While many comparisons have been drawn between the Coronavirus pandemic and the Second World War, the fate of the theatre industry is one area in which there are few similarities. Despite a brief closure following the declaration of war in 1939, most theatres remained open throughout the war, following a concerted public campaign led by George Bernard Shaw. Many have suggested that the wider British Arts scene was forged by this war-time ability of theatre to bring people together. It is therefore a cruel irony that, during this time of crisis, theatres have been forced to close for the foreseeable future.
Although enforced closure spans many creative industries, including cinema, art, and music, it is a measure felt keenly by the theatre industry. Despite an annual revenue of £800 million in the West End alone, the sector operates on thin profit margins which do not allow for such extreme circumstances. The Old Vic has deemed the outbreak “financially devastating” after being forced to cancel the last two weeks of Endgame starring Daniel Radcliffe and postpone the much anticipated 4,000 Miles starring Eileen Atkins and Timothée Chalamet. Similarly, the National Theatre has lost 75% of its income, due to the lack of ticket sales and commercial revenue.
However, it is independent theatres and individual creatives who are particularly vulnerable. Of the 290,000 people working within the theatre industry, a significant proportion operate through freelance and self-employed work. Theatre closures have meant that these people, the lifeblood of the industry, are now facing an extended period of no income and unstable livelihoods.
Many feel that Rishi Sunak’s extensive package of financial aid does not go far enough; Lisa Burger, joint chief executive of the National Theatre, states “I feel like we’ve [the theatre industry] not been recognised”. Internal schemes have attempted to make up for this lost revenue: both the Arts Council England and playwright Luke Barnes’ Liverpool Artists Coronavirus Fund attempt to support struggling artists and freelancers. However, despite these measures, Burger is part of a wider call for greater government support: over 100,000 people have already signed a petition for the UK government to offer increased financial assistance to the events industry.
Faced with a lack of funding, theatre companies are seeking innovative new ways in which to operate. Larger institutions are attempting to capitalise upon the predicted 60% rise in streaming during lockdown, leading to schemes such as the National Theatre at Home programme and Culture in Quarantine, a project by the National Theatre Scotland in collaboration with the BBC.
Small theatre companies are also looking to the internet as a means of generating income in the absence of real-life shows. The Coronavirus Theatre Club is an online platform where material submitted by writers, actors and directors is collated to produce 5 monologues which are streamed live on twitter every Sunday at 7pm. Similarly, Leave a Light On is a more musical venture by production company Lambert Jackson, aiming to stream three live performances each day.
Despite providing some financial respite (particularly for smaller companies), we are yet to see whether these schemes are sufficient to offset the loss of traditional revenue sources. It is unrealistic to assume that we will immediately return to ‘business as usual’ following the end of lockdown; in the immediate absence of a vaccine, social distancing measures will still be necessary. This will have persistent implications for theatre as venues will be unable to function at full capacity, some suggesting for a period of up to 18 months.
While it may be true that creativity thrives in adversity, it is important to recognise the very real economic implications this pandemic presents to the theatre industry. It is inevitable that some theatres will be forced to close permanently, while many creatives will face a financially uncertain future. The longer-term implications of sustained social distancing policies must also be considered – this, I would argue, presents an even bigger challenge.