Views: Theatres shut by Coronavirus: A time for positive thinking and community spirit

Gary Donaldson, Publisher of Unrestricted Theatre, writes:

If your email inbox, like mine, is overflowing with messages from UK theatres to advise us of their closure, perhaps like me you might be feeling pretty gutted right now. It feels like we’ve lost our dream.

UK audiences go to theatre and arts-related events in larger number than attend all sporting events combined. So there are more people missing theatre right now than any other form of leisure activity.

Not since the outbreak of World War Two have the UK’s theatres closed their doors en masse. Until this Monday.

In the fast-moving Coronavirus threat, several venues took the decision to cancel productions before the government’s briefing on Monday afternoon, after which the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre announced that all its member venues would close their doors “following official government advice, which stipulates that people should avoid public buildings including theatres”. Together, the two organisations represent about 50 London theatres and almost 250 others throughout the UK.

Whilst naturally a hugely distressing time for everyone involved in theatres, from the actors and musicians to electricians, stagehands and front of house teams, we should also remember the industries who rely on theatre for so much of their business – hotels, tourism, restaurants, bars, pubs – also have been hit in an unprecedented manner.

Financial measures are appearing on a daily basis so I shan’t attempt to cover what others have already done or are doing;  the announcement of the suspension of business rates for 12 months is something, but so much more will need to be put in place- and quickly- for all those whose employment is now in jeopardy. There has been widespread criticism about lightweight PM Johnson’s failure to order closure of venues, thereby denying them the ability to claim for business interruption on their insurance policies, which caused much unnecessary distress in itself on Monday. It emerges on Tuesday from various voices in the insurance sector that most businesses would not be covered, even if closure had been ordered. Yet on Wednesday new Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that the government’s advice would be enough to allow claims for those covered for pandemics. Confusion like this is not what we need from Government right now.

Further, let us not forget that fringe venues wouldn’t have even been able to afford insurance policies such as these in the first place, so all this does them no good whatsoever.

The creative industries are thronging with inspirational people who thankfully don’t just stop and down tools because a virus threatens. Although there will be much more which emerges in the next few days, what was heartening was that almost immediately creatives were searching for way to support others. Online appeals have sprung up to support artists struggling with cancellation of work and money worries flowing on from this. One early group set up by write Luke Barnes with an initial aim of creating ten £200 “grants” (which I was happy to contribute to on Sunday) has reached twice its target by Tuesday evening. Following Luke’s lead there are now similar schemes in operation for Hull, Newcastle, Manchester, Ireland, London, Wales and others springing up as we speak, such as Funds For Freelancers and One Month’s Rent. More power to all of them.

All across the web, people are reaching out and setting up groups to read scripts, offer advice, work on music, many offering their services to others for free in an outpouring of support for those who are feeling most vulnerable right now. So many people are taking their creativity to the web that we can see their inextinguishable need to create and express is one of the great drivers of this country. The UK creative industries employ over 2 million people, and are worth £110 billion. But their worth in terms of light, heat, heart and soul of the UK is priceless.

We can only hope that the government fulfils its responsibility to ensure the vast array of talent cut adrift by this crisis is given a substantial lifeline.

So what can you do to support our beloved theatres and creatives?

You can write to your MP to ensure the arts get a fair deal from the crisis financial offerings.

You can send the theatres themselves a note- an email, a phone call, any message of support via social media or otherwise is all hugely welcome I am certain.

To help the creatives involved, you can also donate to some of the Crowdfunding initiatives I mentioned earlier, usually through the sites Crowdfunder or GoFundMe

You can also donate to one of the charities supporting the entertainment industries.

If you have tickets already booked at a fringe venue, you will usually be offered a refund, but before you take it, remember you have alternatives. You can ask for a credit note, which keeps the money in the theatre but allows you to book for a later date. Or if you feel that can afford to, you can decide to turn that ticket cost into a donation to help the theatre survive.

You can also buy memberships to many venues, the money from which also helps them keep afloat and gives you a number of benefits. Memberships make great gifts for others too. And if you like reading, why not buy a few plays to keeps you going until the lights go on again? Maybe an old favourite and a couple of new ones to try- there’s a lot of great young writers out there!

The larger theatres have the financial stability to survive and carry on. The shows within them may struggle, but hopefully with the right help these will live out their expected stage life.

But for the fringe theatres, where there are no contingency funds to see them through a rough patch, this crisis may see many of them at risk of permanent closure or collapse. Please remember this- theatres need your help to get through this, just as we all need a bit of help sometimes.

If we all did something, Imagine the difference it would make to the UK’s creative future!

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