Summer 2020 – Fringe, Off-West End
10th June 2020
Neil McPherson, artistic director, Finborough Theatre, 27-05-2020
It was very bad just before the lockdown, after that in a way it got a lot easier. At least then we had some certainty. The two weeks before the lockdown where we didn’t know what was happening and it was clear to everyone it was spreading very badly – and I might have been responsible for spreading it – that was really hard. After that it was “we have a fire let’s put the fire out”.
We had a couple of old plays from the Thirties coming up that we knew would attract an older audience – so I moved those to April/ May/June of next year. One reason why our rediscoveries sell so well is that there is a massive audience of older people who are not catered for and are largely ignored.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve reorganised the schedule. Originally we moved things to April and to August then we moved them from April to July then from July and August to September. Etc, etc. At the moment we’re hoping to reopen January 2021.
Could we reopen in the autumn? It’s not impossible. I did a lot of research for a play I was going to write about the Spanish flu, which I never got round to, I’m kicking myself now because it would have been timely. I think, realistically, we’ve only got 50 seats, so if there is any kind of social distancing we would only get four to six people in there. And that’s not even thinking about the actors. And what we don’t want to do is announce we’re going to start in September and then have to go through the entire business of cancelling everything and all of that again. We’re hoping by January of next year we should be in a position to reopen, if we can’t we will cross that bridge when we get there but to think of re-opening before September is totally unrealistic.
It’s our 40th anniversary year, we had some really great stuff lined up. We actually postponed the April and the May shows just before the lockdown – and when Boris said what he said on the 16th March we cancelled the show running at the time [Not Quite Jerusalem]. So we were a little bit ahead. We were hoping we could finish that run but that run had to go as well. We have a little bit of a reserve fund – we’re in a better position than most – on the other hand it’s not going to last forever, and our difficulty is that we fall through nearly all the cracks of government support, and we’re in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea… We’re not Arts Council funded – like the Old Vic. Also, we don’t pay rates because the pub pays rates. There were extra funds put in place for people who specifically don’t pay rates, but we were told we couldn’t apply to [that fund] because we’re a charity. The Chancellor said ‘Here’s a fund for charities’ but RBKC are still deciding how to spend that. My worry is that in terms of local authority support we won’t get anything. I’m hoping they’ll prove me wrong but I’d be pleasantly surprised.
The difficulty with the Arts Council bail-out funds is that it’s for people who have been bailed out before. If they do another round of funding, we will try again, regardless and hope someone will take pity on us. Most of our shows are external companies coming in that we choose very carefully, on paper they are the ones that get Arts Council funding, not the Finborough. So we as a venue can’t apply.
We have enough in reserve to get to next year. We only have two members of staff, neither of us are paid particularly well. We only just got a second member of staff full-time from last June. Most fringe theatres have a bigger staff than we do, we’re quite lean, which is fortunate. All of our costs are fixed, it’s stuff like paying the market rent, staff fees, utilities, the kind of thing we can’t get out of that’s causing the problems.
We hope that everything that was postponed is going to come back. The show that was playing which was cut-off half-way through is the worst off – but we hope they will be the first show back on stage when we reopen. The budgets are tight on fringe shows, but the costs are so high nowadays that it was already getting to a situation where it’s very difficult to keep going.
Those theatres that are good at fund-raising are going to be fine, those who aren’t will probably fall by the wayside. The pandemic is exacerbating the existing situation. Those who can write good applications are not necessarily the most talented, that’s a problem. It is becoming who can write the applications, who has the contacts to get famous people involved. It must be said that for us at least part of the reason we don’t have funding is there are only two full-time members of staff where most people have a great deal more than that. We just don’t have time – we can run the venue or we can do fund-raising, when it comes down to it the venue has to come first.
I think the whole fringe theatre sector is taken for granted. One of the biggest successes of the lockdown was Quiz by James Graham who started with us. Yes it will be a disaster for the local community if theatres like ours close. What’s really worrying is what happens in 10 years’ time. The equivalent of James Graham of 10 years’ time … if we are not here or the Union, or the Old Red Lion, or Jermyn Street they’re going to have to really struggle. And in 10 years’ time there isn’t going to be a James Graham, a Mike Bartlett or a Laura Wade who writes something that fills the Olivier or entertains everyone on TV, that’s the big thing I think about this.
James is interesting. After his first play, I sort of gave him the next two. The first night of Albert’s Boy I came in with a stack of Anthony Eden books and went right “Get on with it!”, then I talked him into the Mrs Thatcher play and then after that, he was fine, he didn’t need any ideas, he was up and running.
The whole fringe sector needs to rethink and have a new model. We are trying to think what would be a better model. The model we had before was broken, it wasn’t working, and this crisis is exacerbating it. A one-off bail out would help in the short term but in the long term we need to find a different approach. My wish would be that if I had fundraising staff, I would like to fundraise all my costs for the entire year – the fixed running costs – and give the theatre away for free. Instead of companies coming to us and giving us a rent you could just go to the new James Graham, ‘Here you are, here’s the theatre for free, you keep all the box-office, use that to pay everyone properly and go for it’. At the moment all fringe theatres are charging large amounts for rent, sometimes box-office splits, but it costs a lot.
This sector has always been there, we need to find a new way of making it work. Maybe pub theatres like ours are out of date but we can still do things that nobody else can. If theatre just became site-specific pieces that would be as bad as all theatres being pub theatres – the important thing is to keep it as wide as possible, so everyone has a go.
The fringe largely depends on the energy of the people who do it. It’s easy on the fringe to go in, have a massive success for a year or two, and then you’ve got to pay the mortgage and you’re fed up of never being able to do anything – and you give up and get another job. For those of us like Sasha Regan [at the Union] or me staying in it for the long term is a different ball-game. But everyone just assumes we will survive somehow. Maybe a few of us closing down might not be the worst thing in the world if people realised what they were going to lose. What they’re losing isn’t now, they might not notice it for five years but in 10 years’ time, they really would.
The Finborough’s fundraising page is at finboroughtheatre.co.uk/support-us-covid19
James Seabright, King’s Head theatre, chair; producer. 03-06-2020
I wear two hats, my day job is being a commercial producer, and I’m a trustee of the King’s Head. Both of those are keeping me quite busy at the moment. Normally the role of a trustee even as chair of the board – it’s an oversight role. It’s not getting your hands dirty with the day to day operation but at the moment it very much is because all the King’s Head staff, apart from a couple of assistants who are working on the digital output, have been furloughed – as a way of preserving the charity’s resources and trying to make sure we’re in the best possible place for reopening.
We’re in a reasonably good place at the moment, because we have had a successful fundraising campaign, which has included getting a grant from the Arts Council, which is the first time the King’s Head has had Arts Council money since the 80s. Dan Crawford used to have an Arts Council regular grant which ran out at the start of the 90s, since then it has had to survive on its wits. Although it has worked on a charitable basis, it has had to operate on an unfunded basis – in recent years, since I became chair four years ago, typically the charity brings in about £1m a year, which is around 80 per cent box-office, of the other 20 per cent quite a lot comes from bucket donations.
Dan pioneered this constant campaign of shaking the bucket at the end of every show, that survived and still happens at every show you go to at the King’s Head. It’s very successful and we are able to reclaim gift aid on some of those donations. So the other 20 per cent of our income, quite a lot is from buckets, quite a lot is from donations and the occasional bit of grant support from charitable trusts and foundations who are linked to the sort of work we are doing at any one time. So basically, all income sources have dried up with the closure of the theatre.
We have been quite successful in reducing our outgoings, both through making use of the furlough scheme and we have kindly been given a rent holiday by our landlords, Young’s – the brewers that run the pub. When we closed in March we set a target of £100k as what we needed to secure in order to be able to re-open in September, with some reserves in the bank, so we could operate. We have overreached that target, we are on £120k now including the Arts Council money which is lucky because it looks very unlikely we will be open to open in September. The funding stream we applied for has a maximum of £35,000, that’s what we were given, it’s a big help. That’s not new government money that’s the Arts Council stopping all other funding programmes and re-diverting that cash towards this emergency. It’s great that they’re doing that, but no one should think that that is coming from new government money.
We are modelling on the basis of being able to open early next year. We can squeak by if that is the case, but it’s touch and go. It has come at a challenging point, because as well as it being the 50th anniversary of the King’s Head being founded in 1970 – this is also the year in which we would have started to move to our new building.
We are still in the process of tying up the details with the developers of Islington Square, which is always a complicated process, particularly because it involves planning permission and effectively this theatre being custom-fitted to our specifications. So that’s an ongoing process. In March, the week before we had to shut down, we got the fantastic news that our biggest grant so far would come in from Sadiq Khan’s Good Growth fund, they were giving us £800k towards our target of just over £3m which is what we need to fit out and move.
That news came just weeks before Covid closed the theatres. So the board are trying to push things forward with the new development because we see that as where the future of King’s Head lies but the focus has been surviving rather than moving. We had hoped to break ground on the new theatre within our anniversary year this year but that’s looking increasingly unlikely. That is now something to look at as the plan for next year. We are still in a good place in terms of that campaign. The challenge though is that the remaining money we need to raise is going to be the hardest – because everyone’s on their knees because of the results of Covid, financially as well as health levels, and a lot of the charitable sector have rightly turned their grants programmes into emergency funding programmes. And those longer terms grants we might have been going for to support Islington Square aren’t going to be open for us in the short term. We’re regrouping to work out what that means but we are still determined to press ahead with the development.
The model that we’re adopting at the moment, optimistic though it may be, is that once the furlough scheme ends at the end of October we would recall the staff in November. So that we would be able to start work on reopening in the New Year. It’s not like turning a tap back on, we need to work out what the shows are going to be – building sets, rehearsing. The King’s Head is fundamentally a producing theatre – as well as welcoming in visiting companies. For a small theatre like ours, with 110 seats we need at least a couple of months to get back moving again, so if we can reopen in January the timing at the moment works. But it is a concern whether that will be possible and it is also a concern what the appetite for theatre will be. It is also impossible for us to operate with social distancing, whether that is one or two metres. We have modelled what it would mean in the King’s Head and our 110 capacity would go down to potentially as little as 12 people with a maximum cast of two and the stage-manager operating it outside the theatre. We might be able to accommodate more than 12 if people are booking more than a single ticket but you’re looking at, at best 20 people.
There’s the complicating factor that we aren’t at the moment in our own building. We operate out of the room of the back of a pub. Young’s are planning to reopen the pub sooner than that but they will be subject to distancing regulations. And how we fit in to that mix is something that again we’re having to discuss with them as things unfold.
The insurance element is really important. A lot of the dialogue is often around safety for audiences as it should be, but actors are members of the public too – especially in small theatres with small backstage facilities, it is a challenge. And it’s very easy in a bigger venue to have more space for everybody. As a trustee, I don’t get involved in deciding what goes on at the King’s Head. We oversee it and make sure it won’t go bust, Adam [Spreadbury-Maher, artistic director] and his team decide what to put on. But if as a board we were having to say ‘you can’t have more than two people in a show’ that’s a big artistic limit on what he can do. If we were having to limit the number of people in the auditorium it would be a financial challenge. The analysis may mean that it doesn’t make sense for us to reopen before that goes away. Insurance is vital – the issue at the moment is around what any theatre, charity or not, will open itself to by reopening in a situation where they could face litigation if members of the public thought they might have been infected by virtue of their visit. There is lobbying going on around the insurance question and how that can be resolved so that people can reopen safely.
So the focus as a whole is around how we can make venues Covid-safe. There’s a lot of work going on around that in the West End, that will start to trickle down to smaller venues like the King’s Head. Of course, Young’s is a big corporate which runs a lot of pubs, they will be making their side of the building Covid-safe. That’s very much work in progress. The ultimate solution here is going to be a treatment or a vaccine so everyone is less worried about what risks they open themselves to by going to a theatre.
It was announced last week by SOLT and UK Theatre that there has been a submission to government made around what they’re calling a ‘cultural investment participation scheme’ – where money that government and potentially others would put towards the scheme is potentially recoverable based on the future success of those arts organisations that are drawing down on the money. They have come up with that as a solution that can work across the subsidised and the commercial sectors, because they operate in different ways but they have the common goal of wanting to be open and doing business again.
Taking my King’s Head hat off and my putting commercial producer’s hat on, one of my concerns is that it’s all very well us saying we can get this show back on the road in January or whenever but that relies on the theatres we want to tour to being open. It is a very closely interwoven web. One of our biggest hits in the UK, is the live version of Adam Kay’s book This is Going to Hurt – that’s as Covid safe as you can get because it’s just Adam on stage but looking down the list of venues he was meant to be going to on that coming tour, a lot of them are subsidised venues, a lot are charities, a lot are run by councils, and a lot of those venues are having to make the decision to close their doors for an amount of time. So there’s this thing of: which venues will be open, what will a tour look like? So as an industry we are very co-dependent, even though often the approaches to putting on shows varies from sector to sector. In an average year we have about 40,000 people come through the Upper Street venue – but in recent years more people, probably around 50k people see a King’s Head show not at the King’s Head. We’ve been active transferring shows to Trafalgar Studios 2, and the Edinburgh fringe. The health of the wider sector is really vital.
That cultural investment participation scheme is being designed or pitched so that it could benefit venues and producers of all shapes and sizes. The first step is for the government to say it will support it, and us. Despite lobbying for the furlough scheme to be extended on a sectoral basis, that would benefit hospitality and arts longer than other sectors, that hasn’t happened. There is a great deal of government speaking about the importance of the arts but we’re yet to see the government saying this is how we’re going to support that sector to recover. As part of SOLT and UK Theatre’s submission they point to the huge knock-on benefits around theatres existing and operating in terms of how much money is spent on other things, as well as people going to the theatre. This is why I think the scheme is pitched round the idea of cultural investment. The theatre is a brilliant leader when it comes to taking a small amount of money and making it into a larger amount of money. Football has been higher up the queue for attention, but the statistic that is always worth bearing is that more people go to the theatre in the West End every year than go to premiership football matches. The financial upside of theatre is massive and this is a case that is being made, but is not yet being answered.
One of the heartening aspects of the fund-raising campaign is that a large chunk of that 120k came from patrons choosing not to get a refund on their tickets. We didn’t do that in a cynical way, it was a genuine thing of saying: we will give you the refund but if you’d like to consider donating that to the theatre that would be really helpful. That’s great – and there were outright donations, but we aren’t confident we can keep going back and asking the same people the same thing. At the moment, we have a way we can survive if we reopen in January, beyond that it is not pretty. It would put the current form of the King’s Head and the hoped-for new form of the King’s Head in jeopardy. I think there is this idea that theatre will somehow always survive – and it does feel a bit like maybe the government has a view of theatre that’s a bit like Shakespeare in Love, everything is done on dodgy deals and there’s a bit with the dog then everyone will be OK. But that isn’t how things work, either at the West End scale or at the fringe scale.
One of the reasons I came on board as a trustee is that I admired the work that Adam was doing as a pioneer of fair pay in the fringe sector, I’ve always struggled with the idea of asking actors to work for nothing, I haven’t done it myself as a producer. I don’t like going to see shows where I know that people aren’t being paid fairly. It’s great that the King’s Head has been a pioneer in the sector and was an early adopter of the Equity Fringe agreement so that everyone on stage and off is paid an Equity rate. That’s not an easy thing to achieve and that’s one of the reasons why it’s difficult to even consider opening without being at full capacity. In terms of the scale of the King’s Head, we have 11 full-time staff and we have beyond that an army of casual staff and freelancers – who work for us as box-office front of house, technicians all the creative team that make the shows in the first place. There’s a lot of people involved even in putting on a one-man show. We feel that our audience understands that – and sometimes the idea of there being a bucket speech at every show, people might think that’s cringe-worthy. But every audience member hears from someone involved in the show what the model of the charity is – that helps people understand what we’re facing now, because they get more clearly what the economics are.
I think it is likely that even if what we now see as the best case scenario of reopening late this year or early next year happens, venues will close or not reopen, both because of the situation those venues find themselves in but also because of the situation their landlords find themselves in. And really the whole pub theatre sector gets by on the idea that the landlords charge little or no rent to the theatres who are their residents. The hospitality sector has been put in a terrible state, their income has gone down to zero too. If as part of their reopening plans they have to start think differently about how they use their back rooms and upstairs rooms it will be very bad news for a lot of fringe venues. Even though the King’s Head has been there for 50 years the bottom line is that we have a 90-day lease, we could be out in three months if our being there doesn’t make sense to our landlords. A lot of pub theatres are in the same boat if not a less secure boat than that. It is a real challenge.
I think it would be the wrong move for anyone to start reshaping their programming policy around what they think audience behaviour will be like. The research that is being conducted in the sector is encouraging in the sense that it suggests that there is an appetite to go back and see shows. The audience young, old or middle aged want the government to say when it is safe to do that. And they’re not going to go back until they do and we’re not going to reopen til that happens. That’s standing out as the key thing.
DONATE to the King’s Head here https://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/donate
I was conversing with the DCMS some weeks ago and got the feeling that the fringe was being ignored. We felt we needed to provide some figures – in economic and social terms government loves statistics. So we sent a summary to the DCMS. One of the odd things was that I couldn’t find an up to date list of Britain’s theatres online. We have 54 members, our criterion is under 300 seats. We’ve counted over 50 independent fringe theatres in London alone – they range from 50 seats at the Finborough, at Above the Gatehouse we have 140, the one with the largest number is the Pleasance, 250. We are either above a pub or next door to one, or in a community building. We feel we are a sector. It’s not just the odd pub theatre.
We have a slightly different agenda to the West End. West End spokespeople were putting out statements saying ‘all theatres are shut’. Yes, their buildings are locked but a lot of our members are doing outreach programmes and online broadcasts, so it’s a bit unfair because the general public think that all theatres are just locked up. The impression I get is that we’re all managing – some have managed to furlough their staff and some freelancers have managed to claim on the self-employment income support scheme. But a lot have fallen through the cracks. We have a young freelancer who comes in quite regularly who has only been freelance since last October, so she didn’t get anything. We’re doing what we can to help her.
We’ve got the small business grant for our theatre which gave us £10k – we count as a small business within the hospitality sector, and we got that in the first week of April, via the council. It was based on rates valuations. Some of the theatres – like the Brockley Jack – have struggled because they’re in multi-purpose venues and didn’t pay rates. Most small theatres have maybe one or two full-time employees and everyone else is freelance. Some of our members have put one-to-three people on furlough. I don’t have a technician I just have a guy who comes in when we need him – because he has been freelance for about five years, he was able to claim on the SISS scheme. The other reason we’re not queuing up at the soup kitchen is because 90 per cent of us are local and have local, loyal audiences who have offered to help.
When we closed on the 17th March, we had a lot of future bookings for April and May and we asked people ‘Do you want to donate the money or get a refund?’ Most donated and when you added it all up, it has given us quite a substantial lump of money to help us pay our overheads – we’ve still got to pay the rent, though we don’t have to pay business rates for 12 months, which has helped a lot of people.
Theatres may go under after the end of October when the freelance system and furlough system finishes because that’s when people will run out of money. We don’t have a lot of reserves, but at the moment, we’re upbeat because we hope there will be some way round social distancing. We can just about cope with social distancing in the audience. For our theatre, we could put a play on with two people in the cast, 40 people in the audience, socially distanced, and we could create a separate entrance and exit. But the casts have to rehearse, stand on the stage and interact, so it swiftly becomes an issue. We were also told by a government department that laughing and singing spread the coronavirus as much as sneezing and coughing. Which puts musical comedy out of the window. We will have to be careful because our stages are very small. In our dressing-room, you can get a maximum of four people with the social distancing rules in place at the moment.
As long as we’ve got some chance of opening our doors in November up until then we can survive on the goodwill of our audiences but we can’t keep asking them for donations. As for Arts Council help, we are all very different in the way we operate – Upstairs at the Gatehouse doesn’t have the staff, the space, the practical wherewithal to do outreach work and youth groups. Children’s theatre is a non-starter, because we’re above a pub.
We were disappointed that the DCMS didn’t ask someone from the fringe or SIT to sit on their working party. We have written to them saying that the government should provide emergency money because we are all small businesses within the arts. Small businesses feed into bigger businesses, and unless the government helps us then big businesses will suffer, ie the big theatre groups. Because the actors and creatives and technicians and stage managers all start with us, they come out of drama school and where do they get the experience? I think eventually the bigger theatre groups will suffer if the fringe collapses. Remember a show like Six which started on the fringe then went into the West End, and was to have opened on Broadway. The fact that it began on the fringe and was put together by a group of people, one of whom started at the Gatehouse, that is a great example of what the independent sector can do.
Lisa Spirling, artistic director Theatre503, 03-06-2020
At Theatre503, we are not an NPO [Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation] so – similar to the Finborough, Park, Orange Tree and other theatres – we’ve had a critical loss of income from ticket sales and hire fees, which would have been 70% of our core costs. And with no regular subsidy we couldn’t keep going for very long. So we hunkered down, furloughed two full-time staff, and those that were on self-employed contracts we’ve had to sadly end their contracts with us. So we’re now a team of four part-time staff plus our brilliant trainee placements, and those that were full-time have now gone part-time to save money.
This is a moment where all organisations are having to look at their survival and look at the core of their mission and what they exist for. Whilst it’s incredibly important at 503 that we launch debut playwrights and those productions are the pinnacle of what we do, we also recognise that so much of our value is in the years and the months preceding that, supporting playwrights and companies. Right now we’re in the middle of reading for our International Playwriting Award – we’ve received over 1700 plays from 45 countries. We’ve got our 503Five writers on attachment. They’ve just handed in their first drafts, having been with us since September, and we’ve a number of plays and artists that are on their way to that vital first production. Along with the pastoral support of hundreds of playwrights and creatives. It hasn’t felt right or possible to put on hold any of this work.
We’ve received an emergency grant from the Arts Council – that vital funding is keeping us afloat and enables us to focus on what we can do over the next six to eight months, the period of time which we presume we will be closed for, in order to ensure we can continue to support writers and artists whilst doing all we can through fundraising and promoting our cause to survive as an industry and an organisation.
Last summer we ran a pilot of a 503Studio, where we curated a series of writers’ workshops, masterclasses and support sessions and one-to-one dramaturgy. It was as an offering to the industry and the writing community but it was also a way of our alumni giving back to the sector and to 503, and the income generated from those that were able to pay for these sessions went back in to the organisation. This year we intend to run the 503 Studio throughout the Autumn and part of our emergency ACE funding enables us to digitalise the sessions to improve access for all, and to subsidise places as we recognise that the landscape for artists has only got harder and artists will not necessarily have the money at this moment to invest in their careers. Unsurprisingly I feel passionately that Theatre503 and new writing is one of the main entry-points into the profession and we must ensure it stays as open and as accessible as possible.
All the productions we had planned have all been postponed to next year, and we are committed to helping them happen, as well as preparing for future shows. As Covid-19 was taking hold, and the theatres were shutting there was a moment for me where I acknowledged that the treadmill of putting on play after play means you don’t spend a lot of time looking at your organisation going “How do we make it better?”, putting in all the different things – strategies and policies, whether they’re environmental, or to do with diversity and inclusion and best practice across the industry. The time to do this work and have those conversations feels like a tangible positive to have come out of such a difficult time.
What I would also say is that all the theatres are talking to each other – there is such a collective sense of ‘how do we fight for freelancers, especially those that fall between the funding support of PAYE and self-employed, how do we campaign to the government?’. How we do ensure that in the period when lockdown ends but social distancing continues, how do we bridge that period so that the theatre industry can survive. This is along with the recognition that whilst we are all in this Covid storm together we are all travelling in different boats, with some better able to stay afloat than others. For 503 we are also dependent on the survival of the hospitality industry and that our pub landlord The Latchmere keeps going. If it doesn’t where will 503 go then? I believe it will always exist as an organisation – but there is history and magic in terms of what happens in that particular space.
Another positive is the way the industry has reached out to each other. In particular the furloughing scheme as well as being so key to theatre’s survival has also meant that furloughed staff from other theatres have generously offered their time and their expertise in a voluntary capacity. Currently we are receiving advice in production management, development and marketing. All vital components of what we do and to have that energy and knowhow is contributing to the future of 503.
None of this stops it all being scary though because we just don’t know the endpoint. When can we all be together in a theatre, watching a brilliant play? I’ve been having conversations with the team saying “Should we think about doing things like pop-up theatre, outdoor work?”, but there are other organisations for whom that is their expertise. Our expertise is in supporting writers and helping to give them that first production and to introduce them to an audience that is passionate about that work. During lockdown we’ve done Rapid-Write Responses online which have been successful in terms of access and involvement but it’s not the same as us all being in the same room together. That said, the fact that so much of what the industry is doing now is going online is another way of being accessible – it’s another way of making sure that what you offer reaches as many people as possible. So for me one of the next steps is now that if digital is to become integral to the work and to the offer for an audience, in a venue of our size with our limited budgets how do we do it properly, and so that the standard is of the same quality that we deliver in person on our stages?
In terms of the future we want 503 to be resilient and it feels like our community of audience and artists believe in the necessity of an organisation such as ours. At the same time there are no guarantees – if there is a second wave, if we can’t all be in a space together… You always needed such confidence and such chutzpah and financial risk to put on a show in the knowledge that it was never going to make money back but there was a belief it was worth it to make great art and to help launch careers. So, it’s going to take time for companies and emerging artists and people who support them to go “We can definitely do that again”. They will need more support than ever before.
What is frustrating is that at 503, we know first-hand that pre-Covid it was incredibly hard to raise the money to put on a show to launch debut artists, and that without that production (and even with it) they don’t necessarily get the opportunity to forge a career as a writer, a director and actor etc. So, with a desire to change that, in this last year we have been piloting a project funded by the Arts Council that enables us to shift our business model and offer 50/50 splits rather than on a hire basis. This was about enabling artists from all backgrounds to access and make work. We were smack in the middle of delivering that – that started in the autumn and it was going to be four other shows across 2020 – a kind of buffering of the risk, giving us more money to offer more resources, marketing and dramaturgical support. It was mainly about going ‘how can we change the landscape of the fringe?’ because the reality is that too often the fringe has been about who can raise the (it has gone up every year) the 30k, the 40k, the 50k to put the show on – if that is the way people access the industry we are never going to be able to change the landscape. We are desperate to continue this work, in the knowledge of the transformation it makes to the work, the industry and the world at large. If you want change at the top you have to start at our level, as we are where the journey starts.
The project we are in the thick of right now that everyone and anyone can get involved with is ImagiNation . We are partnering with Theatre Centre on this. The idea was that writers would write the stories that the nation would tell. We’ve got playwrights in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and in between – they’ve all responded in a different way. And anyone across the country can perform a section of it. To mention just a couple, although there are 19 to choose from. Jon Brittain has done a wonderful piece ‘Up in Your Head’ which is like a download of everyone’s thoughts throughout Lockdown, with Zinnie Harris stunning play ‘Silence’ you think you’re reading one thing about jealousy between one woman and her ex partner’s new girlfriend then you realise it is much darker and more powerful than that, connecting to the stories of the increase in domestic abuse during this time. Then you’ve got Asif Khan’s hilarious but profound piece ‘three-year-old in lockdown’, and Geraldine Lang’s comedy about love online, a woman hiding in a broom cupboard from her two children while she’s trying to do some online dating. Timberlake Wertenbaker has done a poignant piece about a bee pretending to be human and observing the pitfalls of human nature. The aim was to create a smorgasbord that people could dip into, record, send in and that would be turned into a film. There’s a lot of content out there but this one is about getting involved and being part of the stories being told.
With the ImagiNation project, we’re giving everyone access to the best writers and scripts. It was important for us to have established writers and to create an opportunity for less experienced writes to contribute their voice and experiences. We’ve got community groups taking part too and facilitators in different parts of the country. By the end of July everyone will send in their recordings. We are keen that everyone who participates will be celebrated in some way. We will create a one second a day type film and also will choose the strongest performances to form full pieces, so you can see the scripts in their entirety. I think it’s really exciting to ask: how can we make this something that’s as open as possible?
In amongst all this it has been interesting to see the impact Covid-19 has had on writers and on creativity in general. Initially when we were contacting the artists we work with they were going: I just can’t write, I’m not even picking up a pen or going to my laptop. Some writers aren’t writing at all, some are grieving or have caring responsibilities. There is of course a cycle for humanity and nature, a reaction of grief and catharsis and coming out the other side. We don’t know what the timelines of that are going to be. Slowly creativity feels like it is returning, more artists are reaching out, wanting to connect, talking of ideas, finishing drafts and sending in their plays. 503 receives unsolicited plays through the year, the number of plays we were getting dropped off dramatically at the start of lockdown and is only just beginning to pick up again now. And as the artists and the art is slowly returning to life then it feels more imperative than ever that there are organisations and audiences to meet them and celebrate them as soon as we can, in any way that we can.
If you’d like to connect with 503 please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. To support Theatre503 please go to https://theatre503.com/support-us/
Jez Bond, artistic director, Park Theatre
It was an absolute sadness to close – we had two of the most successful shows in our history running – Corpse and La Cage aux Folles (I’d wanted to do that for 15 years). We had just got our fourth Olivier nomination. So much work was put into it. I was really staggered to be reminded of how much we’ve done in the community. We went to the local restaurants the day we closed, and they were empty. Seven years ago when we built the Park none of those restaurants were there. And then we closed and the whole street became desolate. You think: we’ve spent seven years building to this point and three years to open the thing, changed the area and culture of the place and in the snap of the fingers it’s a ghost town like it was 10 years ago. That was quite sad. We will continue and come back strong, though.
We’ve furloughed most people and there’s a small team working from home, doing financial planning and keeping a marketing and social media presence. We were at a stage where the financial committee on our board were looking at the figures and saying ‘This is scary, once we get past the end of May, we will go past the point of no return for solvent liquidation. If we then had to close we would have to do so insolvently. Therefore as trustees of a responsible charity seeing that date is coming up ahead we have to act now.’
Certain members of the board felt that one of the things to do would be to liquidate immediately while there was still money in the bank and the debts could be paid. Rachael [Williams, the executive director] and I were keen not to do that. Whatever happens in the short term, the Park is there for the future. We felt a duty not just to our community, patrons and volunteers but our staff as well – to try and keep going so we could put them on the furlough scheme and not throw them out on the street where they’d all be on universal credit. This was about 6-7 weeks ago, a couple of weeks into lockdown. So I got on the phone – for 48 hours from 9 in the morning to 10 at night, two days straight, I raised over £300k, calling every single person I knew who had a bit of cash and loved Park theatre. Whether they had been a high-level friend, been a member of the producer circle, got a table at a gala, all those people; it was a phenomenal result. It enabled us to go back to the finance committee and say with some certainty ‘We can survive this through to the end of the year’.
Survive it and come out really wounded in January, though, having depleted all our reserves, our production fund (the pot of money we can produce our work from). We would come out staggering but we would have kept our heads above the water.
What we want to do is come out and have the same artistic and community output as when we closed our doors, doing all our access programmes, our community outreach work, the dementia group, work with older and younger people. We want to come back as strong as we were – so we are still significantly short of the target. We’ve got £35k from the Arts Council which is great, from that pot for the non NPOs. We’ve done a ‘go fund me’ campaign which has targeted everyone who wants to give a fiver and a tenner etc – we’ve raised another £50k there. We’re close to £400k all in all. But if we’re going to come out of it not wounded in January we’re going to need another £100k, otherwise we’re talking about what Park might look like then. Could it be we don’t have the long hours of our community café space, maybe there are cuts that have to be made there – and the access programme would be in jeopardy as I say. So we’re £100k off being able to continue where we left off.
In a normal year we have to raise a minimum of £300k – that’s with income from everything else. We will get money from theatre rentals if it’s a guest producer or from box-office if it’s an in-house show, from the café bar and any ancillary event. That plus £300k fund-raised gets us to break-even, so our annual budget is about £1.2m. Now we don’t have all the usual expenditure of course and we’re using the furlough scheme but we have still a cash burn and costs and some staff we can’t furlough.
It is critical that furlough scheme. We can’t turn the taps back on at a moment’s notice. We have to deliver an effective marketing campaign, we need time to mobilise and get the building up and running. You can’t just stop the furlough scheme and go back to working the next day. They’re now talking about employers’ contributions which would put us in stormier waters again. This is the toughest thing in all of this – the uncertainty and not being able to plan. When we first closed, we did different scenario plans – and you could spend your whole day doing that, but then the next day something comes up in the news, and it changes. But at the moment we’re looking at a January and an April opening scenario – we are imagining that within that we would have to cover three months of running costs up to the opening.
So in our January scenario we are assuming the government stops the furlough scheme and we would pay for Oct-Nov-Dec – and in our April scenario we would be paying for Jan-Feb-March. It’s very, very tricky – so we hope that perhaps there will be a new pot coming in for our sector that enables us to make use of the furlough scheme all the way through, without us having to scenario plan to cover the last three months, bearing the expenses on our own. To pay 20-30 per cent of it would change things massively – it’s hard to predict. And it’s hard to predict what the appetite is going to be when people return. One school of thought is that people will be hungry for live entertainment, another is that the majority of theatre-savvy audiences are an older audience who will be more vulnerable and therefore more cautious about going out into a group environment.
Certain sections of the audience may be affected by the financial pinch too – those three trips a year turn into two or even one. It’s very hard to predict – there’s a lot of stuff about social distancing theatre. Part of me is uninterested in talking about that. The reason we love it is that you are in the same room, breathing the same air as these actors, sitting in Maureen Lipman’s living room etc – you are experiencing this magical immediacy. One could do Zoom readings and so on but for me that’s not theatre, it’s a hybrid. I’m excited about the time when we can be in the same room, in the same air again.
Have we given up on this year? We would be ready and willing to go if we got the green light but we’ve given up on it in that we’re not expecting that to be the case. We are resigned to the fact that we should think about January onwards as the most realistic starting-point to get our heads around.
We don’t have an indefinite ability to keep going. We haven’t looked beyond April but my biggest fear has been the second wave and that government guidance would force us into opening too early. I said even as far back as two months ago: my hope is that we’re going to open next year. My fear is that if we open this year, then coming into flu season we will have to close again, and that could kill us, with the opening costs and the closing costs that could be the death of all our organisations. It’s cheaper in the long run to wait a little bit longer, knuckle down and know that even if it’s two months further on, we open and we’re staying open. Open and close again and I think we’re screwed.