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 David Greig, playwright and artistic director of the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh.
Talking to… David Greig
Basically we’re consulting at the moment, a majority of our company are at risk of redundancy. We’re reducing our company to a core. There’s a key thing for theatre which is that we do not know when we can come back. That is the brutal truth. If you told me for a fact, March 31, theatre will come back, we could probably find ways of stretching our income out and lose maybe three to 10 people, I don’t know. But if we go March 31 and get that wrong then we are bust. We have to prepare for ‘indefinite’ even though we know and hope it won’t be that. We hope that at some point the theatre will come back, but it’s not until the end of this calendar year. We’ve been told that by both governments.
The question is: can you perform theatre with social restrictions? And all the theatres in the UK have said: with our funding system it’s impossible, it cannot make financial sense. But that’s before you go: you can’t sing along, because singing indoors is a vector for disease; clapping makes particles spread more; laughing does too. The more you think about the invitation to the audience – as you say ‘come, be blocked off behind screens, we will spray you and present shows where actors stand apart, and we will try to encourage you not to sing along’, it’s like an anti-theatre.
So what you’re thinking is: we could cut our capacity to a quarter, massively increase our costs in cleaning, have no or limited bar income, then we would be inviting an audience into a risky environment but then is the invitation life-enhancing? If you add all that together – theatre in a world of social restriction is certainly financially implausible if not artistically so. We can’t do the fundamental thing which is our income generator. So we have to create organisations that do something else indefinitely but keep the keys to the building and look after them, and keep as much as we can in knowledge and skills so that when the time comes we are there and we can regrow like a bulb underground waiting for the spring.
I remember when we first started getting a thought of Covid-19 saying to my executive director Mike [Griffiths]: this could be a catastrophe, we could be closed for three weeks, and the thing about it is that would have been really, really bad, and difficult to cope with. When Mike said “I think we are looking at three months” that was a big blow. We started to think about serious restructuring. Then we realised there wasn’t a way that theatre could come back until there was some way that we could do it without social distancing – it has been a horrible journey.
It is worth saying that regional theatres – if they were surviving and thriving was despite (in our case 15 years of) standstill funding. In a way we were surviving and thriving because we were finding mechanisms to make work, reaching wider audiences, putting on musicals, co-producing with partners. Those are all the things Covid hits: have you brought audiences in? Great, we will demolish that. Is your financial plan based on people sharing things and moving round the country? Great, we will stop that. Are you getting work happening internationally? Great, we will make sure that doesn’t work. Really we’ve been screwed from every angle by it.
I want to reiterate the point Elizabeth made about hope. The restaurant industry in the UK is in real trouble. But food is not in trouble. People will find ways of eating food together. Ultimately theatre is a need, as primal as food. People will do it. We have patiently built since 1945 an extraordinary infrastructure to provide theatre of a really high quality to as wide an audience as possible. Economically theatre will probably bubble back in London. It’s big enough but in a place like Pitlochry or a place like Edinburgh even theatre is an act of will, it’s a moral decision. We are a public service. The question we ask ourselves as we go through this is: do we come back the same way that we were before or do we try to come back with a 1945 spirit of renewal and reinvigoration and a new compact between city, government, theatre-makers and audience, to have theatre at the heart of the city… a community not just making work for a small number of people within a particular demographic. Saying: we belong to all of you, and we will make work for all of you.
I think I would like a plan. If the government is prepared to put money into our theatres we are going to use that. We will turn that into as much joy, hope and light as possible. I’m not looking any gift horses in the mouth. What I would ask for is a plan where we can get through this next three-year period, making work for our communities, and being civic places of debate, ideas, joy, comfort, solace all those things. And I would also seek a longer plan – to say: actually this is the role of regional and city theatre, this is where we see it with relation to our society. I’m sorry to be negative but the big wave is Covid-19: there’s the health tsuanami and behind it is the giant economic tsunami. We had to face that quite quickly as theatres but the whole of our society is about to face it – it’s already crashing. There was a report stating that the city of Edinburgh is going to face in the region of half a billion loss because of the impact on hospitality, tourism, the festival etc. If you think of that for a city that is about 600,000 people, the massive impact of that across a whole society is enormous. That’s the world in which we will be trying to rebuild our theatres. The question we have to ask is: are we trying to rebuild it as it was before, or are we trying to rebuild it better, adapted to this new situation?