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“The arts are now at the point of no return”: How Covid-19 is killing the theatre industry

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With the ‘roadmap out of lockdown announcement by the PM in late February, it seems the British public is in a much more hopeful mood than it has been in for a while. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020, every facet of human life has been affected and most industries have suffered immensely. Many experts, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, warn that ‘the arts are now at the point of no return. As much as theatres across the nation have tried to keep their heads above water, over a year of repeated lockdowns leaves many with the question – has coronavirus killed the theatre industry?

How was the industry affected by Covid?

Research conducted by the UK Theatre and Society of London Theatre revealed that many theatres across the nation have closed permanently. Oxford Economics warned of 400,000 jobs losses and a £74bn loss in annual revenue. With theatres still having to pay for rent, tax and other maintenance fees, the prolonged lockdown closures have left many theatres in searing debt.

Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre went into liquidation in May 2020, after struggling with financial pressures since the first lockdown. The play Phantom of the Opera was also forced to close permanently after 34 years of running in the West End. Of the theatres that have survived, there is no question that the financial pressures of the pandemic have deeply impacted them. It will be hard to restore the theatre industry whilst maintaining strict post-lockdown measures such as social distancing in theatre audiences. Jobs are still unstable and there is still uncertainty concerning whether shows will be able to run and how theatres will regain the profit that they’ve lost in the past year.

Why do we need theatre?

According to research conducted by The Audience Agency around 40% of all households attend theatre annually. With less than half of the public seeing shows, it begs the question: is the theatre industry that important to our society? Granted, theatre is not an essential service, nor are theatre staff key workers. It’s safe to say that when the pandemic first hit, ‘When are we going to be able to watch plays again?’ wasn’t the question on everyone’s minds. As time went on, however, it became clear that lockdown was becoming a more permanent aspect of daily life and with that, worries arose. Social activity is life support for the theatre industry, and every day that passed with people cooped indoors was another heavy blow.

There are countless reasons as to why theatre is vital to daily life. There is a cathartic element when watching plays. Much like TV and film, theatre seeks to entertain and educate by bringing to life stories from different voices and in different forms. What makes theatre so incredibly unique is its physical presence, proximity to its audience and the world of imaginative possibilities this proximity provides. From interactive performances to live orchestra, from immersive plays to one-person shows, theatre moves us in ways TV and film never could.

Aside from the social benefits, the theatre industry is one of the UK’s (and especially one of London’s) largest sources of income. Box office sales generated a whopping £1.2 billion across the nation, with the West End totalling at £799 million alone in 2018. The appeal of the West End and theatres across the nation also provides constant custom for surrounding restaurants and bars, not to mention staff that maintain the building and the cab drivers operating in the area – all who have struggled without theatres bringing in crowds.

It’s not only theatre that dies if this industry is not recovered. So many of the UK’s greatest TV and film actors have a professional background in theatre. Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag, Killing Eve), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, I May Destroy You) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Love Actually) are just a few of many elite actors that, to an extent, owe their success in the entertainment industry to theatre.

Last but not least, it is important to note that the work theatres do is not limited to the plays performed within them. Outreach programmes, night-time classes and drama therapy are just a few examples of the good theatre contributes to society. A few examples of this include:

How has theatre fought back?

At the start of lockdown, Arts Council UK gave £160 million as an emergency grant to organisations and workers. Since then, another staggering £1.57 billion has been invested in the arts in order to protect and recover ‘Britain’s world-class cultural, arts and heritage institutions.’

Additionally, organisations like the National Theatre streamed recorded performances on their Youtube Channel and now offer their new National Theatre at Home streaming service with new plays every month. Theatre Uncut produced a digital play, Bubble, rehearsed and performed entirely online. Bubble was streamed worldwide, in 32 different countries. LIVR, a virtual reality based theatre company, offered audiences the chance to experience live theatre through VR technology.

Suffice to say, the industry has explored creative ways to reach their audiences virtually and it’s made an impact. However, it’s coming up to a year since Covid shut theatres down and this alone has caused lasting, possibly irreversible damage.

What’s to come?

Even with the crushing blow theatres have endured it’s clear to see that it is a cherished industry and one that people have tried to fight for. Despite their best efforts it will be a long time until the industry is restored to its former glory. Until then, it’s up to people and the government to pump money back into it.

One thing to remember as we slowly come out of lockdown is that appreciating the world, the people, the activities around us is undeniably important. In other words, we should try new things. So why not check out your local theatre? There’s no doubt that theatres will need the support and you might just find your new favourite pastime. After all, you never regret the things you’ve done, only the things you haven’t.

Abrehet is our Arts & Culture Editor and a third year student studying BA Theatre & Arabic at the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in theatre directing and screenwriting, and is interested in foreign languages and cultures and filmmaking. Her Instagram handle is @abi_semra.

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