‘We are falling off a cliff edge’ - County’s theatres fear collapse after losing millions

Harriet Bunton (right), from Norwich, shared her experiences as a West End actor suddenly out of wor

Harriet Bunton (right), from Norwich, shared her experiences as a West End actor suddenly out of work. Photo: Harriet Bunton - Credit: Archant

The old adage says the show must go on, but with the county’s theatres having drawn their curtains for the first time in centuries, the industry is worried it might not.

Norwich Theatre chief executive Stephen Crocker outside the Norwich Playhouse. Picture: Norwich Thea

Norwich Theatre chief executive Stephen Crocker outside the Norwich Playhouse. Picture: Norwich Theatre - Credit: Archant

Across Norfolk and Waveney, both the largest and most intimate theatre spaces are losing out on millions of pounds in ticket revenue and funding while still having to pay costly overheads.

“There’s a point when funds run down to where we are falling off a cliff edge,” said Stephen Crocker, chief executive of the Norwich Playhouse and the city’s Theatre Royal - Norfolk’s largest theatre.

Mr Crocker said his central city venues have already lost more than £7.2m after 96pc of their regular income stream was cut off overnight as the country entered lockdown, painting a stark picture for the future of the industry.

The city venues are now forced to rely on the generosity of a select few supportive donors, who make up the remaining 4pc of their income, or apply for limited and highly competitive grants from organisations such as the Arts Council.

The Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft. Picture: Nick Butcher

The Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft. Picture: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

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With nearly all indoor art venues having been designated as “higher-risk businesses” due to the likelihood of coronavirus transmission, lockdown restrictions will continue for them until they can pass stringent tests proving they are Covid-19 secure.

So how can venues built to entertain crowds change to contain the transmission of a virus?

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What are the challenges?

Maddermarket Theatre Trust Chair Paula Meir. Photo: Maddermarket Theatre

Maddermarket Theatre Trust Chair Paula Meir. Photo: Maddermarket Theatre - Credit: Archant

Theatres were among the first businesses ordered to close their doors as coronavirus began to spread through the country.

And while Covid-19 emergency job retention schemes have meant many working in the industry have been able to protect some of their income, theatre bosses in the region say a lack of specific support packages for the arts and entertainment sector could see many theatres struggle to ever reopen again.

In fact, five out of the six popular and well-loved theatres in Norfolk and Waveney we spoke to said they were deeply concerned about the financial and cultural impact of being shut for more than six months.

“This is the first time we have ever been shut in 100 years, even during the Second World War we kept our doors open,” said Paula Meir, chairman of trustees at Norwich’s Maddermarket Theatre.

Former Bungay mayor Sue Collins and Jan Hughes presenting a cheque to members of the Fisher Theatre:

Former Bungay mayor Sue Collins and Jan Hughes presenting a cheque to members of the Fisher Theatre: Sandra Cox, Paul Baker and Margaret Laird. Photo: Sue Collins. - Credit: Archant

“We’re a charity and we don’t have much in savings. We are struggling financially, and we will continue to do so for the next 18 months to two years.”

With little guidance from the government so far as to when or how they can expect to reopen their doors, many performance spaces have been left struggling to imagine how they will make audiences feel safe enough to return, or what the world of theatre will look like post-lockdown.

Cate McKay-Haynes, trustee of the 160-seat capacity Sheringham Little Theatre, said: “Even if we were suddenly given a directive that it is safe to open, whether our audiences would feel safe to come back is a different matter.

“To make budgets work we have to sell 70pc to 80pc of our seats for any show, but for audiences to sit socially distanced, we would have to be under 50pc full. We’re doing the best we can, but these are really unsettling times.”

The Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich. Photo: Maddermarket Theatre

The Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich. Photo: Maddermarket Theatre - Credit: Archant

From the smallest venues in north Norfolk to the largest auditoriums in Britain, the picture is the same.

At the end of May, top West End producer Sonia Freedman, who is behind hits such as The Book of Mormon and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, warned the entire sector was on the “brink of total collapse”, suggesting at least 1,000 venues across the country could be forced to close for good if they are not given crucial support packages.

Mr Crocker said it is “incredibly difficult to plan beyond the short term right now,” with his sole purpose being “to survive this period of crisis and save the future of the organisation”.

He added: “We don’t know when we can open at a large scale, and it’s looking increasingly likely that distancing in our buildings is impossible and not economically viable.

Sheringham Little Theatre on the opening night of Stepping Out. Picture: Chris Sadler

Sheringham Little Theatre on the opening night of Stepping Out. Picture: Chris Sadler - Credit: Archant

“Venues of our size receive between 10pc and 20pc of their income from public grants in countries like Germany, but we receive nothing at all.

“There are three theatres I know of that have already gone to the wall, and I fear we could too.”

What will happen if theatres cannot reopen?

Harriet Bunton, a West End starring actress from Horstead who is now out of work, said “people genuinely need theatre”.

The 27-year-old, who has starred in Mamma Mia, said: “For so many people theatre is an escape that can bring them joy or relief, especially during this time where we have so much turmoil across the world.

“But I am really worried, the financial side of it may crumble and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of theatres aren’t there when we come back.

“The entertainment industry adds so much not only to our economy, but enriches our lives - everything people are streaming on Netflix right now comes from this same industry, and we will miss it if it goes.”

But beyond the thousands of jobs in the county for actors, directors, technicians, writers, ushers, bar staff and cleaners which could be lost, theatres say one of the greatest casualties of any forced closure would be the loss of valuable community assets which have the ability to change lives.

Many of the region’s smaller, community theatres in particular do not only put on plays and performances, but offer invaluable help to vulnerable and lonely people.

Des Reynolds, the director of Lowestoft’s Seagull Theatre, said: “We are a community venue first and foremost. We only exist because the community saved us in 2008 and it is only right and proper we support them in times like this.”

The theatre runs several weekly programmes for those in poverty, the elderly and people with dementia or learning difficulties.

But with gross profit down from £15,000 a month to nothing, Mr Reynolds is concerned for those to whom the theatre has become a second home.

“Some theatres are keen to talk about their own problems, and all theatres are struggling, but we’re worried what the community will look like after this,” Mr Reynolds said.

“We look at our community and think how lucky we are to support people who need it, those caring for people with dementia for instance. The struggles we might have are nothing to how difficult the situation is to some of those people now in isolation, especially in a deprived town like Lowestoft.”

What help is available for theatres?

Each theatre has its own challenges, but most agree a sector-wide specific government support package is what they most need. Many have asked patrons to donate on their websites if they are able to.

However the Sheringham Little Theatre has received £20,000 from the Arts Council to keep it afloat, while the Seagull Theatre received an unspecified amount from the same group which it is distributing in £500 packages to creative people in the town to fund online content for its YouTube channel.

The Fisher Theatre says it is lucky to have recently completed a large fundraising effort which can keep them solvent for the next nine months, but Norwich’s Maddermarket has asked people to ‘imagine you’ve seen it’ and consider seeing tickets for cancelled shows as donations.

Mr Crocker said: “The job retention scheme has been a lifeline for all venues, but it is only a small contribution. Larger venues like ours have massive overheads we simply cannot meet.

“Smaller venues have been bought a period of time that will see them through until September or October, but my concern for them is what happens after that.

“The massive issue is that it would cost a theatre the same to put on a show for 130 people as it would for 1,300.”

Asked whether rising ticket prices would support them, every theatre we spoke to said that was off the table.

‘All the world’s a stage’ - what will theatre look like post lockdown?

With many theatres already making the push to create content online, it seems for now virtual performances are the most popular way to keep people entertained.

The National Theatre has been streaming weekly performances of its most cherished plays, while Andrew Lloyd-Webber has been streaming his musicals for free every Friday night, decisions which our theatres are emulating.

The Sheringham Little Theatre said all the world is a stage and is considering taking theatre back to its earliest outdoor origins with the prospect of outside performances, at Mannington Hall, in Itteringham, as is the Maddermarket theatre at Norwich’s Chapelfield Gardens or Mousehold Heath.

“After all this is done, we’re going to need theatre more than ever,” said Ms Mckay-Haynes.

“We can go outside and join together. It’s all about connection, shared experience in a live moment, laughing and crying together and those things will be so important for community healing after lockdown,”

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