Last spring, after the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of theatres nationwide but before the culture sector was offered any substantial government support, interviews with artistic and executive directors had an emotional edge to them.
More than one broke down in tears over the phone to me – the prospect of mass redundancies, of insolvency, and of permanent closure was only weeks away in some cases. There seemed a very real chance that the country’s entire theatre industry might collapse.
Help did arrive – eventually. The furlough scheme undoubtedly saved hundreds of jobs. A £59 million rescue package, administered by Creative Scotland, contained £12.5m for performing arts venues, £15m for other cultural organisations, and £5m for the creative freelancers on whom the sector depends. And, although the annual windfall of a winter pantomime was never a reality for most theatres, neither was the large cost of staging one.
Most theatres even managed to produce online work – from the National Theatre of Scotland’s entertaining Scenes For Survival series of short films to the Lyceum’s moving Lament For Sheku Bayoh live-stream – but generating enough income from this work to cover costs has proved practically impossible. Live, in-person audiences only made a fleeting return in the Highlands and Islands in Autumn.
Of course, there were losses – huge ones. Productions that were never performed and now never will be. Companies that closed down and will never return. Freelancers that fell through the many gaps and left the sector for good. A year without the Edinburgh Festivals and the vital role they play in stimulating Scotland’s creative economy (worth more than £5bn to GDP). Black holes in balance sheets that will take years, possibly decades, to escape from. Leading lights of Scottish theatre who will never set foot on stage again. Deep, devastating damage was sustained – but the industry, by and large, survived.
Perth’s pathway in the pandemic
Speaking to industry leaders today is not quite as bleak as it was last spring. Since the latest lockdown, most theatres have entered a period of hibernation – furloughed staff, closed buildings, costs cut across the board. Even the amount of online work being produced has discernibly dwindled – with a few notable exceptions.
Nick Williams is chief executive of Horsecross Arts, the ALEO (arm’s-length external organisation) responsible for running Perth Theatre and Perth Concert Hall. His organisation was awarded £750,000 by Creative Scotland in August – money that, he says, has been essential for its survival.
“Unfortunately, we did have to go through a redundancy process last summer and lost a lot of staff as a result, but that support did preserve some jobs that would otherwise have been at risk,” he says. “It also enabled us to produce some work and support some of the independent freelancers that rely on us.”
It also meant Horsecross Arts could play its part in the community. Theatres – especially subsidised ones in regional and rural communities – do not just exist to produce plays. They have a vital function in engaging the local population, and in supporting the young and the vulnerable in particular.
“We managed to adapt our community engagement programmes early on,” says Williams. “Our youth theatre went online. So did Little Stars, our creative programme for the under-5s. So did Horsecross Voices, our adult choir. That became Virtual Voices. We have developed our understanding of what our community needs from us at this difficult time, and of how we can deliver that safely.”
Beyond the bandages
The financial support administered through Creative Scotland last year was only ever a temporary salvation, however – it was dressing for a wound, and the bandage will need changing again soon. The questions that face Horsecross Arts – and theatre organisations across the country – are strikingly similar to those they were facing ten months ago.
When will theatres be able to viably re-open? How will they be able to re-open safely? Will audiences even want to return? What support will there be until we reach that point? Will there be round of government relief? Will there be an extension to the furlough scheme? Will there be a government-backed insurance scheme in case of another lockdown later in the year?
Add to these a round of new questions, specific to 2021. Will the Edinburgh Festivals go ahead? What will they look like if they do? What will happen at the end of this financial year in April, when the next three-year cycle of Creative Scotland’s Regular Funding Network – the financial bedrock of the entire industry – is due to start?
All sectors want to know the answer to questions like these – but the need for clarity is particularly acute for the performing arts. It takes weeks to program a season, to rehearse a play, to prepare Covid-secure facilities for visitors. Even when restrictions are eased, there won’t be any oven-ready productions and it will take time for industry to grind back into gear. The big arts events of the Scottish summer – including the Edinburgh Festivals – take months and months of planning. With every day that passes in uncertainty, it looks less and less likely that they will go ahead. The recent cancellation of Glastonbury Festival for the second successive year is an ominous portent.
“I think the government really does need to look beyond the current crisis and the rollout of the vaccine, because otherwise what will happen is we will get to a point when the restrictions are lifted, and no-one will be ready,” Williams says.
“We haven’t been given any pathway towards reopening and at the moment it feels like the government doesn’t even want to have that conversation. It would be helpful if we could at least start a dialogue about what coming out of this current lockdown looks like, and what the long-term outlook is for theatre.”
Lucy Mason, interim chief executive of the Federation of Scottish Theatre gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee last week, when she made clear the industry’s anxiety about the lack of future strategy. She said that the “lifeblood and purpose” of Scottish theatre was under threat. There have been no new announcements concerning culture since then, from either Westminster or Holyrood, nor any indication of when new guidance might be available.
Optimism of the will…
“There is a range of attitudes in the industry from blind optimism to sheer pessimism, depending on who you talk to and what day of the week it is,” says Williams, when asked how hopeful he is about the future of Scottish Theatre. “I do think that when people can return to the theatre, they will. I think there will be a real hunger for live events.”
“I know that Horsecross Arts – the theatre and the concert hall – plays a huge role in Perth, both in terms of the economy, and in terms of people’s mental health and wellbeing,” he continues. “We have tried to continue that as best we can throughout the pandemic, but nothing beats live performance in the end. All we can do is make sure we are in a position to come back strongly when we can.”
Images via Perth Theatre blog/keep going together