Britain’s world-leading performing arts sector has been brought to its knees and faces ruin without urgent government investment, a powerful alliance of nearly 100 actors, writers, directors and creatives has warned.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, James McAvoy, Sharon D Clarke, Tom Stoppard, Wendell Pierce, Emma Rice and Andrew Scott are among the names backing a letter warning of the threat facing theatre, opera and dance amid the coronavirus crisis.
In total, 98 creatives who were this year nominated for the nation’s most prestigious stage awards – the Olivier awards and Theatre awards – have called for action to help save a sector they say is needed more than ever.
The letter to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, and Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, follows a report by Oxford Economics warning of 400,000 job losses and a £74bn loss in annual revenue across the arts industry, in what they described as a “cultural catastrophe” wrought by the entire shutdown of arts venues and live events amid the Covid-19 crisis.
“British theatre is on the brink of ruin,” the letter says. “Theatre is one of the UK’s most dazzling success stories. In all its forms, whether drama, musical theatre, opera or dance, British theatre is a world-class cultural and economic force with productions filling venues from Broadway to Beijing.
“The pandemic has brought theatre to its knees. Theatres do not have the money to operate viably with physical distancing. It is difficult to see venues opening before the end of the year.”
The industry is asking the government to continue the job retention scheme, establish an emergency relief fund and come up with a new package of support for the army of freelances who help create so much of the sector’s work.
It has also put forward the idea of a cultural investment participation scheme, in which the government would be a kind of “angel” investor in productions from which the state would get a return.
The letter’s signatories also include stars of the musical Mary Poppins – Zizi Strallen, Charlie Stemp, Petula Clark and its choreographer Matthew Bourne – as well as the actors Juliet Stevenson, Colin Morgan, Toby Jones, Reece Shearsmith, Indira Varma, Andy Nyman, Adrian Scarborough and Sam Tutty. It is also backed by the director Trevor Nunn and industry leaders such as Alex Beard, chief executive of the Royal Opera House, and Stuart Murphy, chief executive of English National Opera.
Miriam-Teak Lee, who was this year Olivier-nominated for her lead role in the musical & Juliet, also signed the letter. She said theatre had the power to give people “escapism, elevation and inspiration”, which that they don’t get elsewhere. “They take away with them a new lease of life and wellbeing which brings them back time and time again. We have to do all we can to keep theatre alive,” she said.
Pierce, nominated for best actor for his portrayal of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, said theatre was particularly relevant in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests.
“Art is activism, intentional or not,” he said. “While laws may prohibit people’s behaviour, art can change people’s hearts, minds, and humanity. Art as activism isn’t reserved for the past. Your generation, these young people, must join my generation that will make its mark as it answers the clarion call to speak truth today. That is the role of theatre. Creating a forum where we declare what our values are and then act on them.”
Marianne Elliott, who directed Death of a Salesman, said: “I seriously worry for the whole theatre industry. So many people have dedicated their entire lives to this craft and it is sorely loved in the UK. It must be saved before it’s too late. If we lose it, it will take decades to rebuild.”
Most UK theatres have been closed since mid-March as the country began to lock down to curb the spread of coronavirus, with at least four saying they will not reopen. Others are beginning to make redundancies. As they burn through cash reserves, about three-quarters of venues say they will have run out of money by Christmas.
Theatre, music and dance are especially vulnerable because there is no economic model that allows them to operate with physical distancing, even if the 2-metre rule is reduced. Industry leaders say the average audience for 2 metres would be 20% of capacity; with 1 metre it is 30-35%.
Venues are hanging on because of the government’s furlough scheme but that is due to be tapered in August and end in October. August is also when theatres will need to decide if they go ahead with the year’s most financially important production, the pantomime, which provides enough income to stage riskier work.
Many theatres have creative ideas about physically distanced performances but these are not expected to make money.
The UK government has created a cultural renewal taskforce and appointed as commissioner Neil Mendoza, the philanthropist and provost of Oriel College, Oxford. It has yet to report.
Dowden last week said his department was in delicate negotiations with the Treasury. “I am not going to stand by and see our world-leading position in arts and culture destroyed,” he said. “Of course I want to get the money flowing. I am not going to let anyone down.”