U.K. Theaters Mark One Year of Shutdown, With 95% Worse Off Due to Pandemic

Exactly one year since U.K. theaters shuttered their doors, 95% report being worse off due to the COVID-19 crisis.

A new survey by the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and nationwide org UK Theatre paints a worrying picture of an industry that has been crippled by the pandemic and faces huge financial strain, but remains resilient.

The survey was completed by 944 theater venues, venue groups, non-venue theater businesses and individual theater freelancers.

More than 95% of those surveyed around the U.K. report being impacted by COVID-19. Of 186 theater organizations answering a question about financial loss due to COVID-19, 53 reported a loss of over £1 million ($1.4 million) each. This includes 16 organizations that have lost over £5 million each. The total loss of the 165 organizations able to provide figures is estimated at nearly £200 million so far.

To mark the one-year shutdown anniversary, a raft of celebrities including Kate Winslet, Claire Foy and Chiwetel Ejiofor, are highlighting the plight of freelancers and raising awareness for the Theatre Artists Fund, using the social media hashtags #16March, #TheatreArtistsFund and #FirstInLastOut — all referencing the fact that theater workers were first into lockdown and will be among the last to return to work.

The survey reveals that many of the highly skilled freelance theater workforce have been forced to take alternative jobs during the pandemic, or even leave the sector altogether. One in four of the freelancers surveyed said they had gone out of business or ceased trading due to the pandemic. 270 alternative roles were sought within performing arts, and 456 outside the industry.

Almost a third of theater venue respondents said they have had plans to create an outdoor performance space due to COVID-19 — despite the fact that the majority (61%) will operate at a loss. Almost half are developing a revenue-generating digital space or product.

For England-based theater organizations, 60% are planning to open doors from May 17, when the government has allowed theaters to reopen as part of stage three of the roadmap. Around 83% of orgs said they would resume from June 21, which marks stage four.

Julian Bird, chief executive of SOLT and UK Theatre, said: “At that fateful moment a year ago when we were forced to close theaters, we could never have imagined that venues would remain closed today. It has been a year of incredible challenges, and would have been even bleaker were it not for government support schemes including the Cultural Recovery Fund, furlough and SEISS.

“It has also been a year in which we have truly witnessed the resilience, creativity and community-mindedness of theater, from digital innovations allowing streamed productions to reach a global audience, to theaters creating educational and wellbeing resources, and venues offering themselves as vaccine centres or hosting pioneering scientific research on measures to prevent COVID spread,” said Bird.

Created last July by director Sam Mendes, SOLT and UK Theatre and supported by Netflix, the Theatre Artists Fund provides emergency financial aid to the freelancers who make up an estimated 70% of the sector. Eligible freelancers in need can apply for an individual grant of £1,000 to help pay bills. The latest round of grant applications opened on March 16 and will close on March 30.

“The immense level of support for the #16March Theatre Artists Fund campaign illustrates that while theatres may be closed, the spirit of the theater community is well and truly alive,” said Mendes. “I want to thank everyone who has contributed to the campaign, and all those who have shown their fantastic support for the Fund. It has helped enable fellow members of our community stay afloat during these extremely difficult times.”

Those who have lent their support to the #16March campaign include Joe Alwyn, Ellie Bamber, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Bonneville, Michaela Coel, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anne-Marie Duff, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfie Enoch, Michael Fassbender, Claire Foy, Hugh Jackman, Ruth Madeley, Ian McKellen, Liam Neeson, James Norton, Sophie Okonedo, Weruche Opia, Andi Osho, Elaine Paige, Maxine Peake, Simon Pegg, Eddie Redmayne, Imelda Staunton, Juliet Stevenson, Mark Strong, David Walliams, Harriet Walter, Zoë Wanamaker, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams, Ruth Wilson and Kate Winslet.

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