, there are still further and more ominous impacts to be considered.

As the large shows come back, they have to cope with not only the financial uncertainty of a depressed market for theatre, as well as a hesitant audience who may wait many more months before venturing back into a theatre, it also means that their restart costs have to be found from their own pockets. You don’t just go into a theatre and pick up where you left off 18 months ago.

Rehearsing, repairing and replacing sets, costumes, etc. Finding cast and company members who by now may have gone into other jobs, or even quit theatre altogether. This all takes money, and no-one except the producer knows where that will come from. What is certain is that it will affect their balance sheet enormously. Also, of course, it will further impede their ability to begin to pay profit cheques out once more, and how long that internal system will take to rebalance itself nobody knows, but it certain to be many years.

After World War Two, the Arts Council of Great Britain understood that for the regeneration of our cultural sector, many seeds needed to be planted, and often, in the hope that our creative industries could flourish again. Looking back on the support that was given then, it i almost unbelievable in the size and scale of its operation, creativity and joined-up thinking. Such an operation would be utterly impossible now. We have no visionaries left.

The fact remains that we need a similar approach now. Smaller scale seeding grants for upcoming companies to produce future healthy growth in our precious , unique theatre world., that is what will allow the creatives of the future to flourish.

And we might all consider offering up a word of thanks to all the thousands of investors who helped us to see the shows we loved in the past – and will continue to do so in the future.