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Good Friday? Culture Recovery Fund – Round 2

God, I miss theatre.

Today, more than 2,700 arts organisations have been supported in the latest tranche of Culture Recovery Fund money, totalling £400 million.

Indeed, in his Budget in March, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a further £300m for the fund, which is yet to be allocated.

The government said 70% of today’s funding was being distributed outside London.  The big plus point here was that more than 1,200 organisations received support from the emergency arts funding scheme for the first time.

The funding includes £81m in loans including £4.25m to Saddler’s Wells and £7.3m to The Lowry in Salford.

I hope you have been paying attention. Because the thing about this government is that it moved with the same speed and grace rescuing the cultural sector in 2020 as that container ship which got wedged in the Suez Canal.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said thousands of organisations had had help to “survive the biggest crisis they’ve ever faced.”

He added: “Now we’re staying by their side as they prepare to welcome the public back – helping our cultural gems plan for reopening and thrive in better times ahead.”

Of course, it is still sinister that the government is forcing arts venues across the country to publicly sing its praises once again.

Slytherin Oliver Dowden at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Slytherin Oliver Dowden at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

I’m also obsessed with the fact that Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) which runs more than 30 UK venues, will receive almost £1m. 

Bizarrely, a number of organisations owned by extremely wealthy individuals will receive taxpayer handouts.

And last month five cases of fraud were discovered among Culture Recovery Fund applications that led to a number of award offers being withdrawn, a report by the National Audit Office claimed; some applicants were awarded funding “significantly in excess” of their income the previous year.

Anyway, let us not forget that theatres played an important role in communities everywhere pre-2020. More than 34 million people attend theatres in the UK each year, generating £1.28 billion in ticket revenue.

And lo. Theatres are allowed to reopen on May 17  for socially distanced performances – this will be a hugely welcome first step.

All eyes are on June 21 as set out in the UK Government’s roadmap, later this summer for all restrictions being dropped.  Let’s see.

But there is still the small issue of ongoing mutations, vaccine passports and testing. This will be key to reopening all of society.

However…

The idea of forcing people to show vaccine passports to enter theatres and concerts is likely to be counterproductive and is literally not a good idea.

Dowden said on Andrew Marr recently that more pilots would begin from the middle of April to look at things like ventilation, one-way systems and tests on how the virus spreads at indoor and outdoors.

PILOTS?!

At best, then, the success of the vaccine rollout and the better weather in the summer months will be vital factors.

The big institutions may today be safe, but the talented freelance workforce who set the stage alight are largely self-employed and have been hung out to dry.

Thanks, Oliver. Thanks for everything.

Full list of performing arts organisations given CRF money in round two

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My 2020 Theatre Heroes & Villains

Theatre Heroes and Villains of 2020

AH, dear old 2020.

In mid-March Covid-19 prompted all British theatres and arts centres to close their doors.

From that moment onwards, the carnage, pandemonium, weirdness and misery barely let up; our world-beating £7 billion cultural sector, so savaged by lockdowns that it remains at risk of permanent decimation.

A socially distanced Watermill Theatre in Newbury, with select seats wrapped as presents for the future.

For the first time in its 70 year history, the Edinburgh Fringe was cancelled. Broadway shows are expected to remain closed through to at least May 2021.

There was, though, many great acts of heroism; not all heroes wear capes.

Let’s begin with the National Theatre. The NT at Home initiative was one of the biggest virtual triumphs of lockdown; it broadcast 16 productions for free on YouTube, clocked up 15 million views and reached 173 countries.

The one-off free streaming of Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s potent monologue Death of England: Delroy – which had its live run cut short – was sensational.

The NT has today launched a brand new streaming platform National Theatre at Home – featuring a range of NT Live productions and, for the first time, some treasured plays from the NT archive.

For unlimited access to the catalogue on National Theatre at Home, a subscription will be £9.98 per month or £99.98 per year. For access to a single play in a 72 hour window, it will be £5.99 for an NT Archive title and National Theatre Live titles are available from £7.99.

I thought ITV’s three-part drama Quiz, written by James Graham – based on his stage play that began at Chichester Festival Theatre- was a masterstroke.

The dark irony was, though, that the ‘coughing major’ comedy was one of the few TV shows that was good enough to make us all forget the ongoing medical crisis for its duration. Graham donated his full commission to funds for freelancers.

Looking back now, one of my personal favourite moments involved a last-minute decision to throw open my Zoom on Friday evenings to anyone who wanted to take part in a theatre quiz. It was unexpectedly popular and rewarding and, in the chaos of lockdown, very moving.

ITV Quiz

During that first lockdown I came to a crossroads when I realised that the secret truth at the heart of almost all theatre is: Everyone’s Doing Their Best.

It’s hard to say why this revelation impacted me so deeply. Had I previously been under the impression that people were deliberately making terrible theatre, or simply being terrible at their jobs, just to annoy me? I came to realise that most things are simply bad by accident.

Anyway, this year, she closed 18 shows. Paused 10.

Sonia Friedman Productions continued its success at the 2020 Olivier Awards, scooping the coveted Best New Play Award for the fourth consecutive year with the intimate and epic Tom Stoppard play Leopoldstadt.

Incredibly, SFP was also responsible for a superb filmed stage version of Uncle Vanya starring Toby Jones. It was a hit in UK cinemas and will be screened on BBC Four this Christmas. This woman has been my idol all of my professional life, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Toby Jones and Richard Armitage, Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre

All year, producer Friedman used her clout to lobby government. Announcing comedy play The Comeback in the West End, she said: “Medicine saves lives, but culture makes life worth living.”

Looking back now, many of UK theatre’s producers and artistic directors rose to the challenges of the pandemic – combining laser-focus and decision making-authority with a real emotional feel for the creative workforce.

Of course, there are plenty of people in the industry who are simply phoning it in.

But so many took exciting digital work to audiences or streamed archive productions. Under Elizabeth Newman’s leadership, just one of a number of bright ideas, Pitlochry Festival Theatre set up a Telephone Club for vulnerable members of the community, Alan Lane and Slung Low continue to meet local needs distributing food and books to the people in south Leeds.

Artistic director Alan Lane, left, and The Slung Low team at the Holbeck.

The Unicorn theatre presented Anansi the Spider Re-Spun: fun virtual performances, created in lockdown, for children. Cultural organisations like this remain vital to communities, enabling young people’s creativity, whilst fighting for survival.

Throughout those initial long Covid months, there were modest acts of heroism from producer David Pugh and his touring production of Educating Rita at the open-air Minack Theatre in Cornwall. I loved it.

Pugh later made light of the fact that profits for investors were enough for ‘a meal at KFC’. The show has a week-long run at the Mayflower in Southampton in February.

To her credit, Nica Burns reopened the first West End theatres post lockdown – welcoming audiences back to the Apollo – for Adam Kay’s show about the NHS, This Is Going To Hurt. Burns will reopen the first West End musicals Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Six and hopes this return will prove the sector is safe and ready to resume.

Staying with the heroes, film and theatre director Sam Mendes called on Netflix — who profited from the acting, writing and directing talent nurtured on stage during lockdown— to pour some of their COVID-19 cash into British theatre. Netflix obliged, with the Theatre Artists Fund for freelancers. Mendes’ practical suggestions included: increasing the theatre’s tax relief scheme from 20% to 50%, and inviting the government to become “theatrical angels”, by investing in productions.

Moreover, performers deserve huge credit for keeping us all entertained online: Rob Madge and Oscar Conlon-Morrey lift our spirits on Twitter during these difficult times.

Pick of the bunch, for me, is Kieran C Hodgson impersonating characters from The Crown – Season 4. Genius.

10-year-old ‘#CheerUpCharlie’ Kristensen released a charity single with some of his West End favourites to raise money for the Diana Award. Little legend.

The Bush theatre commissioned six black British artists to respond to the killing of George Floyd, the results, The Protest, were astonishing, disturbing, vital and offered urgent perspectives on Floyd’s death.

Wise Children’s Emma Rice and Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris on stage at Bristol Old Vic in September

Elsewhere, Black Broadway and West End stars performed an ambitious online charity concert, organised by Nicole Raquel Dennis and Ryan Carter, this event supported the Black Lives Matter movement: Turn Up! Live at Cadogan Hall , raised nearly £13,000 for four charities and picked up a Black British Theatre Award.

One of my biggest treats was visiting Bristol to see the Romantics Anonymous one-night only performance, with a live socially distanced audience.

In September, Emma Rice’s Wise Children and Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris were dazzlingly inventive, partnering with venues to present a “digital tour” of the musical – allowing individual regional theatres to sell tickets across specific nights.

The shows will go on – in some tiers. The government’s post-lockdown plans give the green light to productions fortunate enough to find themselves in Tiers 1 and 2. Boris Johnson has announced that theatres in Tier 3 will remain closed.

Oracle Cameron Mackintosh

Villains? (Deep breath)

It was the year when theatre vanished from our lives. And Cameron Mackintosh didn’t.

Disappointingly, the West End producer got rid of 850 staff early on in the crisis, said theatres that received financial aid were ones that “were going to fail”, allegedly mistreats his staff, declared himself an “oracle” for predicting disaster and has been snow-ploughing his way through the darker recesses of the pandemic ever since.

Mind you, compensation came in the form of Andrew Lloyd Webber – who took part in the Oxford Coid-19 vaccine trial – joining TikTok.

Take a moment. I know I just did.

Perhaps most importantly, Arts Council England did a good job of turning around the government’s Culture Recovery Fund and rescued struggling organisations of all shapes and sizes.

Overall, that £1.57bn rescue fund has protected our theatres, concert halls, arts centres and opera houses.

Slytherin culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s intervention was not enough to save every institution and although we were all thankful for the money, financial models are bust.

Indeed, the government continue to do the bare minimum for an estimated three million self-employed workers. At one point, Pantomime dames marched to Parliament Square.

Slytherin Oliver Dowden and Rishi Sunak

Find another job, said the surefooted chancellor Rishi Sunak. By forgetting our workforce and dismissing an entire sector, the chancellor has begun to reveal his true ideological colours. But our sector is key to our national identity, provides hope – and billions for the Treasury.

On top of that idiocy, the suggestion from the government seems to be that arts jobs aren’t viable. They are, Mr Sunak, and when the time comes, the powerhouse theatre industry will play a crucial part in the nation’s recovery.

Above all, I was appalled by The Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) who failed to inform customers how they could obtain cash refunds instead of hopeless credit vouchers. With countless shows axed or postponed, many found it impossible to get money back – not only that, ATG were not automatically refunding transaction fees, claiming this was in line with the industry’s Code of Practice (newsflash: it definitely wasn’t).

Birmingham Rep, The #LightItInRed campaign involved more than 500 buildings

At least, though, there has been some last-minute redemption for ATG; the operator has now furloughed its 2,500 casual staff and is gifting tickets for pantomimes to NHS workers this Winter, which is a Christmas miracle.

If we’re really looking for the individuals who’ll push theatre forward through the sheer force of their own imagination, in my opinion, they are more than likely to be creative freelancers. We must protect them.

And the self employed may be more widely visible through the Freelancers Make Theatre Work group, #thescenechangeproject and The Freelance Task Force. But they must never be taken for granted again.

The Theatre Artists Fund was set up to support UK theatre workers and freelancers falling into financial difficulty while theatres remain largely closed. Many freelancers have lost everything and we are losing thousands of highly skilled theatre-makers.

Saving buildings is pointless without protecting the people who make art. For now, I have financial security. That is why I plan to donate 50% of my December salary to Theatre Artists Fund.  If you are able to, so should you.

As I say, everyone has been doing their best. Stay present, thanks for reading this year, and Merry Christmas.

 

 

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Theatre will bounce back – hope can take us a long way

Emilia

I am in shock as to what has happened to my industry and wondering what the future holds.

This week, Entertainment venues in England were forced to close again, as the UK moved back into tougher national measures to stop the spread of Covid-19. Dozens of theatres have abandoned plans to reopen and venues are now closed till at least December 2.

We are currently at Level 2 on the government’s road map to reopening live performance venues. Thankfully, performers and performances are permitted to rehearse, record and film “behind closed doors” but not play to a live audience.

A spokesperson for DCMS said that the government is “committed to getting the curtain up at venues across the country as soon as it is safe to do so.

I read all this with sinking despair.

There has, though, been a wealth of innovation exploring the potential of online streaming. Productions with the budget and capability have proven that streaming can provide a cash boost as well as reach wider audiences.

Money can be made out of streaming ambitious new and archive productions: The Old Vic plans to live-stream A Christmas Carol from the theatre’s empty auditorium. A recording of Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s Emilia is available to stream from next week on a pay-what-you-decide basis, which is terrific.

Theatres have had the £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund. The majority of this summer was spent Covid-proofing premises and welcoming back audiences safely with invention.

For the first time, we have had to draw on energy that we never knew we had, if we had given up at any hurdles then nothing would have happened. But, not even the scientists or the government know how things will pan out – theatres need a reopening date.

#WeMakeEvents demo at Parliament Square

#WeMakeEvents demo at Parliament Square

The government has been urged to do more to support performers and other arts freelancers; many are still excluded. The National Audit Office reported last month that up to 2.9 million people had fallen through the cracks of furlough and SEISS schemes.

This week, Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed further extensions of the furlough and self-employed support schemes. But this followed thousands of unnecessary redundancies in the arts. The government’s handling of this pandemic has revealed how woefully incompetent they are.

There has been no real time for reflection throughout the devastation of both lockdowns, the rules of theatre have been rewritten on a daily basis. Unfortunately, we can’t set our calendars to a vaccine or testing.

We must be patient, and find ways to stay sane and creative.

Now, the time has come to stop living on past glories, theatres have been around before us and they will be there long after we are gone. The pandemic has given us all the short sharp shock we perhaps needed to develop a proper perspective on life.

So, how long is this going to go on for?  And more to the point, where are we headed?

Crave

Personal highlights for me have been Nottingham Playhouse’s wonderful Unlocked season, Crave streaming from Chichester Festival Theatre (I know!)

In Leeds, Slung Low continue to deliver their invaluable Cultural Community College and food bank service.

Special mention must also go to Sonia Friedman, who reunited a Covid-dispersed Uncle Vanya cast for cinemas.

Many, many people are continuing to create brilliant work and have revealed a readiness to respond to these troubling times.

As we head into a long and uncertain winter, now might be the time to rethink how to share out dwindling resources to benefit all. Building greater resilience, capacity and sustainability is key.

2020 has been the most dramatic, life-changing and traumatic years in modern history.

Personally, I have never been more exhausted.

As I write, it is early November. Joe Biden has won the US presidency by clinching Pennsylvania after days of painstaking vote counting.

We can have an understanding of yesterday, a plan for today and we can have hope for forever, and that’s it.

Hope can take us a long way.

 

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More than 1,000 arts organisations thrown lifeline as Culture Recovery Funds confirmed

Park Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, the Young Vic, The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster and Hope Mill in Manchester are among venues that will be awarded a share of £257 million, in the first allocation of money from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund.

Park Theatre’s Artistic Director Jez Bond said, “
We are delighted and relieved to receive the Cultural Recovery Grant of £250,000 from the government. The very essence of theatre is gathering people together in the same room for a live, shared experience – and the economics of venues at our scale, mean that it’s not financially viable to produce shows with social distancing in place.” 


The tranche of cash is part of the government’s £1.6bn Culture Recovery Fund, and will “protect these special places” which “form the soul of our nation”, said culture secretary Oliver Dowden.

Today’s recipients are venues and organisations who applied for less than £1m, with future releases of up to £3m going to larger organisations in the future.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden at Bristol Old Vic

Speaking today, Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director, Tom Morris said: “This is fantastic news for many arts organisations all over the country. For Bristol Old Vic it is transformative. Immediately, it keeps us open and prevents another devastating round of redundancies. Beyond that, it gives us a solid platform from which we can contribute to the economic and social recovery which must follow the pandemic over the next two years.”

Thankfully, people are beginning to understand just how valuable culture is, and how much in danger it is. And how historically important it is.

But while theatre buildings fight for their survival, it is the freelance workforce that brings them to life and they are endangered too. The pandemic has raised awareness of the significant precariousness that self-employed freelancers find themselves in compared with those who are employed by national portfolio organisations.

Interestingly, there were 1,385 CRF grants awarded – with 428 in London and 96 in the West Midlands.

This lifeline will come too late for some organisations who have already been forced to close their doors for good or made valued employees redundant.

Last week hundreds of freelance musicians played outside parliament to highlight the plight of self-employed artists.

The government argued that reopening venues creates work for those freelancers.

Time will tell. 

Full list of successful Culture Recovery Fund applicants