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Normal has walked the plank & theatre is in flux

January 2022

As we await the known unknowns of Omicron, one’s sanity becomes an object of speculation among one’s acquaintances. 

I am fed up. Jaded. Exhausted. None of this is normal. Normal has walked the plank.

Life of Pi

I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read this, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.

Alas, The Music Venue Trust, which represents grassroots music venues around the country, has warned of combined losses of £22 million by the end of January – effectively undermining “the entire ecosystem that is the bedrock of a £5 billion world-leading music industry”.

Crisis management, particularly in a health emergency, demands leadership that’s firm, fast, decisive and calm. This government have failed us.

More than 150,000 people in the UK have now died within 28 days of a positive Covid test since the pandemic began 22 months ago. Every one of those 150,000 lives lost leaves its own story, and grief, behind. 

Unfortunately, hopes of building a fairer society and improving the lot of key workers are being trumped by a wish to return to normal.

The winter has been a disaster for hospitality and entertainment venues. Christmas – the time that institutions rely on for 40% of their annual income – was a wash out for the second year on the trot for most UK theatres. Omicron and Plan B turmoil emptied our auditoriums as audiences stayed home and creative teams self-isolated.

The industry continues to face insurmountable challenges. 

Nightclubs are shut in Wales
, with limits on hospitality, sports events and who people can meet.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the government has ordered capacities for seated indoor performances are cut to 200 and social distancing is back for at least three weeks.

In the past month, theatre producer Sonia Friedman has cancelled more than 158 shows and lost more than £4 million because of the continued uncertainty. “We are seeing drops in our box office of 25 and 50 per cent. There’s fear, despair and confusion all round,” she said in an interview with the Sunday Times. “The government think we are OK but we are not.” 

Still, in ‘normal times’ live events are estimated to be worth £70 billion a year, yet the Culture Recovery Fund largely failed to reach freelancers, who do the work. The government continues to stand by. 

Pride and Prejudice* (sort of*

Last week, critic Dominic Maxwell presented a vital summary of the state of play, with producer of Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*) David Pugh stating: “I don’t know how long we can keep going. Some people are giving the impression that everything is fine. It really isn’t. It’s beyond serious.” The production will close in London next month and hopefully tour.

Meanwhile, in the same article, artistic director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris admitted that the institution will have to dip into reserves after the covid-cursed musical Hex was cancelled multiple times and will end the current run without a press night. “We are recognising that it is going to be grim over the next couple of weeks. But we will do whatever we can to keep open.” Norris says. 

In London’s West End Daily Mail’s Baz Bamigboye states that the lack of a robust central, unified voice of information is leaving audiences and the industry beleaguered and baffled. “The West End has a body, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), that’s supposed to represent theatre owners and producers. But it has been hopeless at communicating the changes that are affecting show schedules daily basis…” he says. “Come on, people, get organised! You’ve had two years. Productions are on a precipice. Thousands of jobs are on the line.”

Indeed, Julian Bird, the current chief executive of the SOLT and U.K. Theatre, has acknowledged his own gathering irrelevance by announcing he will step down from the position, effective May 2022.

Hex

Bird, who has been with the organisations since 2010, said: “It had always been my intention to think about moving on around the 10th anniversary of my time in the role, which would have been in November 2020. As with so much, the pandemic intervened in that.” 

Well, quite. 

Off West End, emerging work and young talent is once again under serious threat. Also last week, as you might have seen, The Vault Festival, an annual London fringe event was cancelled for the third year in a row. 

The Vaults is an essential part of the theatre ecology – roughly six hundred shows, featuring over 2,500 performances over several months – and is often a calling card for young, underrepresented, and diverse artists. The other benefits of appearing at the festival are incalculable. 

The official statement reads: “We have to make brave and proactive decisions to prioritise and protect the mental health, wellbeing and safety of our staff, artists, and audiences. We work with a lot of vulnerable people, for whom participating in the festival is no longer viable in light of the ongoing developments.”

The VAULT Festival sign above one of the underground venues

Nevertheless, the generosity and offers of advice to those affected from some sections of the theatre community have been nothing short of inspiring. More please, folks.

I have been buoyed by scenes of understudies, swings and covers saving the day – and everyone who has kept theatre going against all odds in recent weeks. Pandemic heroes.

Anyway, let us hope that new medicines and stronger vaccines are reasons for real optimism. Spring will come around and *there is a chance that* 2022 will be the year we live alongside the virus – a hope for an industry so savaged by lockdowns and government abandon. 

If you or your show have been affected by anything mentioned in this blog, need advice or help do not hesitate to contact me: mrcarlwoodward@gmail.com

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Our industry is in crisis – again – the government must act now to save it

December 2021. 

A Covid tidal wave is crashing into us. Theatres are faced once again with critical and tough restrictions despite robust measures in place to keep their staff and audiences safe. The situation is dire and deteriorating.

The number of Covid cases reported on Wednesday was the highest yet during the pandemic. You read that right: the highest ever during these long two years. 

In the meantime, Twitter is just a series of cancellations scrolling across the screen while a voiceover recites the words “brink … precipice … abyss … void …” repeatedly.

Speaking of voids, Nadine Dorries has been charged with safeguarding the nation’s cultural heart at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The Culture Wars Minister who once said lefties are “dumbing down panto”.  Nadine, despite several days of training on I’m A Celebrity for her new role, gives an immediate impression of total skulduggery. Where is she?

The RSC Matilda The Musical
The RSC Matilda The Musical

Like a section of cliff face crumbling into the sea, West End shows including Hamilton, The Lion King, Cabaret, Six and many more across the UK have had to cancel performances owing to variant Omicron outbreaks among cast and crew. This week the National Theatre cancelled a preview of its Christmas show Hex, which is based on Sleeping Beauty, after one of its lead actors caught Covid.

In a statement, the National’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, wrote: “You will no doubt be aware of the impact that Covid has been having on productions across the industry (none of ours over the last year have escaped entirely) but the impact on Hex has been considerable, with several members of the company including one of our leads being taken ill during the technical and preview period, and fresh bad news on that front again today.”

The government is frightening everyone into staying home but not providing support for affected businesses.

Our post-apocalyptic Prime Minister’s shambolic messaging (“Think carefully before you go…”) is costing the entertainment and hospitality industry billions of pounds during a period that should nurture audiences, provides work for freelancers and enable venues’ other activities. 

Even so, no additional support has yet been offered to the sector. Without intervention, we’ll lose more talent as well as theatres. And everyone seems angry, all the time. Hell, one audience member was handcuffed and arrested during an Adam Kay show at Rose Theatre on Tuesday night after he refused to wear a mask properly. 

Dear dear.

Vital industries continue to be let down. Again. When grilled on the ongoing ineptitude the government point to their ‘unprecedented support’ for the culture sector through the £2bn culture recovery fund. That money has long been and continues to be burnt through. 

The crisis is far from over; it seems unfathomable that the abandoning of restrictions on so-called Freedom Day and 20 months of Covid chaos has left us at five minutes to midnight. But here we are.