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 Lisa Spirling, artistic director of London’s Theatre503.
Talking to… Theatre503
At Theatre503, we are not an NPO [Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation] so – similar to the Finborough, Park, Orange Tree and other theatres – we’ve had a critical loss of income from ticket sales and hire fees, which would have been 70% of our core costs. And with no regular subsidy, we couldn’t keep going for very long. So we hunkered down, furloughed two full-time staff, and those that were on self-employed contracts, we’ve had to sadly end their contracts with us. So we’re now a team of four part-time staff, with those that were full-time now going part-time to save money.
This is a moment where all organisations are having to look at their survival and look at the core of their mission and what they exist for. Whilst it’s incredibly important at 503 that we launch debut playwrights and those productions are the pinnacle of what we do, we also recognise that so much of our value is in the years and the months preceding that, supporting playwrights and companies.
Right now we’re in the middle of reading for our International Playwriting Award – we’ve received over 1700 plays from 45 countries. We’ve got our 503Five writers on attachment. They’ve just handed in their first drafts, having been with us since September, and we have a number of plays and artists that are on their way to that vital first production. Along with the pastoral support of hundreds of playwrights and creatives. It hasn’t felt right or possible to put on hold any of this work.
We’ve received an emergency grant from the Arts Council – that vital funding is keeping us afloat and enables us to focus on what we can do over the next six to eight months, the period of time which we presume we will be closed for, in order to ensure we can continue to support writers and artists whilst doing all we can through fundraising and promoting our cause to survive as an industry and an organisation.
Last summer we ran a pilot of a 503Studio, where we curated a series of writers’ workshops, masterclasses and support sessions and one-to-one dramaturgy. It was as an offering to the industry and the writing community but it was also a way of our alumni giving back to the sector and to 503, and the income generated from those that were able to pay for these sessions went back in to the organisation. This year we intend to run the 503 Studio throughout the Autumn and part of our emergency ACE funding enables us to digitalise the sessions to improve access for all, and to subsidise places as we recognise that the landscape for artists has only got harder and artists will not necessarily have the money at this moment to invest in their careers. Unsurprisingly I feel passionately that Theatre503 and new writing is one of the main entry-points into the profession and we must ensure it stays as open and as accessible as possible.
All the productions we had planned have all been postponed to next year, and we are committed to helping them happen, as well as preparing for future shows. As Covid-19 was taking hold, and the theatres were shutting there was a moment for me where I acknowledged that the treadmill of putting on play after play means you don’t spend a lot of time looking at your organisation going “How do we make it better?”, putting in all the different things – strategies and policies, whether they’re environmental, or to do with diversity and inclusion and best practice across the industry. The time to do this work and have those conversations feels like a tangible positive to have come out of such a difficult time.
What I would also say is that all the theatres are talking to each other – there is such a collective sense of ‘how do we fight for freelancers, especially those that fall between the funding support of PAYE and self-employed, how do we campaign to the government?’. How we do ensure that in the period when lockdown ends but social distancing continues, how do we bridge that period so that the theatre industry can survive. This is along with the recognition that whilst we are all in this Covid storm together we are all travelling in different boats, with some better able to stay afloat than others. For 503 we are also dependent on the survival of the hospitality industry and that our pub landlord The Latchmere keeps going. If it doesn’t where will 503 go then? I believe it will always exist as an organisation – but there is history and magic in terms of what happens in that particular space.
Another positive is the way the industry has reached out to each other. In particular the furloughing scheme as well as being so key to theatre’s survival has also meant that furloughed staff from other theatres have generously offered their time and their expertise in a voluntary capacity. Currently we are receiving advice in production management, development and marketing. All vital components of what we do and to have that energy and knowhow is contributing to the future of 503.
None of this stops it all being scary though because we just don’t know the endpoint. When can we all be together in a theatre, watching a brilliant play? I’ve been having conversations with the team saying “Should we think about doing things like pop-up theatre, outdoor work?”, but there are other organisations for whom that is their expertise. Our expertise is in supporting writers and helping to give them that first production and to introduce them to an audience that is passionate about that work. During lockdown we’ve done Rapid-Write Responses online which have been successful in terms of access and involvement but it’s not the same as us all being in the same room together. That said, the fact that so much of what the industry is doing now is going online is another way of being accessible – it’s another way of making sure that what you offer reaches as many people as possible. So for me one of the next steps is now that if digital is to become integral to the work and to the offer for an audience, in a venue of our size with our limited budgets how do we do it properly, and so that the standard is of the same quality that we deliver in person on our stages?
In terms of the future, we want 503 to be resilient and it feels like our community of audience and artists believe in the necessity of an organisation such as ours. At the same time there are no guarantees – if there is a second wave, if we can’t all be in a space together… You always needed such confidence and such chutzpah and financial risk to put on a show in the knowledge that it was never going to make money back but there was a belief it was worth it to make great art and to help launch careers. So, it’s going to take time for companies and emerging artists and people who support them to go “We can definitely do that again”. They will need more support than ever before.
What is frustrating is that at 503, we know first-hand that pre-Covid it was incredibly hard to raise the money to put on a show to launch debut artists, and that without that production (and even with it) they don’t necessarily get the opportunity to forge a career as a writer, a director and actor etc. So, with a desire to change that, in this last year we have been piloting a project funded by the Arts Council that enables us to shift our business model and offer 50/50 splits rather than on a hire basis. This was about enabling artists from all backgrounds to access and make work. We were smack in the middle of delivering that – that started in the autumn and it was going to be four other shows across 2020 – a kind of buffering of the risk, giving us more money to offer more resources, marketing and dramaturgical support. It was mainly about going ‘how can we change the landscape of the fringe?’ because the reality is that too often the fringe has been about who can raise the (it has gone up every year) the 30k, the 40k, the 50k to put the show on – if that is the way people access the industry we are never going to be able to change the landscape. We are desperate to continue this work, in the knowledge of the transformation it makes to the work, the industry and the world at large. If you want change at the top you have to start at our level, as we are where the journey starts.
The project we are in the thick of right now that everyone and anyone can get involved with is ImagiNation . We are partnering with Theatre Centre on this. The idea was that writers would write the stories that the nation would tell. We’ve got playwrights in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and in between – they’ve all responded in a different way. And anyone across the country can perform a section of it. To mention just a couple, although there are 19 to choose from. Jon Brittain has done a wonderful piece ‘Up in Your Head’ which is like a download of everyone’s thoughts throughout Lockdown, with Zinnie Harris stunning play ‘Silence’ you think you’re reading one thing about jealousy between one woman and her ex partner’s new girlfriend then you realise it is much darker and more powerful than that, connecting to the stories of the increase in domestic abuse during this time. Then you’ve got Asif Khan’s hilarious but profound piece ‘three-year-old in lockdown’, and Geraldine Lang’s comedy about love online, a woman hiding in a broom cupboard from her two children while she’s trying to do some online dating. Timberlake Wertenbaker has done a poignant piece about a bee pretending to be human and observing the pitfalls of human nature. The aim was to create a smorgasbord that people could dip into, record, send in and that would be turned into a film. There’s a lot of content out there but this one is about getting involved and being part of the stories being told.
With the ImagiNation project, we’re giving everyone access to the best writers and scripts. It was important for us to have established writers and to create an opportunity for less experienced writes to contribute their voice and experiences. We’ve got community groups taking part too and facilitators in different parts of the country. By the end of July everyone will send in their recordings. We are keen that everyone who participates will be celebrated in some way. We will create a one second a day type film and also will choose the strongest performances to form full pieces, so you can see the scripts in their entirety. I think it’s really exciting to ask: how can we make this something that’s as open as possible?
In amongst all this it has been interesting to see the impact Covid-19 has had on writers and on creativity in general. Initially when we were contacting the artists we work with they were going: I just can’t write, I’m not even picking up a pen or going to my laptop. Some writers aren’t writing at all, some are grieving or have caring responsibilities. There is of course a cycle for humanity and nature, a reaction of grief and catharsis and coming out the other side. We don’t know what the timelines of that are going to be. Slowly creativity feels like it is returning, more artists are reaching out, wanting to connect, talking of ideas, finishing drafts and sending in their plays. 503 receives unsolicited plays through the year, the number of plays we were getting dropped off dramatically at the start of lockdown and is only just beginning to pick up again now. And as the artists and the art is slowly returning to life then it feels more imperative than ever that there are organisations and audiences to meet them and celebrate them as soon as we can, in any way that we can.
If you’d like to connect with 503 please contact email@example.com. To support Theatre503 please go to https://theatre503.com/support-us/
Jez Bond, artistic director, 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 as the most realistic starting-point to get our heads around.
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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