Impact of Covid-10 on DCMS sectors
Written evidence submitted by Brian Logan, artistic director, Camden People’s Theatre
June 18, 2020
Who we are:
Founded 26 years ago, CPT is one of Britain’s most influential studio theatres. Our mission is to champion different ways of thinking about the world by supporting emerging artists making adventurous theatre – particularly about issues that matter to people now. Our work is rooted in the communities of Camden and London. Through it, we celebrate the bold, the spirited and the unconventional. We programme 200+ productions and deliver community projects that reach over 17,000 people every year. By presenting a diverse range of voices on our stage, our work speaks to an audience reflective of the community we serve.
Why we are submitting:
Because the impact of Covid-19 on the theatre sector is a matter of existential urgency to us; and because organisations like Camden People’s Theatre, and the artists and communities we serve, absolutely must be represented as a strategy is developed to rescue the performing arts sector.
What has been the immediate impact of Covid-19 on the sector?
The immediate impact on the sector has been catastrophic. From early March, when audience behaviour grew cautious, via the moment when the UK government counselled people to avoid theatres (but did not directly instruct theatres to close!), to the announcement of the lockdown in mid-March, theatres faced an immediate existential threat. All have now been closed to public audiences for 3+ months and counting, losing millions of pounds of earned income on which they have come to heavily rely. Most if not all theatre buildings and organisations are now involved in a firefight, to manage their way through this crisis intact. There is as yet no clear prospect of re-opening to public audiences. Many theatres will not survive unless the government steps up with dedicated support for the sector.
Beyond the impact on buildings and organisations, the shutdown has had a devastating effect on the industry’s workforce. Thousands of artists and practitioners have lost – or live in fear of losing – their income and livelihoods. In the contemporary theatre sector and beyond, most artists are self-employed, live hand-to-mouth to a greater or lesser degree, and depend for their livelihood on regular commissions, bursaries and gigs alongside government funding. All of these sources of income have now evaporated. The artists and practitioners who populate our workforce are now experiencing a crisis of joblessness, lack of agency, anxiety and (in many instances) poor mental health. Not surprisingly, these factors are hitting hardest those with fewest other means of support – e.g. people of colour, from working-class backgrounds, LGBTQ+ or D/deaf and disabled artists, artists with caring responsibilities.
Over and above their role as playhouses, many theatres (ours included) play a role as community hubs. Covid-19 has directly impacted theatres’ ability to play this role – because communities have fragmented under social distancing laws; because staff have been furloughed and the capacity no longer exists to fulfil essential community functions. The impact of Covid-19 therefore extends beyond the existential threat to organisations and practitioners, and reaches out to local communities – who, alongside the other negative impacts of the pandemic, must now live without the social and cultural experiences they usually access through their local theatres.
How effectively has the support provided by DCMS, other Government departments and arms-length bodies addressed the sector’s needs?
Speaking for ourselves, we would have found it much harder to weather this period without the Business Rates Relief Grant for small business and the retail, hospitality and leisure grant – alongside wider support from the local authority. We, and the sector more widely, also appreciated the strong lead taken by Arts Council England in initiating relief funds for artists and individuals as well as organisations. Their actions had a positive effect on sector morale in a moment of crisis; and ACE has continued to communicate openly and clearly with the sector. The Job Retention Scheme has been essential to our survival and we welcome the ability to take a more flexible approach to this from 1st July. However, we are gravely concerned about the scheme being stopped in October, far earlier than CPT can expect to re-open and begin generating income again.
It’s also the case that ACE’s Emergency Response Fund for NPOs, however welcome, was only a sticking plaster for a gaping wound. They understandably chose to focus on organisations in most immediate danger of insolvency – specifically, those who would struggle to reach October 1st 2020, without emergency support. To date, there has been no reassurance that additional emergency funding will be available to the many organisations who face financial ruin after October 2020. Many are already cancelling Christmas seasons that provide a huge percentage of an organisation’s annual income. The government needs to step up now and invest emergency funding to sustain our world-beating cultural sector.
The self-employed make up 70% of the theatre’s workforce, and a large portion of them were not eligible for the government’s Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. This was because many workers in our sector didn’t reach the necessary income threshold in the preceding financial years; or they hadn’t been freelancing for long enough; or they received more income from PAYE than from self-employment; or they have set themselves up as a limited company. Many, many theatre workers unavoidably fall into these categories and have received no financial support from the government. Similarly, the SEISS scheme made no provision for freelancers who have taken parental leave in the last three years, an omission which has disproportionally impacted women. The fact that many international workers on long-term visas cannot access Universal Credit has also caused major problems for artists. They badly needed a support scheme adapted to the specific conditions of freelance theatre practise. They didn’t get one – and so they fell through the cracks.
At time of writing, the UK is held to be ‘emerging from lockdown’ in gradual stages. But there are no illusions in the theatre sector about the journey still ahead for our industry. Yes, many theatres and practitioners have begun to make work, or transfer existing work, online. But that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the work that’s been lost; and it’s also nearly impossible to monetise. While new forms of theatre and live performance may emerge to fit the era of social distancing, the artform will always be based to a large degree around ‘social gathering’ – and must therefore be among the last industries to revive as we move out of lockdown. (And even then, audiences may understandably be cautious to re-engage.)
And so, long after other sectors of the UK economy are returning to ‘normal’, theatres and their workforce will remain in crisis. In this context, the sector urgently needs further support from the government, including an extension of (and adjustments to) the furlough scheme and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme; additional emergency funds made available; or any of the range of other imaginative solutions to the severe difficulties the sector continues to face.
What will the likely long-term impacts of Covid-19 be on the sector, and what support is needed to deal with those?
The long-term impacts of Covid-19 are hard to predict. But many may be highly damaging. On the one hand, it looks likely in the short-term that the infrastructure of UK theatre, assiduously constructed over many years, is to be dismantled.
As the lockdown and pandemic continue through the summer, many organisations will pass a threshold beyond which they have to lay off staff permanently or indeed close their venues for good. We have already seen redundancy processes started by a number of organisations, and this is only the beginning. The sector is approaching a cliff edge, with the first wave of redundancies linked directly to the changing terms of the job retention scheme in August, and a second in October when that scheme ends. With almost zero capacity for organisations to earn any income until social distancing is no longer in place, a disastrous prospect is fast becoming a reality. By the end of this crisis (assuming there is an end), some theatres will be lost forever, and some will be much diminished versions of their former selves – organisationally, but also in terms of their capacity to deliver on their social and cultural missions.
One aspect of this is that the funding ecology has changed dramatically. Most of the grant-giving bodies to whom theatres usually turn have transferred their funds into emergency response mechanisms. Without the capacity to raise funds for 2021/22 and beyond now, organisations face a medium-term financial crisis every bit as grave as the one we’re currently experiencing. We have heard that many Trusts and Foundations will be looking for proof before they allocate longer-term funding that organisations will be solvent for 18 months. But without funds, how can we possibly demonstrate that? It’s a catch-22. The government could solve this by investing in the industry. It is shocking to many of us that support has not yet been offered for our sector. We are running out of time.
And how long will it take for social gathering – for congregations of people in one small space – to be popular once more? Might audience caution persist, indefinitely? We need the government to build trust with the public and encourage them to venture out and attend our venues. A functioning track-and-trace system is essential for the public to have the confidence to attend performances, but also to ensure venue managers can make our spaces as safe as possible and manage any second wave or new outbreaks.
Some theatres face a period of smaller audiences and ‘socially distanced’ seating in their auditoria. While this has been possible in countries where the cultural sector benefits from greater government subsidy, for most venues in the UK, it is not economically viable. As the cultural sector thinks around these severe challenges, of course there may yet be upsides. There is a ferment of creative thinking in the sector right now about what ‘live’ can mean in an era of theatre closure. New possibilities for theatres and new forms of creativity may emerge. But they will be precarious. They won’t fit with existing business models, and will be reliant on significant subsidy.
The same goes for new organisational structures. There is blue-sky thinking happening in the sector about what ‘normal’ we want to return to. Might the Covid crisis represent an opportunity to re-structure, to diversify the sector workforce, redress the imbalance in power between organisations, artists and communities, and challenge the industry’s ingrained elitism? The sector is trying to make a virtue out of necessity, and use the shutdown to think of better ways to do things. It could use support to have these conversations – or to activate the conclusions that arise from them.
Failing that, we can expect Covid-19 to have a very negative impact on sector diversity. As mentioned above, practitioners from marginalised backgrounds are most vulnerable to the lockdown and pandemic. Many may be lost to the industry for good. Likewise, the organisations who exist to support those practitioners are vulnerable. They may not have the deep resources to survive the shutdown, nor the staffing, archives and networks to successfully transfer their work online. Without proactive care being taken of artists and practitioners of colour, queer artists, D/deaf and disabled artists, artists from working-class backgrounds, they may simply not still be there post-Covid. The sector will lose a generation of creatives, and squander recent progress towards diversity and inclusion.
What lessons can be learnt from how DCMS, arms-length bodies and the sector have dealt with Covid-19?
I have heard said countless times under lockdown that Covid-19 has not created new inequalities in the theatre sector – rather, it has laid bare existing inequalities. The sense that buildings and organisations have been better protected than individuals; the immediate financial crisis into which freelancers were plunged; the domination of official ‘taskforces’ by the same old establishment organisations – these have heightened the impression of deep-seated biases within the sector. Why does so much more funding go to organisations (bureaucracies, some would say) rather than artists? Why are small organisations with non-mainstream priorities (to do with the work they make, or the audiences they engage with) marginalised in national conversations about theatre? Why is UK theatre practise so dependent on unpaid labour by self-employed artists?
There are lessons to be learned about the ‘us and them’ division between organisations and artists, which needs to be addressed – with more artist involvement in organisations, better communication, perhaps a more artist-focused funding settlement. There are lessons to be learned about how quickly the sector can default to conservatism in a crisis, when lots of Shakespeare on NT Live comes to stand in for a whole industry, when the strides the sector has taken towards diversity are jeopardised. (E.g. the un-diverse composition of the DCMS-convened working group for cultural renewal). Theatre industry diversity needs to be protected in any decisions about the sector’s future. So too the right to make bold creative decisions. The need for subsidised organisations to operate more and more as commercial venues makes this nearly impossible.
There are lessons to be learned too about how reliant the sector now is on earned income – and how vulnerable to the removal of that income. Public funding for the arts per head of the UK population has fallen by 35% since the 2008 financial crash. Maybe it’s time to reverse that direction of travel? The arts, like health and education, are a public good, and their survival, like that of health and education, should not be dependent on the vagaries of the market. But there are some positive lessons to be learned too, in the solidarity and spirit of mutuality that has come to the fore sector-wide. Artists – and some organisations – have helped and cared for one another. In the face of real fear for their livelihoods, theatre practitioners have kept their eyes on the prize of a better, more egalitarian sector (and society) post-lockdown. The imaginativeness and openness to change of our workforce feels like a resource that can be drawn on in the months and years to come.
On a practical level, the lack of clarity around the need for venues to close in the early days of the pandemic created significant confusion and put lives at risk. One obvious lesson is that the government must publish a crystal-clear action plan for how venues should respond to peaks and waves of this disease going forward. Similarly, the ever-changing guidance on social distancing etc. needs more clarity. Organisations (shops and schools alike) have invested significant funds in altering their buildings for the 2-metre rule; the suggestion that this may now change means that work will be wasted.
How might the sector evolve after Covid-19, and how can DCMS support such innovation to deal with future challenges?
It’s likely that in the medium-term future, the sector will need – to some degree – to make work for socially distanced conditions. Support will be needed to up-skill in digital and virtual performance (making, distributing, monetising); and skills and logistical support will be needed for new forms and contexts of performance (e.g. outdoor, in the community) that are viable in an era where social gathering is impossible. We know these activities will not generate anywhere near the level of income we would generate from our usual performance programmes. There will be a financial shortfall, and the sector will need financial / structural support in surviving that.
It seems likely that the sector will act on lessons learned about the exploitation and vulnerability of freelance creatives – by e.g. involving them more in the life of organisations, seeking to secure their incomes, developing mechanisms for freelance representation in sector conversations, etc. These initiatives will also need financial support and innovation.
The sector has experienced a major shock with Covid-19, and learned a harsh lesson about its precariousness. In some quarters there will a nervousness of future shocks, an instinct to play safe and a reluctance to take risks. What the sector most needs is a funding model based less on earned income, and more on the premise that the arts and culture are a public good, to which we all need access to improve social cohesion and the quality of our lives. A system of funding and support that incentivises creative freedom rather than caution.
By the time we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, theatre and live performance and cultural encounters have been missed by many, many people. There will be a refreshed appreciation of their value. Similarly, after an extended period of dialogue and thinking, there will be an appetite within the sector to do things differently, to more deeply embed theatre with its audiences and communities – so we can never be so vulnerable again. The sector will need support with this. This is the time to look at how we can better reach wider audiences, how cultural engagement and attending live performance can be made wholly accessible to everyone and a familiar part of their lives. To achieve that will need new financial models, imaginative thinking and a conviction that everyone has a fundamental right to make and experience art – which will need DCMS buy-in.