• Jono

Sinking Below the Headlines

In the past, I’ve tried to answer questions about the theatre and live events community. For the recent months I’ve simply had no answers to offer. All the big words have been used and re-used by leaders describing the situation faced across the world. So, I’ll try to keep this simple and use the small words instead.

With the recent announcement of a significant funding package for the cultural sector, the public could be forgiven for presuming this will help out so many of those who feel forgotten. Similarly, with the reopening of live outdoor theatre and events last weekend, and further steps from 1 August, it certainly felt like a welcome breath of fresh summer air.

Details are still filtering through – who the money will reach, who decides where it goes, which great institutions will be saved and for how long. But, as with many grand announcements, the headlines proclaimed the one great punch in an otherwise long, dull, slugging match that has been drifting on for more rounds than a Rocky movie. The fight to survive continued and few could afford a towel to throw in, even if they wanted to.

With 70% of the UK’s theatre workforce estimated to be freelancers, we are months into an uncertain future, with many having been unable to claim any assistance for income that was lost overnight. Add to that venues such as the Southbank Centre announcing 400 redundancies from their 600 staff, and leading suppliers like White Light cutting 70% of jobs to survive the coming months, and it’s clear this fight will rumble on until the referee steps in to stop it.

The £1.57 billion rescue package is very clearly designed to protect as many cultural institutions as possible, from museums and galleries, to theatre and heritage sites, and early evidence suggests this is to pay for physical building costs and keeping on only the bare essential roles, in the hope that they can spring back to life in 2021. It does very little for the vast majority of the workforce.

Our industry is far from alone, but it has perhaps had the largest percentage of its income decimated. Even shows like the recently heralded SIX going on tour with Live Nation has been cancelled after local lockdowns and the lack of any event insurance covering losses through COVID-19 closures, making it too big a risk for producers, who were only hoping to break even and provide work for some people while audience capacity is rightly reduced.

This will be no different for theatres now allowed to reopen from 1 August 2020 – social distancing will make it difficult, if not impossible, to recoup production costs and insurance will not cover cancellation should anyone get symptoms and trigger a closure.

And what is the impact on actual lives? Here, I can speak from personal experiences that I know of.

The musical theatre actor who was embarking on her dream role, after years of training, working, rejection and waiting for another big opportunity, only to see the show cancelled on opening; losing her job shortly afterwards along with the rest of the company. She lost not only her income, but that so-important chance to raise her profile.

The friends who worked for the same leading supply company; both made redundant after years of service. The lighting technician who saw a year’s worth of future projects wiped out in a week and has already had suggestions that daily rates will be dropped for suppliers by up to £100 a person when things restart.

The students about to graduate, having just spent £25k or more in training, and looking forward to their first jobs, now instead managing Click and Collect at the supermarkets.

The events company, built from scratch into a leading force, now with furloughed staff, bills to pay, equipment unused and their future uncertain.

The countless companies in show rehearsals, funds committed, whose work will likely never see the stage now, from established shows, community productions, through to brand new work that writers and investors had staked so much on.

What you hear or read about is just scratching the surface - the entire eco-system that supports theatre and live events is scrambling for survival.

And the problem is more than just the loss of income within our field. The general job market is saturated, meaning many of us are spending hours a day chasing every available position online, only to get another rejection email days later. The self-respect slides. We have gone from being deemed experts at safely organising events for thousands of people, to being unsuited to the most basic of roles elsewhere.

And you can’t blame the employers either. Their systems are swamped and, given the choice, why would they want to take someone on who is likely to jump ship as soon as a better one passes by? Never in the history of recruitment has the lie in the answer to ‘Why would you like to work for us?’ been quite so easy to spot, as when the 2020 applicant lists their previous experience as Theatre and Live Events.

Consider the wider impact. One of the first things in business I’ve always had to do is ensure expenditure does not exceed income. You cut the cloth of your production according to your show budget. Home budgeting is no different.

As someone lucky enough to have received some limited support from the furlough scheme, the payments will start to reduce from next month. Despite Job Retention Scheme (JRS) payments, I have lost upwards of an additional £5,000 in cancelled work in just four months. With the company reserves already spent topping up salary since March, I will have no choice but to reduce my payslip eventually.

Looking to reduce my monthly outgoings, I have been searching for cheaper properties elsewhere to rent. I could perhaps save £300 a month by moving further out of London, which makes sense while the work opportunities there are non-existent. That’s worth £3,600 over the year.

A call to an Estate Agent ends the hope quickly.

“What’s your profession?” asks Matt.

“Production Manager,” I answer, hoping he won’t press further.

“Oh? In what?” comes the question I was dreading.

“Theatre and Live Events,” I answer, my voice giving away what I suspect he already knew.

“We’ll call you back,” says Matt. He never does.

So, not only can I not find work, but I can’t move to reduce my expenditure, because the vast majority of landlords, agents and credit checks demand wage security. They have a long list of applicants. I drop off the bottom of that list and into the bin.

To qualify for any kind of additional help, I must first spend the remainder of my savings and become almost penniless. And yet, I’m still one of the lucky ones. Many had no savings in the first place, weren’t able to go on furlough, were made redundant, or hasn’t the specific years of self-employment earnings to get a SEISS pay out. The schemes have helped some, but they’ve totally ignored far too many others.

At the start, we understood. We waited patiently as we were promised in a letter to every household that ‘this Government will do whatever it takes to help you make ends meet and put food on the table.’ We watched as they rolled out scheme after scheme, tackling the wide issues first; prioritising as many as they could help. They would get to us as quickly as they could. They kept assuring us – do the right thing and we will do the right thing by you.

That was four months ago now. The data on those left behind is with the decision makers. Our organisations have been meeting with the DCMS for months discussing each case variation. They know (if they read the briefs).

The message has changed. From ‘whatever it takes’ through ‘whatever we decide’ to ‘we know we can’t help everyone.’ The trust and confidence that we looked hopefully to our leaders for at the start of this crisis has been steadily eroded, whether by unpunished breaches of rules by those in positions of power, or by the consistent leaks and confused messages to the public.

We don’t want to sound ungrateful – to swathes of the public, it must sometimes sound like that when they see the headline announcement of huge funding or theatre reopening. But has it really helped us?

Of course, saving some is better than saving none, but the simple answer for the vast majority has to be a resounding no. For most of us, we've felt like Third Class passengers, locked below deck as the Titanic sinks, while those deemed more worthy are helped into the lifeboats. The problem now is no longer with the message, but with the total lack of trust and confidence in the people delivering it.

We know, because we were brought up on moralistic childhood tales like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and Hansel and Gretel. And, like those two children whose parents could no longer afford to feed them, we have now been abandoned in the forest by those we should have been able to trust.

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