Oliver Dowden hints at theatre opening by Christmas but at what cost?

Social media is buzzing as the theatre industry is talking about re-opening following an article by Oliver Dowden in the Mail On Sunday.

Oliver Dowden MP theatre roadmap
Oliver Dowden MP – Culture Secretary

I want theatres to re-open as much as anyone, but what I have seen today just doesn’t sit right no matter who many times I read it.

Before we look at Oliver Dowden’s very vague statement, Let me set the stage to work out where we are now and how re-opening for Christmas might work.

The Culture Secretary announced a short while ago that the industry would recieve £1.57bn as a support package which today he claimed would see us through the crisis – or at least some of us (as this package is spread thinly) was shared with live music and heritage sectors. Treasury Secretary Rishi Sunak made no bones about it: the fund couldn’t save everything and sacrifices would have to be made. The whole amount outlined in this rescue package has not yet been made available but with the announcement that furlough would not be extended, the industry took the steps they felt necessary.

During August, the yearly financial saviour for theatres around the UK – pantomimes were decimated and venues closed their doors cancelling productions on an unprecedented scale. At the same time, they initiated redundancy consultations which are still underway but ultimately will see tens of thousands made redundant in the run-up to Christmas if not already.

Some in the industry at the start of lockdown were able to apply for financial help from the government as overnight our industry stopped dead. It would soon become obvious to the industry that re-opening had not even been considered and extending over 175 days and counting, closure due to the pandemic has done more damage that can be imagined.

The COVID pandemic stopped tourism, but if you look at London’s West End you see the perfect storm that results when you add no live entertainment to no tourists. The West End economy collapsed as predicted. Around the UK, in towns and cities where theatres play an important job as a focal point, the result was amplified with theatres in liquidation, others mothballed or lying dormant with all staff retrenched. Coach companies, restaurants, hotels, not to mention the many thousands of people who support our industry like lighting and sound companies, costumiers, set builders, theatre staff, printers, advertising and marketing agencies have seen closures and redundancies too.

There are also thousands of freelancers who have been treated appallingly by the government since lockdown. These hard-working members of our community who provide design, photos, pr etc were left adrift getting no financial support at all!

So, for Oliver Dowden to now decide that he wants theatres back by Christmas is no surprise. The Culture Secretary has been flip-flopping all over the place usually giving the industry a days notice on major decisions or issuing vague guidelines that have no basis in economic reality. This latest statement today comes from Dowden who stated on the 4th August that no decision on social distancing would be made until November .

Panto cancellations
Elaine C Smith, Johnny Mac and Paul James Corrigan – King’s Theatre Glasgow

Having killed panto dead this Christmas it’s ironic that in today’s statement Dowden talks about Operation Sleeping Beauty in which he now likens himself to a Prince riding in to save the sleeping theatre industry, supported by ‘his officials’.  It just doesn’t wash. Is the Secretary now telling us that he is about to start producing shows? What we needed and continue to need from the Culture Secretary is for him to agree procedure and dates without social distancing and then get out of the way and let us do our jobs with financial help because don’t forget Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall and is lying in a million pieces. All the King’s Horses and all the King’s Men have been sacked or have taken jobs elsewhere to pay rent and feed families and nobody has glue that dries that fast.

What is the Prince and his court of advisors planning? The first thing I heard was discounting dinner and show deals, laughable considering theatre opening guidelines haven’t been forthcoming. Producers must be asking why discounting is being discussed before sales (we presume of West End shows as Dowden again is vague) open and the state of play has been assessed.

As of Friday, this website was still receiving notification after notification that West End theatres are now closed until April 2021, casts have had contracts cancelled and venues are boarded up.

Does the Culture Secretary have the vaguest inkling of what sort of effort would be required to kickstart the beast that is now mothballed? His article today implies that he still doesn’t know how or when and that dreaded word “Soon” really isn’t the fixed date we so desperately need.

For pantomime producers who have cancelled most of this year’s festive entertainment, this dithering must be even more frustrating. It is now too late to stage Christmas pantomimes, many venues having just recently refunded ticketholders for this Christmas wiping out the profits that many rely on to keep the doors open.

Having given up on any salvation from government, many in the industry have started making other plans showing the incredible talent and creativity of the industry, risking their own money to make some form of theatre happen. It takes an army to mount a show but most of all you need time.

I think most in the industry agree that re-opening is the most important thing we now have to do and we must do everything to succeed. If we mess it up by rushing on a political agenda and we lose the faith and trust of the audience we will be sunk.

Equity President Maureen Beatty said today “If the government really intends a safe reopening in November, we welcome that – but it can only be a reality if they engage with the workforce and its unions to ensure workforce protection, the protection of infrastructure, a safe opening subsidy, and investment to secure real equality for already marginalised artists and other creative practitioners. These conditions, Equity’s Four Pillar Plan, are essential no matter when re-opening happens – or we face a workforce and industry collapse.”

So Minister, before you start discounting and congratulating yourself we want more details, realistic timetables and to make sure that we don’t open into what you have been warning us might be a full-blown second wave which could be the final nail in the industry’s coffin.

This is not A Little Night Music and “Soon, I Promise” is not official policy!

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