During lockdown, with theatres up and down the country and around the world closed for the foreseeable future, I’ve been catching up with industry figures to see how they’re getting by. Here’s Jez Bond, artistic director of London’s Park Theatre.
Talking to… the Park Theatre
It was an absolute sadness to close – we had two of the most successful shows in our history running – Corpse and La Cage aux Folles (I’d wanted to do that for 15 years). We had just got our fourth Olivier nomination. So much work was put into it. I was really staggered to be reminded of how much we’ve done in the community. We went to the local restaurants the day we closed, and they were empty. Seven years ago when we built the Park, none of those restaurants were there.
And then we closed and the whole street became desolate. You think: we’ve spent seven years building to this point and three years to open the thing, changed the area and culture of the place, and in the snap of the fingers, it’s a ghost town like it was 10 years ago. That was quite sad. We will continue and come back strong, though.
We’ve furloughed most people and there’s a small team working from home, doing financial planning and keeping a marketing and social media presence. We were at a stage where the financial committee on our board were looking at the figures and saying ‘This is scary, once we get past the end of May, we will go past the point of no return for solvent liquidation. If we then had to close, we would have to do so insolvently. Therefore, as trustees of a responsible charity seeing that date is coming up ahead we have to act now.’
Certain members of the board felt that one of the things to do would be to liquidate immediately while there was still money in the bank and the debts could be paid. Rachael [Williams, the executive director] and I were keen not to do that. Whatever happens in the short term, the Park is there for the future. We felt a duty not just to our community, patrons and volunteers but our staff as well – to try and keep going so we could put them on the furlough scheme and not throw them out on the street where they’d all be on universal credit. This was about 6-7 weeks ago, a couple of weeks into lockdown. So I got on the phone – for 48 hours from 9 in the morning to 10 at night, two days straight, I raised over £300k, calling every single person I knew who had a bit of cash and loved Park theatre. Whether they had been a high-level friend, been a member of the producer circle, got a table at a gala, all those people; it was a phenomenal result. It enabled us to go back to the finance committee and say with some certainty ‘We can survive this through to the end of the year’.
Survive it and come out really wounded in January, though, having depleted all our reserves, our production fund (the pot of money we can produce our work from). We would come out staggering but we would have kept our heads above the water.
What we want to do is come out and have the same artistic and community output as when we closed our doors, doing all our access programmes, our community outreach work, the dementia group, work with older and younger people. We want to come back as strong as we were – so we are still significantly short of the target. We’ve got £35k from the Arts Council which is great, from that pot for the non NPOs. We’ve done a ‘go fund me’ campaign which has targeted everyone who wants to give a fiver and a tenner etc – we’ve raised another £50k there. We’re close to £400k all in all. But if we’re going to come out of it not wounded in January we’re going to need another £100k, otherwise we’re talking about what Park might look like then. Could it be we don’t have the long hours of our community café space, maybe there are cuts that have to be made there – and the access programme would be in jeopardy as I say. So we’re £100k off being able to continue where we left off.
In a normal year we have to raise a minimum of £300k – that’s with income from everything else. We will get money from theatre rentals if it’s a guest producer or from box-office if it’s an in-house show, from the café bar and any ancillary event. That plus £300k fund-raised gets us to break-even, so our annual budget is about £1.2m. Now we don’t have all the usual expenditure of course and we’re using the furlough scheme but we have still a cash burn and costs and some staff we can’t furlough.
It is critical that furlough scheme. We can’t turn the taps back on at a moment’s notice. We have to deliver an effective marketing campaign, we need time to mobilise and get the building up and running. You can’t just stop the furlough scheme and go back to working the next day. They’re now talking about employers’ contributions which would put us in stormier waters again. This is the toughest thing in all of this – the uncertainty and not being able to plan. When we first closed, we did different scenario plans – and you could spend your whole day doing that, but then the next day something comes up in the news, and it changes. But at the moment we’re looking at a January and an April opening scenario – we are imagining that within that we would have to cover three months of running costs up to the opening.
So in our January scenario we are assuming the government stops the furlough scheme and we would pay for Oct-Nov-Dec – and in our April scenario we would be paying for Jan-Feb-March. It’s very, very tricky – so we hope that perhaps there will be a new pot coming in for our sector that enables us to make use of the furlough scheme all the way through, without us having to scenario plan to cover the last three months, bearing the expenses on our own. To pay 20-30 per cent of it would change things massively – it’s hard to predict. And it’s hard to predict what the appetite is going to be when people return. One school of thought is that people will be hungry for live entertainment, another is that the majority of theatre-savvy audiences are an older audience who will be more vulnerable and therefore more cautious about going out into a group environment.
Certain sections of the audience may be affected by the financial pinch too – those three trips a year turn into two or even one. It’s very hard to predict – there’s a lot of stuff about social distancing theatre. Part of me is uninterested in talking about that. The reason we love it is that you are in the same room, breathing the same air as these actors, sitting in Maureen Lipman’s living room etc – you are experiencing this magical immediacy. One could do Zoom readings and so on but for me that’s not theatre, it’s a hybrid. I’m excited about the time when we can be in the same room, in the same air again.
Have we given up on this year? We would be ready and willing to go if we got the green light but we’ve given up on it in that we’re not expecting that to be the case. We are resigned to the fact that we should think about January onwards in terms of where we need to sit it all our heads.
We don’t have an indefinite ability to keep going. We haven’t looked beyond April but my biggest fear has been the second wave and that government guidance would force us into opening too early. I said even as far back as two months ago: my hope is that we’re going to open next year. My fear is that if we open this year, then coming into flu season we will have to close again, and that could kill us, with the opening costs and the closing costs that could be the death of all our organisations. It’s cheaper in the long run to wait a little bit longer, knuckle down and know that even if it’s two months further on, we open and we’re staying open. Open and close again and I think we’re screwed.
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