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National Theatre: 'We will need to reduce activity in order to ensure financial sustainability'

The venue has reflected on its post-lockdown performance

The exterior of the National Theatre
(© Philip Vile)

The National Theatre has mapped out future plans given present circumstances in its latest annual review. 

As first reported in The Stagethe National's financial plans have been disrupted by the huge spikes in inflation and cost of living levels, as well as the increased cost of energy and gas. As such, the Thameside organisation has had to be pragmatic, saying in their annual report: "In response to these financial impacts we are reviewing our four-year plan, and have identified opportunities, with supporting investment, to set more demanding growth targets for digital income streams, commercial exploitation of our productions, trading net revenue and philanthropic support. At the same time, we are carrying out a strategy review, to hone our key aims and objectives.

"We recognise that for the next three to four years, at least, we will need to reduce activity levels in order to ensure financial sustainability, whilst ensuring that we continue to deliver to our mission, meet the needs of our audiences, our donors, our funders and other stakeholders and beneficiaries, and support the future health of the sector in our role as a sector leader."

The organisation says it had hoped to reach a break-even model (ie where it isn't operating at a loss) by 2025-26, but, alongside the aforementioned costs, a reduction in both audience numbers and Arts Council funding has led to greater precarity. 

Artistic director Rufus Norris said in the report: "Reopening our doors and ramping back up our work around the country has always been a work of reimagination, not just restoration. Thanks to our audiences and the extraordinary generosity of supporters, what could have been a cultural black hole in our history became a change to innovate and recalibrate. We are back in business in a changed world, and our priorities are sharpened." 

The venue was optimistic about its capacity to reach new audiences: "Returning to a changed world has also seen a shift in our audiences at the South Bank. An estimated 24 per cent of audiences were aged under 35, the largest proportion in many years; 15 per cent were from global majority backgrounds, which is our largest proportion for a whole year of performances ever. We also saw a ten-year high for first-time visitors at 37 per cent."

Given many individuals would have left home, graduated, moved to London or acquired disposable income over the course of 15 months, this rise is perhaps unsurprising. 

As for diversity on stages, the National said: "Our planned 2020–21 season would have exceeded our five-year targets in all areas; the new programme we made in 2021–22 exceeded targets for writers (50 per cent female writers, 35 per cent writers from global majority) and actors, and came close on directors."

However, the National was realistic about the conditions theatres are emerging into: "In an ideal world, the recovery of the National Theatre would be taking place in stable financial conditions. Unfortunately, the end of 2021–22 saw a new period of instability begin, with high rates of inflation and a major increase in our energy costs. With 60 per cent of our expenditure being on people, the cost-of-living crisis means we are also mindful of paying our staff and freelance theatre-makers fairly.

"In addition, in November 2022, we saw the investment we receive from Arts Council England reduce by £0.85 million with effect from 2023–2024 as a result of funding redistribution from London. Taken together, this financial landscape remains very challenging."

The venue also plans, by outsourcing its catering provision, to position the National as "a destination for food and drink, working in partnership with the provider and alongside two highly credible independent restauranteurs to run our two restaurants, and with a range of street food traders to expand our casual dining, café and grab-and-go offerings." 



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