Nuffield Southampton Theatres (NST), an institution comprising two venues in Southampton, is set to close permanently. The theatre, which has run for over 50 years, went into administration in May after it suffered a severe drop in ticket sales amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though the Government announced an emergency support package to help protect the future of theatres, several venues such as NST have still had to close.
Philippa Childs, head of BECTU, the union representing over 40,000 staff in the media and entertainment industries, said the horizon is not looking good. Due to social distancing measures and uncertainty, many theatre companies say they cannot see themselves re-opening before 2021.
“The theatre industry is in a pretty parlous state, theatres were told to close down back in March. Since that time, they've been dark pretty much,” Ms Childs said.
“Some theatres have already started to cancel pantomimes, which is a money spinner for theatres – they rely on the money from pantomimes in order to survive throughout the year.
“Generally, theatres don't have huge reserves, so this period of having absolutely no income has been quite devastating for them. We've seen some go into liquidation, and we've seen a lot in the last couple of weeks starting to talk about redundancies.”
Part of the industry's frustration is that the Government has not issued a roadmap out of the crisis with clear dates for theatres to work towards.
The concern is not just about the finances of the industry but also about how it can continue in a post-lockdown world with social distancing measures.
“If you know lots of British theatres, the buildings are old, the entrances are very narrow, the toilets are very small, the seats very squashed together. So the idea of even one-metre-plus, and people being able to go back to the theatre at one-metre-plus is not financially viable and actually, I wonder, how enthusiastic people would be under those circumstances anyway. It's a pretty bleak picture for UK theatre at the moment,” said Ms Childs.
On 4th July, the Government announced that theatres could reopen but could not stage live performances. As the key selling point of any theatre is that of its live performances, many within the industry were left scratching their heads on how to continue to operate under the guidance.
A number of major theatres quickly looked to use technology in order to keep their services open.
“Theatres are all about live performances, so those that have the facilities and the abilities to do so are putting on some performances that can be streamed,” Ms Childs said.
The Royal Opera House and the National Theatre were quick to offer such services, but smaller theatres were not and are still not able to do that.
“I think the frustration is that people want to have a date to work towards, they want to have some protocols that they can work around. So they can look at their buildings and think about, when the time comes, they can get back into the building and put on a show and that they've got everything in place to be able to do that.”
Many are concerned that a continuation of restrictions could mean that the industry is set to lose more revenue.
The Government recently announced a new £1.57 billion emergency support package to help protect the future of theatres, galleries and museums in England.
This was well received by many in the theatre industry, who saw it as a lifeline to keep the arts sector afloat.
The support fund for cultural organisations is made up of £880 million in grants and £270 million of repayable loans.
The Government said the loans would be “issued on generous terms” and decisions on who will get the funding would be made “alongside expert independent figures from the sector”.
Ms Childs was quick to release a statement on the emergency package, praising the Government for offering their support to the sector but warning that it was too late for some small theatres and rapid action was needed to “stem the tide of redundancies and closures that are emerging in the sector”.
“We will now be scrutinising the details of this package to make sure it lives up to the real needs of our sector," she said. “The terms of these grants and loans must recognise that there is still a long journey to recovery for theatres and live events and this package is the first cautious step towards reviving the sector.”