Last Sunday evening, the government announced that it planned to provide a much-needed injection of £1.57 billion to help the UK arts, culture and heritage industries survive the COVID-19 pandemic. This partly came as a result of increasing public pressure from theatre professionals and theatre-goers alike, with petitions, online campaigns and messages pleading the government for vital support. Whilst this subsequent funding provides a mighty source of hope for the future of the UK’s theatre industry, the ways in which the funding will be distributed, as well as when and to whom the support will go, still remains unclear. With a number of theatres already entering difficult redundancy consultations and multiple venues already facing permanent closure, the recent package leaves some wondering: is this funding just too little, too late?
The culture secretary Oliver Dowden stated that this £1.57 billion support package will “prioritise those crown jewels”, that is, “institutions which are nationally and internationally renowned”, whilst also “helping many other local venues”. Undoubtedly, these “crown jewel” venues (think The London Palladium, The Apollo, Theatre Royal Drury Lane etc.) contribute enormously to the UK economy, however, there is a concern that the smaller regional theatres may be left behind. It’s clear that the government is keen on investing in London’s West End theatres for optimal economic gain in the Capital. However, this is not enough. A top-down approach to emergency funding will in no doubt leave the smaller, less-renowned venues vulnerable to the weather of the COVID-19 storm. It is vital that regional theatres get the appropriate support if they are to continue to dismantle the once (and in some ways, still present) elitist, London-centric experience of theatre-going. In recent years, the theatre industry has come a long way in improving its accessibility, with more national tours of West End productions as well as initiatives to make theatre more affordable for the younger generations. However, in order to continue this progress made, the government must ensure that it doesn’t neglect those regional theatres that play such a vital part in enriching the lives of so many communities up and down the nation.
Unfortunately for many theatres, promised grants and loans just aren’t enough. For the venues that don’t receive any government funding, the majority of income is made on ticket sales alone. Without a set ‘go-ahead’ date for when auditoriums can be filled to a full scale, or at least a financially viable capacity, these theatres simply cannot afford the cost of the unknown. In the recent days, Birmingham Repertory Theatre announced that it was faced with no choice but to enter a period of redundancy consultations which may result in a loss of potentially 40% of roles. Due to long-term financial implications, many regional and independent theatres are now at a stage where they’re forced to choose between the livelihoods of their staff, or the survival of their theatre. These are decisions that—with proper government guidelines and dates for reopening—could potentially be avoided.
Whilst some theatres worry they might be on the lower end of this emergency fund, the UK comedy industry is angered at being excluded from the funding altogether. Under the list of the venues that this £1.57 billion would support, live comedy clubs were omitted. Comics have taken to social media with the hashtag #savelivecomedy in the fear that 1/3 of comedy clubs could close within the next six months and 77% potentially facing closure within the next year. For almost all stand-up comedians, the comedy club circuit is where they launched the foundations of their career. Many of the household names who draw such high TV viewing figures today started their careers in the very venues that we could potentially lose. In other words, comedy clubs are bedrock of the wider live comedy industry. If they too don’t receive the right support from the government, then it will leave no venues for young and upcoming comics to perform, thus leaving the future of the UK’s live comedy industry potentially nearing extinction. Stand-up comedy is an art form often excluded from mainstream theatrical culture, yet it is an industry that thrives in both diversity and accessibility and provides a wealth of talent to our great artistic landscape. If live comedy is left to dwindle, the UK’s buzzing arts scene would be left at a great loss without it.
In the words of Eve Ensler, “theatre has an incredible capacity to move people to change, to address issues, to inspire cultural revolution.” This can be said for all forms of live performance – whether that be music, drama, dance or comedy – in all types of venues, from the large West End stages, to the regional and independent theatres, right across to fringe festivals and comedy clubs. Whilst it is encouraging to see the government finally taking action to preserve our great theatrical culture, it is imperative that they ensure the most vulnerable venues and their cherished staff and artists don’t fall through the gaps.