PROSPER MAGAZINE: DIGITAL EDITION
ENCORE! THE BATTLE TO RAISE THE CURTAIN AGAIN
Britain is famous for its performing arts, but the recent global health pandemic has created an unprecedented crisis for the industry. So, what next?
Prosper explores the likely shape of the theatre’s next act and talks to Adrian Jackson CEO from the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre.
Back in March, as Covid-19 was making headlines and before public venues were shut down, award-winning theatre producer Nica Burns noticed something different about audiences watching previews of her new show, ‘City of Angels’.
‘No one was coughing’ she said, ‘People who weren’t feeling well weren’t coming. That’s a big change. People taking responsibility for not going out if they’re not well. And that’s the key.’
It’s a fact to make anyone who loves theatre smile and it’s at the heart of Burns’s optimism about the long-term return of regular theatre. But in the meantime?
Early autumn is the traditional start of the big theatregoing season, with many people flocking to the theatre. But not this year – sitting in a packed auditorium, laughing and gasping, actors singing and shouting, musicians playing in proximity in the orchestra pit – is just not happening.
UK theatres generated £1.28bn of revenue in 2018, based on 34million ticket sales. But overnight, that revenue vanished when Boris Johnson announced in mid-March that people shouldn’t go to the theatre, even before formally announcing that theatres had to close.
The £1.57bn support package announced by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden at the start of July came only after several theatres had already gone into administration or had to start making mass redundancies.
For Wolverhampton and its surrounding areas, The Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, a part of the city’s cultural offering since 1894, attracts over 300,000 visitors per year boosting the local economy. The theatre offers over 100 productions per year including, plays, musicals, one-night acts and the traditional annual pantomime.
Adrian Jackson is CEO and Artistic Director of the Grand Theatre, he told Prosper, “Without doubt this has been a truly unprecedented time in Grand Theatre history, even during World War I and II the theatre never closed. It is very strange to come into work and see such a beautiful building unused. We are all working tirelessly to make sure the Grand bounces back after this pandemic”.
For all the theatres that do survive comes the issue of handling the lingering uncertainty among the public about how and when it might be safe to return.
A survey of 62,000 theatregoers and 232 venues across the UK carried out in April to May by the arts consultancy Indigo found that only 67% of people would consider visiting theatres if they had social distancing in place. At the same time, 81% were concerned about the future of live performance.
The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (BECTU), which represents more than 40,000 workers in the creative industries, warned that the majority of the theatre workforce, from actors to costumiers and technicians are freelance.
A survey by UK theatre directors of more than 8,000 participants found a quarter of freelance theatre workers had not been able to access any kind of emergency income, and a third were seriously considering quitting the industry.
“We have been in a very fortunate position that due to sound financial planning we haven’t made any redundancies and all contracted staff have been guaranteed some income until the end of December. This is something they have been extremely grateful for as it is not the case in most arts venues,” Adrian continued.
“We have continued to use freelancers for our community work which has continued online throughout the closure period and we’ve received hundreds of messages of support and over £35,000 in donations from our patrons.”
This year, many big theatres have already opted to stay closed through the festive period which is their most lucrative season.
For regional theatre, that’s especially tough when panto lines the coffers for the rest of the year and its Christmas seems all but cancelled.
Adrian said, “It is extremely sad that we won’t be doing pantomime this year, however, we will absolutely come back as strong as ever. I am delighted to say that over 70% of our patrons have transferred their tickets to see Cinderella in 2021, which will be our first in-house pantomime for over 40 years.
“We are exploring the feasibility of doing a socially distanced programme in December, but this will all very much depend on government restrictions. I truly hope we can open the doors because we know our patrons are missing the theatre terribly.”
Adrian continued, “Everything is being done to make theatres as safe as possible we have already installed sanitising stations as businesses have started to return to the building for meeting space, as the large auditorium provides perfect distancing. Temperature checks and a track and trace system are also in place.
“We are currently working on other elements to make the audience feel safe including ticket scanners, signage, in-depth staff training, increased cleaning and app-based ordering system for secondary spend.”
Balancing the Books
However, for many local theatres like The Grand, a full reopening date is still unknown.
As many theatre directors have reported, most theatres, like most restaurants, need to be hitting 80% capacity, and balancing the books becomes impossible because of social distancing measures.
“We are expecting more information from Oliver Dowden in November and a date where we can re-open to full capacity would be fantastic. Before lockdown, we were already programming as far in advance as 2023 so last-minute notice on re-opening does not fit our industry.
“That said we are in constant communication with external producers and we can and will react very quickly when we are given the green light. We are very optimistic that the theatre will thrive again.
“The emotional memory of going to see a live performance is embedded in most people.
“There will be a period of adjustment as theatres across the country find the best way to do things, but people really do want to go out and there is, and always will be, something quite magical about live theatre.”