In the direst prediction yet about the future for theatre in London and the UK, ‘super producer’ Sonia Friedman today (Thursday May 21) warned that nearly three-quarters of performing arts companies could close down for good by Christmas 2020 unless the government intervenes to save them.
In a piece in today’s Daily Telegraph, she writes: ‘Since shutting their doors in mid-March, theatre companies have had virtually no income at all. The business of commercial and subsidised theatres is built on box-office revenue. Everything else is extra. We’ve no other means of earning money. Theatre can’t offer takeaways. It can’t shift its business online, welcome though the streaming of our shows has been.’
Friedman is not talking from a commentator’s standpoint, either. The producer of ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘The Book of Mormon’ writes that 18 of her company’s productions have been shut down or suspended globally in the last ten weeks. ‘Arts and cultural organisations have lost 95 percent of their income. Theatre has been hit hardest of all. The three-month shutdown has meant £330 million of income lost. As of now, we’re staring at a closure lasting six to nine months. It could even be a year or more.’
Friedman’s warning follows those of others in the industry, including fellow producer Cameron Mackintosh, in spelling out the danger that theatre currently faces. Part of that is in the very nature of live performance. ‘To put it bluntly,’ she writes, ‘theatre is incompatible with social distancing. It just doesn’t stack up. […] Social distancing would limit theatres to selling one seat in six. Most theatres need to sell 60 percent of seats just to survive.’
Huge names like the Old Vic and Shakespeare’s Globe have recently warned that they are facing financial disaster. The picture for smaller venues and companies across the country is just as bad. Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre has already gone into administration; others are likely to follow soon.
Perhaps understandably as a producer, Friedman is keen to stress what theatre contributes to the country, not just what it costs to keep it alive: ‘Its value to London’s economy alone is roughly £5 billion a year. Restaurants and many kinds of retailers benefit from, some rely on, our audiences. Theatre adds £2 billion to the capital’s critical tourism sector.’ She points out that nationwide, 40 percent of households go to the theatre every year, and that the UK’s theatres have annual audiences of 34 million, ‘twice that of the Premiership’.
Friedman is calling for the government to support her industry: ‘Without an urgent government rescue package, 70 percent of our performing arts companies will be out of business before the end of this year. More than 1,000 theatres around the country will be insolvent and might shut down for good.’
The next six months will be absolutely critical for thousands of performance companies and spaces across London and the UK. As Friedman says, ‘What we take for granted has taken generations to create. It would be irrecoverable. We need our government to step up and step in – sharpish. There is no time to waste.’
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