Written evidence submitted by The New Wolsey Theatre
Written evidence to the DCMS inquiry on the impact of Covid- 19 on The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
The first thing to say is our first priority at all times is our audiences, participants, artists, staff and the wider public. We understand and welcome the measures HM Government are taking to prevent the spread of the Covid19.
However, those measures are having an inevitable impact on our charity, mainly in the medium and long term. We believe the true impact of the pandemic will be felt – for us – from September onwards.
Being based in a regional town our theatre is an important aspect of community life. We drive economic growth, civic pride, a sense of place and health and wellbeing for many. We not only present and produce theatre but also programmes in schools and participation activity outside of school and have an extensive offer for those not in formal education. Our theatre is (was!) open all day and evening, a place where people would meet as interest groups, catch up with friends and families. It was widely used by volunteers working with people for whom English is a second language. A vital community hub now closed for the foreseeable future.
NWT is also the lead organisation for Ramps on the Moon an initiative in mid scale theatres across the UK to recognise and develop the talent and skills of Deaf and disabled people in our workforces, bringing more of that talent onto our stages, engagement programmes and across our organisations. We are anxious to ensure that disabled and D/deaf people do not get left behind during the process of reopening our industry. The metrics of risk that all individuals work to is not a one size fits all, we would like you to consider how we can ensure that as many people as possible continue to be able to experience the arts during reopening.
Some facts and figures
Our theatre is shut for the foreseeable future and all but online activity has ceased
The New Wolsey Theatre has a reputation for both great theatre and prudent management. This fact – together with the furloughing support provided for by the government –has meant that we have been able to manage our way through COVID-19, so far….
(On that note we would also like to put on record our thanks to colleagues at Arts Council England who worked with HM Treasury for charities like ours to be included in the furloughing scheme)
The real impact for us as a mid-scale producing theatre/charity is not now; it is in the nine months September ’20 to May ‘21 if (as it seems likely) social distancing restrictions will remain and even when that is over public confidence in mass gatherings are likely to remain vastly reduced. The Christmas season for us, like many of our fellow theatres, is a key moment in our year. Our Christmas offer – the acclaimed Rock n Roll panto now in its 20th year – generates around £400k for the bottom line (The Christmas show income equates to 25% of our annual turnover). To lose that revenue in any one year would be catastrophic for the theatre, and put our whole operation at risk.
NWT does rely on effective fundraising as part of its business model. Fundraising income has been radically reduced; trusts and foundations are repurposing funds and are seeing a decline in their own income. Sponsorships are under review, and new opportunities (leads) are impossible at this time. Our memberships and individual giving are tied to our programme , so we are seeing those elements dry up – or members not renewing (Our membership schemes are down 55% in renewals for April alone)
When Covid 19 struck we were mid way through a capital fundraising campaign which has effectively stalled. Examples of how this is affecting us include:-
- Trusts and foundations closing schemes to focus (understandably) on Covid 19 relief projects. In one case one trust closed their scheme just as we were about to submit, the value of that bid alone was £60k. A second bid (£30k) has been ‘long stay parked’ by a local authority as Covid 19 plays out.
- We are anticipating a lower success rate of our trust and foundations bids as Covid 19 impacts on both the resources / income available to trusts and foundations, and an increase in need/applications.
- Our audience fundraising (through a ticket levy) has stalled during this period of enforced closure. By the end of 2020 we would have anticipated raising £80k through this means, but have now reduced that forecast to an optimistic £20k
At the same time capital costs ( we are in the middle of two modest capital projects both upgrading facilities for the public) are rising due to the impact of Covid 19 (site closure/ delays to procurement / social distancing on site). So as costs rise our fundraising potential has been reduced by at the very least £160k (see above). Taking into account rising costs and lost income the total impact on the organisation capital projects is likely to be in the region of 250k.
Fundraising – operational
Already Covid19 is seeing a significant impact on our revenue fundraising. Specifically
- Linked to this strategically we feel this is not the right time to be making significant appeals to our general public
- Much as with capital our ability to ‘pitch’ to trusts and foundations for projects has been significantly reduced both by scheme closures (HLF for example) and by the repurposing of funds for Covid 19 response
The complete stop of our business has a whole knock on effect, and restarting will be complex and time consuming
- Our sector relies on effective collaborations to produce shows. With the whole industry shut down these discussions are inevitably paused, and won’t begin again until there is more certainty. For us that has meant no further conversations on five collaborative productions.
- Five weeks of activity across all our stages of work for and by the local community- OPEN SEASON have been cancelled
- The suspension of our outreach programme between March and June would have offered 6,000 participation opportunities to local people.
- The industry relies on a wide pool of highly skilled freelances and support organisations. The complete stop has seen their work cease – thus undermining the viability and careers of a large portion of our wider workforce. New entrants to the industry are particularly hard hit and many of our disabled and deaf freelance colleagues may well need to stay away from face to face working even longer.
- Loss of audience and consumer confidence. A recent national survey (Indigo – After the Interval) has shown that whilst nationally 93% are missing live performance, only 17% are currently booking for events and only 41% would consider booking in the next four months. Those who consider themselves particularly susceptible to COVID-19 may well stay away for longer, and this will have an additional impact on our ticket sales.
- The lack of any certainty undermines all planning, financial decision making, contracts and so on.
- Public funders (both Arts Council England and our Local Authorities) have been very supportive, but face significant financial pressures that could threaten investment in arts and culture over the short to medium term.
- We know we need to make radical change to our business for the future– in some ways this is an exciting challenge- but the lack of an Industry ‘road map’ ( which might be impossible to achieve at this time) makes decisions across the business incredibly difficult.
How effectively has the support provided by DCMS, other Govt departments and arms-length bodies addressed the sector’s needs?
As mentioned above the JRS has been key for us in saving numerous jobs, and retaining skills. Redundancies would have been inevitable without the JTS. Redundancies are still possible even with the (welcome) extension of the scheme to October, which is still some 5 months before the predicted effective re-opening of theatres (Spring 21).
Even with the JRS redundancies are inevitable – the only question is the depth of the damage to the business –loss of skill, relationships with customers etc.
Arts Council was quick to respond to the sector overall, and their speed of reaction is to be commended. NWT has benefitted from the relaxing of NPO funding conditions and extension of the NPO funding agreements. We also recognise the benefit of emergency funding for freelancers and non regularly funded organisations.
We – like others – remain concerned that organisations like ours are really going to feel the impact of Covid19 post 30 September. It is for this period that we would welcome assurances of further financial support from Government or Arts Council. We do not underestimate the challenges this creates for the Government.
Our local authorities have been supportive and understanding throughout Covid 19. NWT is playing a leading role in discussions about the ‘re-opening’ of Ipswich, very much part of our civic mission.
As a smaller organisation we play a vital role in our town and community. At the same time we operate in a fragile economy – one with less ecconomies of scale, less funding and less access to philanthropy. We’d urge Arts Council and Government to recognise the key role of organisations like NWT in civic life, and in a funding ecology which is skewed by London and national organisations recognise the vitality, importance and need of organisations like NWT.
UK Theatre have offered strong leadership on behalf of the sector, keeping us and colleagues informed and engaged. We hope this strong dialogue between UK Theatre and Government as we move from the initial reaction to the pandemic and into recovery.
Longer Term Impacts
Recovery in our sector will take years not months so continued financial support from the Government will be essential to prevent the collapse of the industry.
The early evidence shows a short to medium term loss of audiences who are reluctant to return to venues until they are assured it is safe, especially for older audiences and those who use public transport. Evidence also shows audiences are far less likely to book in advance and will want more flexible booking/refunding policies. This will impact on cash flow, as theatres rely upon advance box office sales.
We will need a strong message from the Government that venues are/can be safe, and standards/kitemark scheme that is consistent across the cultural/tourism sectors and gives assurance to the public that they can and should visit. Linked to this we must avoid scenarios where the general public are told to ‘avoid bars, theatres, concert halls etc’ whilst venues are expected to open.
Social distancing is a serious financial challenge in our business which requires maximum possible occupancy. We would not consider opening our theatre spaces until social distancing is relaxed, although we will look to open our café and participation spaces as soon as it is practical to do so.
The financial savings that Covid will force us to seek will inevitably reduce investment in productions, new work and/or force risk averse programming. It is imperative that if we are to rebuild our resilience, grow and diversify audiences that we have the means to continue broad, accessible and exciting programming that can engage everyone.
As well as productions, our theatres produce extensive participatory programmes. These will also be subject to social distancing, reducing our outputs. Funding for such programmes will be tougher to secure due to increased pressure on funders and demand.
Theatre has always been a way for communities to make sense of events, and for individuals to reflect on their emotional conditions. As young people find their way back into education, and local people look for ways to reconnect and process the last few months, theatre artists and buildings will be needed to play an important part in supporting schools and communities.
Just as we are with the re-opening of Ipswich , theatre has significant potential for playing a vital role in communities recovery from Covid 19. We are up for that challenge, building on the many local partnerships we already have and beginning new ones. We would encourage government to support, understand and recognise the role theatres can and do play in community partnerships and in civil leadership. We would be happy to share examples of good practice and case studies with you.
What lessons can be learnt from how DCMS, arms-length bodies and the sector have dealt with Covid 19
We should celebrate
- The strong leadership of bodies like Arts Council England and UK Theatre during this period
- Welcome and support the examples of good practice (such as the midscale theatre group coming together to share advice, best practice, information and strategies)
We would welcome
- More open and incisive information flowing from government. Information on risks, plans and issues.
- Detailed road maps.
- Honest horizon scanning would all be appreciated.
- The opportunity to be part of the emergency response – we offer skills, resources and vitally creative solutions.
What will the likely long term impacts of Covid 19 be on the sector, and what support is needed to deal with those?
Theatre will survive
Artists, audiences and participants are craving the live experience. 69% of the population attended an arts event every year. 93% of those indiviudals are missing that experience. These are statistics that remind us how vital culture is to our own well-being and that of the country as a whole.
……but the landscape will be very different.
Our audiences may well expect more online engagement, and there may well be more demand for outdoor work.
Our industry will have lost skills as artists, practitioners and support industries either wind up or move on because of Covid 19 .
Our governmental asks come throughout this document – but for ease they are all repeated here:-