Live Music Exchange Blog

There’s No Business For Show Business – Brooke Harwood


The British theatre industry reportedly employs around 290,000 people (as of 2018), making it one of a significant employer within the UK live sector as a whole. With the continuing disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, theatre has undoubtedly taken a substantial financial hit as a result of the virus. LMX research intern, Brooke Harwood, writes here about the efforts made to save a beleaguered theatre industry and the theatre companies’ determination to provide beloved festive shows in 2020.

2020 has without doubt, rained on British theatre’s parade. Gathering a theatre audience together seems impossible in the face of COVID-19 restrictions that – for much of the year – have permitted only two households to mix indoors. Consequently, theatres, along with many other live venues across the UK, have had to close their doors for the majority of this year. However, with the annual panto season upon us, some safety measures and other creative approaches have been deployed by various theatre venues and companies to allow for COVID-friendly performances during the festive season. Such rescue efforts for the panto season, seek to offer hope for the future of British theatre – but will this be enough after the financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic?

At the end of 2018, it was reported that £127 million was generated for the UK treasury from VAT on commercial UK ticket sales. Consequently, the UK government was as keen to open the theatre curtains as the industry workers themselves. Now that adaptions of tiered COVID-19 restrictions have been implemented across the four UK nations, some theatres have been allowed to open provided that performances can go ahead with Coronavirus safety measures in place. However, whilst this is an understandable protocol in the concern of public health, many venues have declared that it would make reopening unfeasible in the face of the financial loss they would incur by implementing COVID safety measures.

A policy advisor for the Theatres Trust, Tom Stickland, explains the financial burden a socially distanced audience would cause:

‘From what we’ve been hearing from theatre operators, it’s completely unviable to operate at what effectively would be a 25% capacity for their shows… Many of them need to be at least 60% full to break even.’

Moreover, with the festive period upon us, theatres were even more eager to reopen so as not to miss out on ticket sale profits they would usually make from pantomimes and Christmas performances. Chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, Julian Bird, stated earlier this year that the Christmas period is pivotal to UK theatre and that profits made around this time of year are used to fund future company productions at other times.

With the concern of implementing expensive COVID-19 measures in venues coupled with the financial loss of not reopening for the festive period, various benefactors have come forward, and solutions been proposed, to hopefully come to the rescue of UK theatre:

The National Lottery, for instance, has promised to fund empty seats within 34 UK theatres throughout the panto season. This will allow audiences to safely comply with social distancing whilst avoiding further financial loss for the theatres and helping to maintain valuable jobs for hundreds of stage workers in the months surrounding Christmas.

Theatre companies across the UK will also be presenting their festive performances online. This will allow the audience to watch the show in the comfort and safety of their home, removing the financial stress of a socially distanced audience within venues. Other responses to the pandemic include creative, place-based solutions to the problem of providing theatre experiences for socially distanced audiences. ‘The Car Park Panto’, for example, will tour the UK this month and adheres to COVID-19 restrictions by performing to audiences who remain in their cars through a drive-in-theatre set-up.

The majority of industry experts believe these solutions will be a necessary part of the rescue efforts for this year’s festive theatre season this year. They will allow for some venues to reopen safely under the new restrictions whilst minimising the hit to financial profit. More importantly, they will provide some work for the thousands of theatre workers at risk of redundancy.

However, some commentators urge caution, and believe that such schemes must be careful not to claim they have saved the panto season. There are still drastically fewer performances taking place, to a much smaller audience capacity, meaning that thousands of annual panto-goers will unavoidably miss out this year due to the pandemic.

It has been acknowledged by the industry that the responses from the National Lottery and theatre companies across the UK, are only temporary and contingent solutions. Despite the heroic efforts made by various benefactors, the director of this year’s Panto at the London Palladium has stated that the ideas are only: ‘a sticking plaster on a very big theatrical wound’. Theatres can only benefit from the National Lottery scheme, online performance broadcasts and initiatives like the ‘Car Park Panto’ during the months of December and January as they are designed primarily to support festive shows. Therefore, once the festive season is over, theatre bosses will be required to adjust their game-plan to prevent more venue closures, minimise the financial burden and the avoid as far as possible the potential loss of thousands of jobs.

Not only are theatres worried for the future following the end of the festive period, but the second spike in Coronavirus cases has also spread fear within the industry more generally. Whilst many theatres declared it financially unviable to reopen following the first lockdown, any theatre that did choose to reopen will once again be asked to close its doors if placed under tight tier three restrictions. Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham are among the major cities under tight tier three restrictions that prevent household mixing indoors and necessitate the closure of entertainment venues – including theatres.

Director of Theatres Trust, Joe Morgan highlights the devastation the second lockdown has wrought on the theatre industry:

‘Many theatres were only just managing to reopen or were preparing to reopen with Christmas shows, and this news will come as a further blow to an already struggling sector.’

However, not all is doom and gloom. Theatres within tier three areas are still permitted to rehearse and broadcast shows online despite being unable to perform to live audiences. Therefore, whilst some theatre venues will not be able to benefit from the National Lottery scheme, the possibility remains of broadcasting performances to an at-home virtual audience.

Whilst it is undeniable that the pandemic has placed the British theatre industry under tremendous strain this year, there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel.  Although there are limits to National Lottery schemes, online broadcasting and drive-in performances, fans will still be able to experience theatrical performances throughout the festive season. Likewise, whilst the immediate emphasis may be on the festive months, this will still allow the busiest theatre season to go ahead in some form, providing some employment for thousands of furloughed workers and spreading some much needed festive joy across the UK.

Trips to the theatre in 2020 are not be the same as we have been used to, with the bustling crowds swarming to the auditorium and winding queues waiting for interval ice-cream. However, the efforts taken to rescue theatre from financial ruin, provides much hope for British theatre post-Coronavirus.

The show must and will go on.

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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