VIEWS: Theatres – the unseen costs of closure

Gary Donaldson, founder of Unrestricted Theatre, shares his thoughts about the health of our precious theatre buildings

London’s – and the UK’s- theatres have been uniquely silent for over a year now. Their gradual reawakening is something to be hugely thankful for.

In many of the countless discussions about theatre and its value in these troubled times, people initially- and rightly- pick up on the human costs of these closures – theatre staff, actors, musicians, technical staffs all thrown out of work, and the human cost has been undeniably high- as well as badly mismanaged by the current government.

What is often overlooked is the “health” of the bricks and mortar. Theatres do not just magically close and open one year later just as they were. Time does not stand still for our priceless theatrical magic boxes.

You can’t just lock the doors and expect them to look after themselves. These are most often historic buildings, and an irreplaceable part of our history and heritage, and they deserve to be cared for whatever the situation outside their doors.

Our theatres are often old, often delicate constructions which demand ongoing care and attention. Its worth bearing in mind that the majority of London’s theatres are over 100 years old. With a major disruption to the usage of a theatre, maintenance needs to continue unabated. Buildings still need to be heated and ventilated to stop problems with damp and decay. Even the most well-maintained buildings have an ongoing program of works to ensure that they remain in tip-top condition to receive both shows and audiences in a way which will respect all users of a theatre space.

The cost of maintaining our country’s theatrical jewels is not cheap. Cameron Mackintosh says that it costs him half a million a week to maintain his group of theatres. With no money coming in that needs deep pockets. Although I cannot comment on his business practices, one can understand that this comprises a pretty alarming balance sheet.

Lets not also forget that it’s not just the ticket money that has been lost. It’s the Restoration Levy too. Until March last year £1.50 on each ticket sold was put into a pool to maintain each theatre visited on that ticket. With over a year of no attendances, that’s a huge loss of maintenance income. How much, exactly?

Let’s take London’s West End’s last full year that it reported, when over 15.3 million tickets were sold to West End theatres, according to The Box Office Data Report 2019 . Multiply that by £1.50 and that’s more than £23million annually – money that has now been missing for over 15 months from an assumed income stream. And that money is needed- so when it’s not coming in, someone has to find that money- and it’s always the theatre owners. You could say “well, its their theatre, they aren’t hard up”. And I wouldn’t disagree with you. However, it’s important to remember that most of their income streams dried up, along with so many others, back in March 2020. And for theatre owners who are also producers, like Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber, much of their cash flow is tied up in ongoing deals at various stages of progress, many of which were postponed, others collapsed – its not easy. The sad reality is that Covid-19 has thrown an enormous spanner in the works of every part of our fragile theatre infrastructure.

As we slowly start to bring our theatres back into use, let’s be grateful for all the hard work which goes into making them safe and keeping them national treasures to be proud of.

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