May 2020: the challenges and opportunities for touring
10th May 2020
Danny Moar, director Theatre Royal Bath, 13-05-2020
What strikes me, talking to other theatre managers and other producers, is that everyone is in the same boat. We don’t know when we’re going to reopen, we don’t know the circumstances we’re going to reopen in. I think it has got to the point now where we are all speculated out. We don’t have the conversation ‘When do you think you’re going to open?’ We recognise we don’t know. It’s a bit like in the New Year when you stop saying ‘Happy New Year’…
It’s difficult to think of social distancing in a business which is all about social proximity whether it’s audiences sitting together, actors on stage, off stage, in rehearsal. The whole thing is about people being close and in groups, all the things you’re supposed not to be at the moment. So we have a whole stack of shows ready to go, some of which are on sale, some of which we were about to put on sale. We had Blithe Spirit in the West End, that came off after 10 days, having opened too with a great advance.
Some people have decided they’re not going to open until after Christmas so they’ve cancelled up to that point. We’re not quite at that position – not because we’re necessarily more hopeful or more optimistic than anyone else, we’re only going to decide things when we have to decide them. The one thing that’s sure is that everything changes so quickly in this situation, today feels different to yesterday.
I think people – especially SOLT and UK Theatre – are making the case vociferously for theatres but we are going to be inevitably towards the back of the queue when it comes to re-opening. Whereas cinema can make up for having people every other row by having multiple screenings of the same film, with relatively small extra marginal costs, in theatres you just can’t do that. Theatre Royal Bath is based on producing or presenting big expensive shows that require a certain number of people paying a certain ticket price just for the finances to stack up. To scale back from that so we can operate on lower capacity, lower prices, I couldn’t say anything is impossible – but it would be a massive remodelling then in a few months’ time it could be back to normal anyway.
We’re getting money through the furloughing scheme. Subsidised theatres are going to be in a relatively strong position because they’re also getting subsidy even though they’re not producing plays. Subsidised venues need money to make plays, whereas we need plays to make money. We’ve got reserves we are digging into, and we want to hold as much of them as we can so that when we do reopen the programme is as glamorous and exciting as possible. Is there a time-limit? If we had to wait til the end of the year that’s achievable. I think in the theatre industry – for all the gloom – most would agree that in the three to five years before it all stopped it was a buoyant time for theatre both in the West End and regionally. We benefited from that for sure as I’m sure other organisations have. In similar theatres to ours, no one is talking about closure or anything like that. It’s what position are they going to re-open in, what staff complement will they have when they do reopen.
Sure, I think some theatres won’t have big reserves. And if you haven’t got the reserves and you can’t pay the bills and maybe you can’t get a bank loan you’ll close. Whether you’ll close permanently is another matter. I think if we don’t open until Christmas then some theatres will close. It’s not to say they will never reopen but there will be a long period when they have to regather themselves.
I can’t say we would spring back to exactly how we were, because of the way our model works. We make money through our main-house programme and our commercial touring and West End shows; that goes back to the Egg – our children’s theatre – and the Ustinov. We need to build that up again. It can be done quickly if you have strong shows. I’d like to think that within a few months and a year at the absolute outside we’d be back to where we were. Our first priority will be to get the main-house going, to get some income coming in, definitely. Everything we do in the Ustinov and Egg requires subsidy, which is provided by the main-house and commercial producing.
Will audiences come back? It’s interesting how people react. Some people have been very frightened. Maybe rightly so. I don’t think that’s the preserve of older people. I think whether you’re old or young or middle-aged you’re going to be nervous about coming out, or you’re not. But some people will be nervous about coming out to begin with. Maybe the benefit of the theatres opening later than other things is that people will have seen shops pubs and restaurants opening – and it will be slightly odd that a city centre theatre isn’t open, when everything around it is. In a couple of months maybe that it won’t be such a big step for people to take – to go to the theatre, because everything will be open. That’s the optimistic thing to say…
What there isn’t in the paper when you read letters and articles is people saying “Why aren’t the theatres open? I worry theatre could become a sacrificial lamb or something that represents the focus of government concern. But then of course nightclubs are affected too in the caution about gatherings, as are busy pubs. So my hope is that we will be seen along with them rather than some outlier.
Possible measures? Don’t mingle in foyers? I think that’s fine. There are things we can do. We have emergency exits that are normally just used for people to leave at the end of the performance as a quicker way out – there’s no reason why people couldn’t come in that way. It would be a pain not to have bars, but it wouldn’t be a disaster for a short period and it wouldn’t be a catastrophe for us if someone said ‘your overall capacity needs to be limited’, as long as we could choose how to limit it. If we had to take 100 of our cheapest seats off-sale that wouldn’t be a disaster. What would be one is if they said: in the stalls, the Royal and Dress Circle… you can only sit in every other row, because that’s where the bulk of our audience go to – the best seats fill up first. To stipulate distancing between people while they are watching the show will be hard. Face masks etc – all that could work, it’s not ideal but we could live with it – but to have meaningful gaps would be a problem. I think most people would rather wait a bit longer to have a certainty that we think is going to endure and to have a way that doesn’t involve social distancing.
In the part of the industry we’re in we buy shows from external producers, tour shows into other theatres in the regions and West End, and we co-produce with other theatres. We’re all inter-related. We are dependent on eachother – there’s no point going out on a limb because we all need each other. The autumn season for theatres like us is already fracturing – it’s not fractured, but it’s breaking up. Things are moving to the spring, some people are thinking ‘Should we go to the summer?’ – it’s always a jigsaw but now it’s a moving one.
We have certain shows in place now that are on sale for the autumn – Privates Lives and The Dresser – and we have a play ready to go with Griff Rhys Jones. If we can’t make those shows happen in the autumn the next job is to find a new schedule for them. But because they are strong projects I’m confident… theatres will need strong shows. The cut-off point is: when do you press the button to build the set? We’ve got the stars attached, and there will come a moment when we have to hire the rest of the actors, go into the rehearsals and crucially commission the set. That’s a month away or so away – about July. We are not incurring costs by doing this. When the time comes we will have to incur serious costs, so we will decide whether to stick to these dates or go later. I don’t know why anybody would not go ahead with a panto but for some people the uncertainty is too much. Our panto is still on sale, and I have no intention of taking it off sale until it’s completely clear we can’t do it – I fully expect that we will do it.
I don’t believe the government have got a plan they’re not telling us about. They just haven’t got a plan! And they can’t have a plan until they know how all the other things they’re doing are going to play out. They are earlier in the diary than the entertainment industry. They need to know: can the schools open, and the shops open? If all goes well, my assumption is that then theatres will open.
Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae, 12-05-2020
We are doing a lot of thinking, planning, re-planning, more thinking. I feel at the moment like my brain is locked – there’s that fear: what is the future? We have to look at it head on, and realise what the theatrical landscape is going to look like. It is going to be different.
My mantra is that we have to work together to find the silver linings. We just have to be savvy and find them, to ensure our currency remains vibrant as artists. People will still be making art – but the big thing is about the economics. Making art is not the problem, it’s being paid. The Arts Council have been extraordinary in trying to safeguard the arts community but they’ve only got so much money. For touring companies the question is when will the venues be open, will theatre work with social distancing, is it viable? Maybe some of the small venues and companies might be better off because they’re used to having five people in the audience, doing a two-hander. They have robust business models working on less income. I had this dream a while ago that I was having an argument with Rufus Norris, telling him: all your plays have to be one hour long – then you can do that one show three times an evening with the audience socially distanced and the actors… that might be the way forward.
With Graeae there is a specific issue – we will be the last community to come out of lockdown. So many of our artists have underlying health issues. The fear factor might resurrect itself. 25 years ago, when we were starting out and trying to break down the barricades of the mainstream world, there was a real fear around employing D/deaf and disabled people: fear that we wouldn’t be any good, fear that we would cost too much, fear that the audience would be put off by seeing us on stage. That fear might come back. If you have an underlying health issue are directors going to be more fearful of taking the risk to employ that actor? We could go back to square one. The Ramps On The Moon tour of Oliver Twist had to stop like everything else did, and when we resurrect it there might be one or two actors in the cast who can’t come out of lockdown. My concern is that theatre might become a survival of the fittest.
I’m not going to cast my shows like that. I will cast on who is best for the job – because to be forced into that way of working would be like censoring my artists. When we have worked with actors in the past who have sometimes been able to be on stage one night but not the next, we have done pre-recorded films so they have that option. If they really can’t do that show, they don’t have to. We may have to go back to some of those models and that flexibility – and mashing together live, pre-recorded and live on Zoom ways of working. But then you come back to the same issue – where is the theatre, where do we put it on?
Diversity has been around for a long time but disabled people within that bracket of ‘diversity’ have only really been part of it since 2012. It has been one almighty battle to be included in that. I am damned if we are going to go away. We have formed a Disability Arts Alliance with the hashtag WeShallNotBeRemoved. We need to tell the Treasury that our work is valid, we pay taxes, we bring in income and it’s essential to recognise that disabled lives matter. My fear is the attitude we see with the care-homes – they’re old, they can go, disabled people, they can go, they’re a drain on the economy – no! Disabled lives matter. We have actually been fighting this agenda since 2012 when Government stripped away Independent Living Fund and cuts to Access to Work.
We’re trying to work out what online programmes we can initiate. We have a radio play and we’ve been lucky because Jack Thorne our patron said ‘We’ve got to do something, this is what I propose, here’s some money to get it up and running” – so we have Crips without Constraints, a series of short monologues written by our writers developed through Write2Play funded by Esme Fairbairn. Writers are responding with various different plays. Some of the writers I’m talking to say ‘I want to write, but just not about this (COVID-19)’. But I do hope that the voice of D/deaf and disabled people will be part of the wider mainstream mix, because people can forget about us. We have been constantly forgotten in history. And isolation for disabled people means something different. So many of my team are battling with a whole different level of physical and emotional agendas, so we need to make sure they get documented artistically.
It has to be said that there is inequality of communication about COVID-19. There is a lack of sign language interpreters at the daily briefings – when Nicola Sturgeon comes on, there’s an interpreter, when it’s Boris Johnson you think: where’s the interpreter? It’s so frustrating. And there’s no easy-read information for learning disabled people to access. Also, one of the things that has been daunting about the onslaught of online work is that for the most part it is inaccessible – it is not captioned or audio-described. For the most part it is small disabled-led companies that ensure their output is accessible.
My final worry is that this crisis is re-medicalising us. Yes, this situation is a medical one but we don’t just want to be seen as medical entities. We’ve spent so long fighting for the social model of disability to be recognised – the lack of a lift or the need for an interpreter is a societal issue and access is everyone’s responsibility – so when disabled actors are back on stage they must be there as actors not as victims.
I’ve been with the company since 1997 – hundreds of years! There are still things I have to do before I leave, there are places we want to show our work. What we’re having to rethink is what are those platforms, where are they and how can we be savvy to do things creatively, ambitiously but with the safety of our community and our audiences in mind. We’re going to be releasing Reasons to be Cheerful online. If we could ever be in a position to put that show back on stage that would be fantastic, it’s one of my favourite pieces of work. We have done it so many times, when the actors get together it’s in their DNA.
We were thinking of doing Blasted [as part of our 40th anniversary next year] with an all disabled and all Deaf cast – but I said: ‘I think people will not be wanting something like that next year, I think we need something a bit irreverent, a bit naughty. So we have a two-hander about being disabled, being in love, about sex, about Butlin’s… it’s beautiful. We need to look at our programme and find those things that are affirmative of what it means to be human. It has to be said so clearly: it would be easy to go all the way back to how things were 30 or 40 years ago – we’ve worked so hard to get to where we are. That slogan really matters: we shall not be removed!
Reasons To Be Cheerful by Paul Sirett, with music by Ian Dury and The Blockheads, will be available free for a strictly limited period from June 3 to August 3 at www.graeae.org
Kate Wasserberg (Artistic Director) and Martin Derbyshire (CEO), Out of Joint – 07-05-2020
The real unknown is when people are going to want to go back into the theatres, regardless of government advice. We don’t know that. It will be a long road. Until there’s a vaccine I think people are going to avoid big gatherings – but it’s hard to predict group behaviour. We are extremely fortunate that we are not a building. We are following those stories but we are not in a position to solve that problem and it’s also not what is preoccupying us at the moment. We were at the beginning of the tour of The Glee Club – it was a huge shame to have to stop that – and we had things that were about to land in slots that now won’t but we hope will still happen down the road. We were relatively lucky that we could pivot quite quickly. We’ve now got an opportunity to really talk about what kind of work we’re going to put into this world, what is going to make people walk back through the door, what a stripped-back landscape – where there’s a bit less money floating around – looks like.
We spent some time thinking about digital. The work that is being made by other companies is great but what we’re for is live art and we’re better placed to be revving up to be ready with a load of great stuff to offer and being robust as a company so when we can have a shared experience with the audience that’s what we’re able to do. I think as a director you can only make work you’re compelled to watch yourself.
We are looking at our legacy – at the way that Joint Stock and Out of Joint made work in groups, with quite a stripped-back aesthetic. It’s about the story-telling experience, it’s not about big sets, it’s not about things flying in and out. We’re thinking about how to create that. There will be an emphasis for us on new theatre work. I’m steering away from the phrase ‘new writing’ – that carries a lot of associations that aren’t necessarily audience-facing. I think audiences want to go and see a great piece of work. I would say we’re much more thinking about a joyous great night out, populist work with real integrity, rather than politics with a big p. Out of Joint has always been engaged with politics and sometimes done issues-driven stuff but it has always been wrapped in a great show, a great drama. The bigger productions were about trying to embrace a certain kind of mid-scale and where we’ve come to is that midscale doesn’t have to mean big production, it has to mean big story. We’re going back to the drawing-board and hoping to make a new kind of mid-scale work using some of the old tools from the Out of Joint tool-box.
I don’t want to speak for the Arts Council but I think there will be a lot more flexibility when it comes to requirements. One of our requirements is to do with the number of touring weeks and I imagine there will be flexibility about that. Either way, we have to now look at our business plan and adapt to the new circumstances. The theatres that survive won’t have the funding to put on big shows. We will need to look at smaller more fleet of foot productions and more audience-focus. We need to put emphasis on development right now. Theatres will need new products and they might not be in a position for a while to develop work. The timelines for developing work and theatres being open might be very different – it might be six months or even longer. As soon as we can we will start developing work and re-purposing our business plan to focus more on development than on touring, because who knows how long it will be before the mid-scale touring venues are ready to receive work. The overall ambition will be to produce more work than we have done in the past few years.
Liveness will be at the heart of everything we do. If theatre is going to come through this, it’s because liveness is what audiences crave. We’ve been talking about abandoning anything where it feels like theatre is trying to be TV or cinema and grabbing hold of the rough aesthetic that made the company what it is. It used to be the case that touring companies brought in fresher and riskier work – that has unhelpfully shifted until this moment – touring companies have been expected to be safe. That has not been great for audiences. I think the people who run these buildings are going to be hungry for these bold artistic partnerships but it has to be affordable.
For a long time it has been bleakest on the mid-scale touring circuit, where there is the least amount of funding and where audiences have been falling the fastest. I don’t think it’s going to be a time of revolution, more of evolution. What happens with those venues? Hopefully most of them will survive, the bigger organisations might be more at risk than a small receiving-house which didn’t have that much in terms of an engagement team, all those things that cost quite a lot of money. Our job is to make content the audience want to see – the old model of taking out quite expensive revivals we hope will attract a big audience probably isn’t going to work in these circumstances. In the 1990s after the funding cuts of the 1980s, theatre did scale down – the subject-matter became more visceral, the production costs went down. The new work on the mid-scale won’t be what has been going out recently..
The mid-scale has been underfunded – and maybe the whole thing needs reimagining. The sector has been talking about that for some time. Maybe we’re in a position to lead the way on that. There has been a lot of talk of audiences craving feelgood work. We need to think about what feelgood means – we’re not imagining creating the next Blasted nor are we trying to create work that’s conventional. You’ve got to thrill people. It will be all about the work again.
We have done shows at the National and also done shows in village halls – being mid-scale allows you that adaptability in ways that other companies might find hard. The mid-scale was already badly underfunded and what the arts need now is unfortunately a big bail-out. We need financial support or the sector will be in danger. There is a danger on the focus being on the big organisations, which will mean more London-based theatre. Everywhere in the country will need art, at the moment it may seem insignificant compared to funding the NHS but I feel that a society without art is like food without flavour. There should be no reason why we can’t do that.
Our funding covers our running costs. As long as the Arts Council can fund us we are able to continue but there is this issue of needing to make work and put it on somewhere. We have worked at the Nuffield, Southampton many times. If we start seeing those venues that are our regular partners closing it will have a really bad effect on us.
In the last five years it has really felt as though financial restrictions have started to bite. We’ve seen lots of desperation, lots of people deciding to leave the sector, the commercialisation of the subsided sector – which affected the ability to take risks. I’d like to see a return to the idea that it is legitimate to fund the work, not the education or the community outreach programme… because that is why we are special as a sector, that is why people keep coming back. It feels like there has been a drive to fund anything but that core work – the other stuff is really important but I hope that the theatre community learns to fight for that central purpose. I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat down to write a funding application that says ‘We don’t fund core-activity’ – that’s what we need for the next few years, the core activity funded. A friend of mine who is a director said that this felt like first time since we were 18 when we were able to take a breath, when the industry wasn’t juggernauting ahead of us – we can stop for a second and think: what can we do. For us this has been a moment of privilege and I think it will be the making of us in the future.