Phew. Thank God. A huge sigh of relief. That was the overwhelming response from the theatre world to the government’s £1.57 billion cultural aid package.
Hundreds of venues around the country can now feel a measure of reassurance. Without this cash, a lot of West End venues might have ended up as luxury hotels or faceless blocks of flats. Soho Theatre, a five-storey building near London’s Oxford Street, would be a prime target for developers. The same applies to the Donmar in Covent Garden. Theatre-owners in every part of the country are regularly approached by smiling financiers offering large sums in exchange for the freehold. A venue like the Arts Theatre, near Leicester Square, is still in show business simply because the proprietor has spurned the blandishments of money-men.
Theatre owners maintained the theatres for one reason alone. Love. They love the buildings, they love the art made in the buildings, and they love the people who make the art. – Lloyd Evans
This crisis may bring one huge benefit to the theatre world. People will start to reappraise their view of producers. High prices in the West End seemed to suggest that the game was run by rapacious buccaneers who just wanted to fleece the unfortunate punters. The opposite was the case, as Sir Cameron Mackintosh made clear in a statement last month, asking for government help: “Everything I have made has come from the theatre and everything I have has gone into these magnificent historic buildings”.
Far from ripping us off, the theatre-owners were acting as custodians to a priceless architectural heritage. They have always operated like a sort of private National Trust. And they maintained the theatres for one reason alone. Love. They love the buildings, they love the art made in the buildings, and they love the people who make the art. The idea that greed was their motive doesn’t bear scrutiny. The theatre was never a good way to make money. But it was always a great way to lose it.
At the same time, people may start to discover how the West End works commercially. The cost-price of a ticket doesn’t end up in the producer’s pocket. Most of it goes to the advertising trade. Big shows must compete against each other whilst also fighting off the noise made by global giants with huge advertising budgets. A theatre, of course, is not a global giant. It’s a local business. A West End venue has only one version of itself to sell, and it has to find ways to raise its voice against a multitude of firms with the power to promote and to flog their wares all over the world. Marketing a West End show means investing a small fortune in a targeted blitz of advertising. That’s why prices are so high. The punter is paying the theatre back for the effort it made to convince him to buy a seat.
Theatres can’t operate with a vacant space between every occupied seat. The maths is simple. – Lloyd Evans
The future for other types of theatre – notably stand-up comedy – remains uncertain. Announcing the relief package, the prime minister mentioned “gigs in basements” but he didn’t specify whether he meant comedy or music venues. Many comedy clubs are small businesses run by sole traders. The club-owner may operate the whole enterprise himself, booking the acts, arranging the publicity, and manning the door as well. Each comic gets about £80 (about $100) for a 10 minute set. The margins are tight, but a club-owner can expect to make a reasonable year-round living. All that is in jeopardy. And small comedy clubs don’t have the clout or the profile of venerable West End venues. Many club-owners are facing ruin. Comedians too are being forced to find work elsewhere. The culture secretary should ensure that this invaluable art-form qualifies for government relief.
The collapse of stand-up wouldn’t be felt immediately but it would be a disaster in the long-term. Every comedian you’ve ever heard of – from Jack Dee to Joan Rivers and from Simon Pegg to Sarah Millican – started out doing a five-minute open-mike spot in a tiny comedy venue. If the clubs go, the future of comedy goes.
And the protection offered by the government is only a temporary measure. Another urgent question is facing every branch of the performing arts. Sir Cameron Mackintosh, in his statement welcoming the package, asked for “immediate guidance when social distancing can be phased out.” This is crucial. Theatres can’t operate with a vacant space between every occupied seat. The maths is simple. To operate at 50 per cent capacity, prices will have to double. The market wouldn’t bear such a steep rise. As Sir Cameron hinted, the government must address the issue of social distancing as soon as possible. This alone has the power to destroy the theatre.
It’s a straightforward choice. Either we lift social distancing or we bring down the curtain. Forever.
Lloyd Evans is a critic, dramatist and theatre producer. He is the Spectator‘s theatre critic.
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