Views: Confidence is the key in theatres’ brave new world

RSC Stratford lit red for part of the #wemakeevents national event in August

A personal view by Unrestricted Theatre founder, Gary Donaldson

Eight months into the Covid-19 era and here we are in lockdown once again. Public entertainment and hospitality venues are shuttered once again, as the country tries to drive down the spiralling growth of cases of this invisible threat which appears to attack so mercilessly.

The incompetent UK government, having totally mishandled every aspect of public information from Day One, has reduced the UK to a global laughing-stock, especially for its “one rule for us and one rule for you” mentality – remember Dominic Scummings’ (not a misprint, a review) Barnard Castle jaunt that drove the public past the point of return to any sort of government credibility.

And all the time these clowns were creating chaos, risking the lives of our loved ones and driving our beloved NHS to breaking point, our still globally-respected entertainment sector was on its knees, ignored by a Culture Secretary who said he was on our side, but aside from hot air, we got nothing. We’d have been better off having a dead parrot on our side.

Whereas large swathes of industry (all the government’s old chums network barging to the front of the line) got financial largesse within a few weeks of the crisis hitting, the arts and culture sector had to wait more than six full months to see a penny of any financial assistance. Thousands of arts staff across the country were made redundant with no light appearing at the end of the tunnel. But even they fared better than the freelancers – hundreds of thousands of dedicated and talented creatives who found themselves falling through a safety net that almost appears specifically designed to exclude them.

#WeMakeEvents in August highlighted the plight of freelancers who make our industry work by lighting arts and entertainment buildings all in red. To a passionate and supportive public – and an utterly deaf government.

And then, and then. Government decided that it would be a real morale booster to all those they were already ignoring and starving of lifelines to be told that their jobs were “unviable”. You try telling that to a classical musician who has spent decades in their career! Did the Chancellor (Fishy Rishi) and the Business Secretary (Alok him up Sharma) think that their gift of creativity would be more viably expressed by driving a Tesco delivery van instead? Perhaps Sir Ian McKellen might be more “viable” running a fruit and veg stall in Brick Lane market?And if so, what does that tell us about this government’s conscious incompetence? As well as their utter disregard for ambition, talent and aspiration.

In yet another unbelievably tone-deaf move, the government decided that all applicant organisations for funds (the process for which they had farmed out to the Arts Council for them to take any flak) would have to compete against each other, thus providing an undignified pushing and shoving as they fought for the means to keep much-loved and age-old venues and companies alive. One National does not equal ten Southwark Playhouses. But you can’t explain this to people who understand the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Then, we find out, the almost one-third of all the applicants- the ones who failed to receive any funding at all – were simply cast adrift. Thankfully, creative folk being who they are, started creating a whole raft of public Crowdfunder campaigns which rallied to try to assist the majority of beloved local and national organisations who had been given the governmental cold shoulder. Also thankfully, audiences responded with their usual warmth of appreciation for their local and national organisations. I sincerely wish them all well, and have myself contributed to as many as I have felt financially able to.

Those organisations who did finally receive some of the financial help they had requested many months ago were given full and complete instructions on just one aspect of the transaction – how they were to publicly trumpet their gratitude. They were instructed to do this by genuflecting sycophantically at length about how grateful they were all over their social media feeds to try and put lipstick on this pig of a government. It didn’t work. And you could smell the embarrassment on media feeds everywhere.

Then the BBC’ s Parliament channel gave us the worst show of all, the farce of the Select Committee demonstrating that they had very little idea about real life or the arts, let alone any idea of how the arts and entertainment industries actually work, and worse still, demonstrating no interest or inclination to listen or learn. What a demeaning spectacle. It was like taking a pre-school playgroup to see the Hadron Collider.

Meanwhile, producers worked tirelessly this way and that to try to put work on, continually frustrated by endless variables including the local disparities in viral status across the country, so that planned drive-in tours and outdoor performances had to be postponed or cancelled. Some diversified creatively, showing movies as an alternative entertainment, others like ENO created Drive In Opera at Alexandra Palace and other venues. Others managed to get shows on in open-air and traditional venues, like Kenny Wax, Katy Lipson and David Pugh, and one must applaud the drive and determination of every producer who set out to make shows during this period. It must have been like skiing downhill in a blizzard. Many other groups got work together and aired it online, which was a great help to creatives as well as their superfans, and helped to build audiences for shows which perhaps some might not have traditionally considered, as well as those with pre-existing conditions who feared leaving their homes.

And then, with all these green shoots coming through – venues which had worked tirelessly to creatively adapt with reduced seating, perspex screen dividers and all manner of creative interventions – were summarily told they would have to shut again, placing yet more strain and insecurity on an already buckling sector.

Now we await December 2nd. Theatres are poised, their schedules all in place, actors rehearsing behind closed doors. They, and the audiences who so long for theatre’s return, are counting down the days.

Christmas is traditionally theatres’ best bet for making profits. Regionally, it is crucial to generate the income which propels the rest of the year. West End-wise, theatres’ big capacities bring the big money rolling in, with rarely a seat to be found between Christmas and New Year’s. Normally.

To lose Christmas for the arts and culture would be something akin to being run over by a truck for a second time. Who knows how many would get up.

Personally, I believe that the hope of a reasonable Christmas is a good enough incentive to get people to abide by the rules over this next couple of weeks, in the hope that restrictions can then ease.

As I see it, the biggest problem isn’t just about restrictions lifting, it’s the rebuilding of confidence that will need to happen before people feel comfortable enough to firstly go out of their houses, then take whatever travel options they have available, and finally to feel able to relax in a building with a lot of others in the same place at relatively close quarters. We have already seen anxiety and all sorts of pyschologically-related disorders rise exponentially. How, I wonder, will this play out with theatregoers? Although I would relish seeing a live show greatly, am I in any rush to return to a busy auditorium? No. It’s a bit like driving. You can be the most responsible driver in the world – all it takes is one idiot to do something wrong and you could be in trouble.

I worry about how much this will filter through to audiences. I think that theatres are doing all they can to assuage people’s fears- SOLT and UKTheatre’s SEE IT SAFELY campaign is providing customers with a reliable standard and very important visual reinforcement that venues are doing everything reasonably possible to adhere to wise safety processes. But its when you put the volatile commodity of people into the equation, that’s when the real litmus test will be.

I wish it success with all my heart.

As to what the government will do to control and diminish Covid-19’s threat both to human life and to the future of our industry, heaven alone knows. They have already proved themselves utterly incapable of running anything, let alone a co-ordinated virus response. And for anyone who disagrees, I have just three words – Test and Trace.

But, frankly, what can you expect of a government that actually voted to let children starve during the Christmas holidays?

2 Replies to “Views: Confidence is the key in theatres’ brave new world”

  1. You could substitute American references for those of the UK in the opening paragraphs and it would be equally true for us. It doesn’t change your situation, but at least you know you’re not alone in this madhouse of a world.

    I’m impressed your theaters are opening next month. Broadway is shut down through next May; some shows that were supposed to have a 2021 opening have been pushed to 2022. Between that and the cinemas shut down, I wonder how many people will have gotten used to staying home for their entertainment permanently. In the ’50s, they said TV would kill the movie industry; it only took another 70 years for that to become possible.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Kevin. Yes, you are right, we are in very similar situations to yourselves in New York. I agree with you it’s great that our theatres are planning to reopen, and the work going into that is immense. But while that’s the plan, we cannot look more than a few days ahead with any certainty, so who knows what may happen by the time we get to December. Time will tell. The other factor in this is financial- running costs in the UK are significantly less than in NY.
      Let’s also not forget that the shows which are planned to open are not necessarily the shows that the theatres closed with- there are a lot of two-handers, small casts, minimal shows – so in many ways this will be a rather restricted reopening, in terms of cast, productions and complexity, as well as the reduction in audience capacity (down to about 40% in our West End venues I believe). None of the big musicals are reopening in their original format, so concert versions are the best we can expect for some months ahead.
      There are a slew of shows booking from April 21, but whether they get pushed back again remains to be seen. Let’s hope that with the vaccine news, that you in the US – and we, your friends in the UK- can all get back to going out for a good night out in the New Year!

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