By Paule Constable

My head is in my hands.  We push and push for a clear date to open – but how can we be clear?   We are in a pandemic and, if we have learnt nothing else it is that there is no such thing as certainty.   And yet so much of the talk is of confidence, of shows opening, of work being made.  

Why do I feel so under confident?  I wake up daily with my heart in my mouth sharing none of these positive feelings.  

So much doesn’t add up – 

For a commercial producer to commit to reopening a new show there will be a cost of around 2 or 3 million.  Committing to this now is a potentially hugely risky investment.  Firstly – will July 19 really see theatres and shared spaces welcoming audiences without social distancing in place?   Equally when we do open a show – with careful management and testing of our performers and the backstage and front of house workforce – what then happens if someone gets Covid?  What does a positive case mean?  A shutting down of the show? A temporary hiatus with thousands of seats sold? 

A  vast amount of money is outlaid to get to opening night which is then unlikely to be making any sort of return because of a potentially socially distanced audience and then, if the show suddenly closes, all the financial responsibility falls onto the same producers who have already invested several million to get the show on its feet.  This is without considering what sales figures are like in the West End at the moment (around 70% below expectations is the word on the street for Cinderella….).  No tourists in the city means far fewer people to buy tickets to the shows that are being pushed to reopen…and then there is the likelihood of new variants and local lockdowns as we head into the winter.

Last year the Film and TV industry successfully secured an insurance scheme underwritten by government because they pulled together and refused to shoot anything until this support was in place.  In contrast, every time we open or announce an upcoming show or commit to a date to do so we are seen by both the public and the government to be coping without this vital support.  However, the realities of keeping on producing theatre without insurance may well prove be catastrophic.  Without insurance – if a commercial show has to shut down because of sickness amongst the cast or a local lockdown then – the likelihood is – it won’t reopen.  

The commercial producers are heading for a cliff edge.  This is partly due to some foolish individuals demanding reopening dates in a very public way.   But also the government policy of supporting only a tiny proportion of the commercial sector with the CRF (Cultural Recovery Fund) is contributing to this acceleration as it has left the commercial theatre – in the most part –  to fend for themselves.  They have to put shows on to survive – a pressure further exacerbated by the theatre owners needing their tenants to return to paying full rents now.  

Meanwhile in the subsidised sector, for those institutions who were lucky enough to receive payment from the £1.57 billion Cultural Recovery Fund (which in reality only £300 million for the performing arts) – anything awarded in the second round of funding was tied to being spent by the end of June.  Following on from Johnson’s 21 June announcement this has been pushed til the end of August, but the damage had already been done.  The money is allocated and, in the most part and where it has actually been received, spent.

With pressure everywhere to spend quickly, making work seemed to be the only answer.  And companies are.  They are maintaining the trickle down model that we have held so long because it is the only way to shift resources from one place to the next that we know how to use.  However, as anyone can tell you the trickle down system doesn’t work in the arts.  But we have yet to have an alternative offer created.

And thus we scrabble to make work on big stages and small.  All freelancers need to be aware that many of the offers coming to us are terrible and the pressure to take that inadequate offer is immense after over a year of shut down.  

In the commercial world – there is a struggle to find the staff to reopen all the shows in the West End as soon as possible.  As producers pick up the phone and look for electricians, makers, wardrobe departments, carpenters, performers and stage managers they are discovering how many freelancers have left the industry.

There is not a huge amount of work, few of us are doing much and there is less resource to go around so only a handful of freelancers are benefitting from any of this money, this much hyped “return…”  Financial offers are concerning, the stresses of the covid working world are immense, there is a shortage of staff and not enough work to go around in a situation that feels like walking on a knife edge – but we’re working right?

Well some are.  Many aren’t.  Feeling very excluded.  Where does this empty rhetoric leave them other than feeling more marginalised?

Then we are seeing the end of Furlough and SEISS loom along with the end of the ACE funds thus adding more pressure to those of us freelancers for whom any support we could muster has been a life line.  I feel as though I am on a slowly unfolding train wreck speeding towards a brick wall.

We are all feeling this pressure.  But rather than turn it on ourselves I would plead that it is more important than ever for us to work together.  Our fury should be aimed at the ineptitude of this government not at each other.  I cannot help but feel that this careless attitude to the arts is part of something way more sinister around an active mistrust of the all of us.  A healthy society will see art as a vehicle by which we can question the nature of our society – asking awkward questions, reflecting upon what is wrong, giving voice to those least heard.  I cannot help but believe that this government wants to quash that voice.  And for that reason alone we have to fight together.  Because if we turn the fight inwards we will do the job of the Right wing for them.