At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Boris Johnson left theatres and performance venues in an impossible position as he warned the UK to ‘avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues’, but chose not to order these venues to close for a further four days.
This meant that the public were aware that they should not be attending events with mass gatherings, but left venues in limbo of having to choose to close for public safety, but facing uncertainty about what would that would mean for their staff and building. As the government didn’t immediately make it mandatory for cultural venues to close, it meant that they were unable to claim any compensation for cancelled performances. This left venue managers in the turmoil of facing financial loss, trying to keep customers happy as some were against going to shows but others were more than happy to as lockdown hadn’t been brought into affect yet, as well as wanting to keep their own staff safe.
Eventually when the government did announce that all theatres, bars, nightclubs, and restaurants needed to close back on 20th March, it at least meant that the decision had been taken out of their hands. However, since this occurred there has been absolutely no financial support offered specifically to the arts and culture sector. The furlough scheme has been introduced, however, which does allow many businesses to continue to offer monthly pay to their staff rather than make them redundant. But, within the live performance industry many staff are freelance, which means that they may not receive furlough at all, and also zero hour contract staff who also may not see much benefit of the furlough scheme.
Now, the affects of venues such as theatres having to remain closed for many months, with no reopening date in sight yet, is proving critical. Venues in other areas of the country such as Nuffield Southampton Theatre and Southport Theatre and Convention Centre have already sadly gone into administration. Even the iconic Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London has warned that it faces permanent closure and insolvency as a result of lockdown.
In Newcastle, it has come to light that some of our own venues are struggling too. As theatres and venues rely on ongoing tickets sales and revenue from merchandise and bars to keep going, it’s more than understandable that our venues face insecure futures. In the past week, The Evening Chronicle has broken stories about both the Tyneside Cinema and Newcastle Theatre Royal facing mass staff redundancies, as they are in serious risk of their venues closing indefinitely (links below).
It goes without saying that buildings such as these cost a lot of money to maintain, even when they are not in use, and without ongoing performances it is increasingly difficult for venues to continue to exist without making cuts and without being able to rely on income from future shows. As the government is currently unable to offer the cultural sector any information on when live performance venues may be able to reopen, and under what circumstances that may be, it’s also going to become harder for theatres to go ahead with this years panto season. Although pantomimes generally don’t start until the end of November, there is a lot of work and investment that goes into them that usually ramps up in the summer and autumn time to prepare shows. However, lockdown restrictions may continue to put a big halt to these types of productions, leading the People’s Theatre in Heaton to already cancel their panto for 2020. Panto is one of the most crucial income generating times of year for many theatres, so the loss of it will result in a huge financial hit.
As people fear the worst for the UK’s theatre and arts sector, petitions and calls on the government demanding further support for the industry are being amplified across the country. As well as providing entertainment and culture for the public, performance venues are instrumental to the economy. They not only provide jobs for thousands of people, but also offer enrichment, charitable experiences and skill building for vulnerable people, and bring in millions of pounds each year in both local spending and tourism. If the arts sector suffers, this will then have an effect on local restaurants, bars, shops, hotels, taxi firms, beauty salons, the list goes on.
But still, the government is failing to offer any direct support to the UK’s arts and culture venues. In a week which has seen the reopening of nonessential shops and zoos, arts venues are still being left out and unsupported. A pattern which perhaps comes unsurprisingly to arts professionals, as arts and culture funding has been gradually and consistently cut since 2010, even before the pandemic began.
While the spirit and passion of arts workers and culture lovers remains strong, support from the countries leaders remains nonexistent.