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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

Sam Mendes announces development of theatre artists fund into two-year pilot bursary programme

Theatre Artists Fund

At today’s South Bank Arts Awards, in recognition of his leadership in the creation of the Theatre Artists Fund, Sam Mendes was awarded the Sky Arts Individual Award for Innovation in the Arts During the Pandemic.  Accepting the Award, Mendes announced the development of a two-year pilot bursary scheme offering longer-term support to the cultural workforce. Theatre Artists Fund is working in conjunction with Backstage Trust on this scheme. This new program has a specific goal of empowering theatre workers and freelancers to be part of the next stage of recovery. It aims to create multiple employment opportunities and to include specific involvement and guidance from theatre practitioners across the entire sector. Initially, a two-year pilot scheme will seek to reinforce equality, inclusion and diversity focus and encourage peer support in the freelance community and organizations and skills development. Further details will be announced later this year.

Mendes said: “We want to take what we’ve learned from our work and create a new and permanent way of empowering freelancers for the future…In the coming months, we will be piloting a special bursary program working to make this fund into a foundation in conjunction with the Backstage Trust to ensure our theatre professionals are championed and included in the way they deserve for the benefit of the UK’s entire cultural sector.”

The Theatre Artists Fund, part of the charity Theatre Development Trust and administered by SOLT and UK Theatre has so far given 7,291 emergency grants, having raised just over £7.3million since its inception in July 2020. The financial security of many thousands of vital theatre artists remains in grave peril as the continuing uncertainty created by the pandemic and the Government’s response to it makes finding and keeping work extremely difficult. During his announcement, Mendes cited the extra-ordinary support of the numerous entities and foundations that helped initiate the Theatre Artists Fund and hoped they would continue their support ongoing. The fund continues to provide a lifeline for many and continues to appeal to people’s generosity and support. Donations can be made at https://theatreartists.fund/donate/

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Stop Charging Students For Virtual Drama School Auditions

WELL that didn’t take long, did it? Twelve days, 20 hours and a couple of minutes into the New Year and I think we already have a strong contender for the most absurd theatre related thing of the month.

It is ten months since theatres across Britain closed their doors – and most are still completely dark. Last year, final-year drama school students were unable to graduate.

Back in the dystopian present, I was disappointed to learn on Twitter that nearly all of our drama schools are still charging £35.00 for a zoom audition or self-tape, and some are charging as much as £55 in total.

A pox on everyone involved.

This puts unnecessary financial strain on young people from working-class backgrounds. In the last decade – and during this pandemic in particular – young people have been let down or forgotten. While many students acknowledge their institutions efforts to continue delivering their education, others are angry they are not getting the vocational experience they were promised.

Writer Ben Weatherill touched on this class divide in his terrific blog highlighting how these audition fees are shutting those with low-incomes out of the profession.

Like so much else in this current crisis, all UK drama schools had to migrate auditions online overnight. Reinventing entire courses that relied on physical contact was a significant challenge. Drama schools including Mountview and Guilford School of Acting responded by creating online showcases.

This week, PPA Academy’s spring term, which had been due to start on 11 January, will now run from February 15 to May 7 for BA acting and musical theatre courses,  to give their students as much face-to-face learning as possible, which is great and the right thing to do.

Now, I am not disputing that Drama Schools still have to pay for buildings, for teachers, insurance and accreditation and more.  I am also very well aware that many offer fee waivers for those from low-socio economic backgrounds.

But listen, young people have suffered enough during the COVID-19 crisis – the deepest recession in 300 years – and we are all aware that pandemic-hit businesses are scaling back graduate recruitment, leading to fears of a lost generation.

Added to this pressure are the anti-immigration messages coming from the wider debates around Brexit; the government allegedly recently dismissed an exemption for performers because it had not wanted to offer reciprocal benefits for EU artists working in the UK. Well done everyone.

Will there be jobs for drama school graduates when they graduate? Maybe. This is the same answer before the pandemic. Some will enter the industry and others will pursue other careers.

There has been a huge rise in online theatre and we have seen that theatre doesn’t have to be confined to the kind of people who can afford to go to see shows in the West End.

Now, though, UK Drama Schools must help show the way that the industry must operate in the 21st century not just for the benefit of a few but the many.

Scrap these colossal and unnecessary audition fees, or at least radically lower the cost of auditioning immediately to ensure those poorer students have an equal chance of success.

If these institutions don’t, we risk losing the next generation of talented performers and technicians and all that they contribute to our society and sector.

In fact, if performing arts schools do get rid of these financial barriers during this third lockdown, they can build a better and fairer future as we all recover from this crisis.

Update: I have set up a ‘Drama School Covid Relief Fund’ Crowdfunder for those in the sector who are able to pay it forward to those who are in need.  Every donation will help. Cheers!

 

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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.