Anger at government “advice”

Mar 18 2020 | By More

Government’s refusal to ban social gatherings slammed, but theatres aren’t giving up the day job just yet.

The government has been attacked for insisting on providing “advice” to the public on social distancing and to organisers in pulling public events, rather than providing clear instructions to do so.

The concern is that by simply advising theatres to close, the government is jeopardising their ability to get compensation for the huge losses that they will now incur.

The issues surrounding a decision to close a theatre or abandon a theatre project are an unknown factor to most people in the theatre industry.

The cast of Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti singing Bella Ciao. The show’s run at the Lyceum has been curtailed and its transfer to the Glasgow Citizens cancelled. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Whether it is an amateur company, a large building or a commercial operation, the people involved are highly skilled at staging productions, not cancelling them, as the Lyceum’s Ben Jeffrey’s observed to Æ.

That decision has been made for some companies over the last couple of days. EPT had to pull its production of Men Should Weep this week when one of the company came down with the virus, while the closure of the King’s has stopped both EdGAS and the Bohemians appearing there this week and next.

For large theatres such as the Playhouse, the question is particularly difficult. Financially, it is near suicidal. For the Lion King for example, with 3,000 seats ranging from £20 to £65, the cost of cancelling a near sold-out performance is very high indeed.

And it isn’t much better for Capital Theatres, with the 1,900 seat Festival and 1,300 seat King’s theatres.

Public safety

However, as Caroline Norbury, CEO of the Creative Industries Federation pointed out, no matter the financial stakes, “Public safety remains the top priority for everyone in the creative sector,” and so, for the public good, theatres have closed.

The question is what the cost will be to the theatres and theatre companies themselves.

Speaking on Monday 16 March, Norbury described the advice issued by the government as a “crippling blow” to the UK’s creative industries.

“As the social distancing measures announced this afternoon are only advisory, rather than an outright ban,” she said, “we are deeply concerned that creative organisations and cultural spaces will find they are unable to claim compensation for the huge losses they will experience as a result of COVID-19.”

Not to forget that there is a whole cultural economy surrounding a theatre and who rely on it for their income. It is not just theatres’ payroll staff of course. It is the freelancers who are most at risk, the actors, crew, creatives, FOH staff and, yes, reviewers.

acting early and clearly

Creative Scotland, often criticised of late, has at least done the right thing, acting early and clearly by stating that “all funding awards already committed will be honoured – regardless of whether the funded activity is cancelled, reduced or rescheduled.”

Rightly, it asks recipients to explore whether activity can be deferred until later in the year, but the support is there.

In an update tweet, published on Tuesday CS added: “If you are a recipient, please honour contracts agreed with freelancers and artists”, bringing it into line with Arts Council England which had already publicly stated that: “In exchange for our support we ask them [funded organisations] to honour contracts agreed with freelancers/artists and think about what help they can offer their communities.”

The first unequivocal Scottish support for freelancers came from the National Theatre of Scotland which, in its initial response, said it: “wants to reassure all freelancers, artists and crew members who were due to be working with the Company on productions over the next few months, that we will honour our agreements and ensure everyone is paid.”

Ben Jeffries, the head of communications and customer services at the Lyceum, told Æ of the general difficulties over closure and support from insurers.

financial hit

He said “I think the main thing for us is to do the right thing by our audiences and artists and hope that insurance and government are able to do the right thing by us in return.” Pointing out that while everybody is going to take a financial hit over the coming months, the Lyceum is now in the middle of thinking through how the company is going to react.

He described Creative Scotland’s statement as a “good starting point”, adding that: “across the industry operational margins are very small and if you are not earning money it is very difficult to continue with your spending commitments.”

Dialogue with Creative Scotland and the Scottish government will continue, he says, partly to clarify how the proposed support for small businesses – including charities – will pan out. But the real question will be whether it will be sufficient to adequately support the industry through what will undoubtedly be a very difficult time for everyone.

“We will be endeavouring to keep people updated as we are informed of changes to the situation and also as we make changes to our programme,” Jeffries added. “At the moment we are trying to respond to audiences and to artists, to tell them where we are and why we are doing that.

“I am hopeful that we will find a way to get back to – even if we are not doing it on stage – to supporting people’s creativity in some way.”

And that is surely the way forward. If the creativity is not happening on a stage, the challenge now is to find a way to make it happen elsewhere – whatever semantic sleight of hand the government might be making.


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