On a moody Monday evening in March, eager theatre-goers were starting to arrive at the Lyric in Hammersmith, west London.
A few days earlier the theatre had held the press night for a new production of Mike Bartlett’s decade-old drama Love, Love, Love. It had been well-received. Four stars from The Guardian, four stars from The i, four stars from The Stage.
“Audiences loved it,” Sian Alexander, the Lyric’s executive director, said. “We could see the box office taking off. When that happens in the theatre, the atmosphere is electric.”
Then, an hour or so before the curtain was due to rise, Boris Johnson sat behind a desk in Downing Street – and that was that.
“We basically had to meet the audience at the door and turn them away, then go down to the dressing room and tell them that we weren’t going to be able to carry on with the run,” Alexander said. “It was traumatic.”
The vast majority of theatres across Britain have remained mothballed since Johnson ordered them shut their doors seven months ago.
Support for cultural institutions since has come in fits and starts. The furlough scheme prevented mass redundancies, though some venues – including the Lyric – have started laying off staff. Some theatres were handed grants this week, as part of the government’s £1.57 billion Cultural Recovery Fund.
That money will go some way to keeping the lights on. But the way the cash has been distributed – and who has received it – has sparked criticism that ministers are either ignorant or apathetic about the true complexity of the industry they are supposedly trying to save.
When audiences are eventually welcomed back, they might be greeted by a theatrical landscape which looks dramatically different from that which we left behind in March.
More than 300 theatres received government grants – the biggest of which topped out at £999,999. The Lyric was handed £377,361 which, Alexander said, “really helps”.
“It makes sense that there is money that will enable theatres to exist come April 2021,” according to Sue Emmas, the associate artistic director of the Young Vic – which was given a £961,455 grant. “But at the same time, I know some freelancers are really anxious that the money might not trickle down to them.”
The entirety of the Cultural Recovery Fund has gone towards buildings like the Young Vic and the Lyric. Critics argue that such an approach misses the point at best, and at worst hints at a blithe misunderstanding of how the theatre industry actually works.
“Venues themselves are a small piece of it,” says Oliver King, who heads independent production company Wild Yak. “Most of the productions you see in those theatres are not produced in-house.”
Across the West End, he added, “most theatres are for hire. It’s independent producers and production companies which put shows into those. I don’t think Oliver Dowden [the culture secretary] properly understands it, and I suspect Rishi Sunak doesn’t really understand it either.”
Britain’s theatre industry is best understood as an ecosystem. Big beasts like the National Theatre are top of the food chain, but even they are reliant on a tangled web of freelance lighting technicians, stage managers and designers to bring a play to the stage.
It is those people – the vast gig economy without whom theatre in this country would simply not exist – who the government’s bailout packages have almost entirely overlooked.
“One of most disheartening things of the last few months has been not just that we’ve lost all our work, but how little understanding there is of our position,” Anna Fleischle, an multi award-winning freelance production designer responsible for creating the sets and costumes for hit shows like ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’, explained.
“A crisis tends to expose cracks that are already there, and one of the things that has become really clear about how theatre works in this country is that there’s a divide between the buildings and the artists who come up with the ideas and create whatever goes on stage,” she said. “We’re not part of the building, so we’re not part of that infrastructure.”
The government’s various support mechanisms – from the furlough scheme through to the Cultural Recovery Fund – “haven’t really made a difference for us as freelancers,” Fleischle said.
“Nobody has ever said to me, as a freelancer, ‘you have been made redundant’ – because somehow freelancers just disappear. They’re here one day and they do a job and then you just don’t see them anymore. All of a sudden we’re on the outside.”
There have been moves towards an informal unionisation of freelance artists, with groups like Freelancers Make Theatre Work spawning during lockdown, and lobbying both the government and institutions to acknowledge the plight of part-time workers.
“Freelancers have been overlooked, without a shadow of a doubt,” said Lucy Davies, the Royal Court’s executive producer, “and it’s really helpful for us as institutions that freelancers are becoming more joined up.
“But is that being heard and understood? It doesn’t look like it, because there aren’t many changes to the support structure for those artists. There are a lot of people who still feel voiceless.”
That could lead to a dramatic talent drain. “We’re really seeing daily the number of mid-career, successful artists who are going under because for one reason or another did not qualify for any of the schemes,” Davies said. “They can’t survive, and they have to pay mortgages and support families just like everybody else. It’s really desperate.”
Most early-career actors have side-hustles – part-time jobs in hospitality or events to maintain a steady stream of income while they’re in-between productions.
“I work with around 1,500 freelance artists, and they all have side-hustles,” she explained. “They were already working in an incredibly complex way to make ends meet. The pandemic just knocked that for six – and nobody in the government really understood what that meant.
“A lot of artists work in front of house or on the box office or at schools or pubs or whatever. They’re working really hard to create a self-economy for themselves. But all those little prongs that existed to support them financially have been decimated too.”
Heavy-handed government adverts urging artists to retrain for careers in cyber have not helped.
“We’re being told on a daily basis by politicians that we don’t really matter, that our jobs aren’t really jobs, they’re not as vital as others,” Fleischle said. “That’s a huge blow. You’ve lost your livelihood and you’re struggling to feed your children and then you’re being told that what you’re doing is actually not worth anything?”
A handful of theatres have managed to open their doors in recent weeks, the Royal Court and Young Vic among them. The National Theatre will soon premiere its remodelled Olivier space, which will be able to seat 500 people in-the-round.
The big venues – in terms of physical size and budget – have found themselves able to adapt, but they remain a privileged exception.
“Let’s say I want to produce a show at the moment, I’m faced with a number of obstacles,” King said. “If I’m doing a show in a theatre, I can perhaps sell 30 per cent of the seats to adhere to social distancing – at best. That already puts me in a difficult position.
“Secondly, once I sign contracts with everyone, I’m obliged to then deliver those performances and pay those people. What happens if a member of the company gets Covid, and suddenly the whole cast has to self-isolate? I have to carry on paying everyone and paying for the production – and at the moment, there’s no insurance cover against that.
“We need a Covid safety officer, you have to introduce temperature checks and screenings. That has an impact on your bottom line,” he added.
The litany of extra costs and restrictions disproportionately impacts smaller companies and venues. “They’re never going to let the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National disappear because they’re fantastic flagships of the entertainment business,” Pádraig Cusack, another independent producer, explained.
“But there are smaller companies doing fantastic work around the country that are part of the ecosystem that feeds the big companies. That’s where people get their first breaks as writers, directors, choreographers or technicians.”
That some small theatres will disappear entirely is unavoidable, Davies believes. “There will be losses, and inevitably we’ll lose some brilliant, interesting artists and venues that are really important feeders. That is going to happen, and that is devastating.”
Politicians haven’t quite got their heads round the fact that, in theatre, “big isn’t necessarily better,” according to Linda Crooks, executive producer at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. “It concerns me that the shorthand politically is that big can’t fail and shouldn’t be allowed to fail.
“But actually, there has to be a means of making sure that those small roots of creativity in smaller or regional venues don’t have their DNA quashed.”
That pipeline doesn’t stop in the West End – it can extend all the way to Hollywood. “This isn’t just about theatre,” Crooks added. “Theatre feeds film, it feeds Netflix, it feeds Audible.”
When the pandemic struck, there was a sense of resignation throughout the theatre sector – an acknowledgement that the industry was dealing with an unprecedented rupture, and some short-term pain was inevitable.
“We’re not very pandemic-friendly,” admits Davies. “Mass gatherings are our business, so we’re absolutely bottom of the survival list.”
But, gradually, as other countries have started to welcome audiences back and Britain’s response to Covid-19 falters and flails, that fatalism has turned to frustration for many.
“Look at South Korea,” King – of Wild Yak – said, “they’ve kept theatres open throughout. There is a route to doing it, but we failed. Whereas South Korea was able to run a test-and-trace programme and keep theatres, bars and restaurants open, we failed to contain it – and now it’s everywhere.”
That failure has robbed theatre of its most vital role at a time when it is sorely needed – and tied its future to whether scientists in a far off laboratory can figure out a way to get rid of the virus.
Forget for a minute that the arts contribute an estimated £10.8 billion to the UK economy – more than the agricultural sector, at last count.
Where theatre is most valuable is in its ability to distill complex issues and provide a collective space for audiences to reflect on them. It is a cruel irony that now, in a period of unimaginable pain and suffering for so many, it is unable to do so.
“I think sometimes the theatre is seen a bit like the cherry on top of a cake,” Cusack said. “But actually, we’re essential. We bring sanity to people’s lives. We’re provocative. We start debates.”
Above all else, he added, “we’re a gorgeous moment of escapism when it’s all pretty tough.”
Related: The other prison pandemic