Theatres and freelancers need urgent support during this nightmare before Christmas
It's a perilous time for arts organisations and individuals
It was meant to be the most wonderful time of the year (both financially and economically) – theatres across the land welcoming back audiences for merry festive shows and all-round cheer.
But, as is painfully obvious, that hasn't turned out to be the case – a slew of cancellations has brought venues and companies low across the land – during what is meant to be the theatre world's most lucrative few weeks. As Equity just proclaimed in their newest release, urgent support for organisations, freelancers and arts venues is required during what could be a very rough few months ahead.
General secretary Paul W Fleming said today: "The Westminster government has given some meagre support to bosses from the Cultural Recovery Fund, business rate relief, expanded theatre tax credit. Their support to Equity members has been negligible. Our demands are simple: don't lock us down without support. Don't abandon the workforce who have done more than anyone else – producers, venues or government – to keep our industries alive."
2021 started with uncertainty, of course, but also with what was dubbed a "cautious yet irreversible" roadmap out of calamity thanks to the vaccine drive. Now, with these new variants, reversibility seems the order of the day – with shows cancelled, audience confidence waning and many producers having tough times trying to work out how to plot a sustainable course.
But it doesn't seem we've got a Culture Secretary fighting the good fight: though that Secretary is a different figure to 2020 – Nadine Dorries having recently taken over the role from Oliver Dowden.
The now Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party was never some great crusading force in the world of theatre: like a belligerent uncle that feels strong-armed into dogsitting while his family's off on holiday, Dowden would post grumpy tweets, spaffing out catchphrases like "world-beating support package" and posing in a theatre foyer next to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
But for all his faults (and they were many) – at least Dowden was present. Dorries, on the other hand, seems to have simply decided the occasional retweet around the Cultural Recovery Fund is enough to justify her station.
The Conservative's much-publicised state-backed insurance scheme, said to help provide a lifeline for live events, has been nothing short of a write-off, as cancellations due to Covid cases in the company are not covered. Not everything comes back to government – of course. But if producers had felt more financially certain, they may well have been able to add more company members and creatives to their teams (in a similar vein to Hairspray over the summer) and safeguard from any major cancellations by having back-up cast on hand.
Creatives, losing work and money during the pandemic, need statutory sick pay. Some form of furlough needs to be reintroduced. New York has already mobilised emergency funding for the arts – but nothing similar is happening here.
As Bridge Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner reflected last night on Newsnight: "We were urged to get out there earlier in 2021. Government investment will be wasted if companies collapse in the new year. Mechanisms exist to target support at thriving industries. We need to see short term finance, loans, VAT, business rates, specific measures that we will guarantee a return. We vitalise towns and cities – we're there for the wellbeing of a nation."
It's a murky start to 2022. There is no evidence to suggest that mask-wearing, vaccine passport-sporting (and ideally boosted) audiences are anything other than safe in theatres. For anyone at home, there are also a variety of online shows already available – so be sure to give them a try. The only way is onwards.