Coronavirus Q&A: London Theater Directors Discuss the Industry’s Future

The performing arts are in an unprecedented situation as they grapple with social-distancing rules brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. What needs to be done to assure their survival? I asked Matthew Warchus, artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theatre, Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the English National Ballet, and Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, about the long road ahead.

Francine Lacqua: What measures do you now need from the government — and what happened to the 1.57 billion pounds ($2 billion) bailout for the arts sector by the U.K. government?

Tamara Rojo: As great as this package is, it is clearly not going to be enough.

Matthew Warchus: My rough guess is that to return to a version of what existed before Covid would require at least five times this amount. Therefore, there will certainly be casualties and losses. This fund cannot prevent that. There is certainly a need for an extension of furloughing for those in the live performance sector and for more financial lifelines for freelancers. But neither of these measures are currently on the table.

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TR: A good step would be to increase the theater tax relief to 50% and for it to cover also running costs, until theaters are able to open fully and producers feel they can take the risks of hiring and producing shows.

Kwame Kwei-Armah: The thing we need is the thing they are saying they can’t give us until November. Which is when we can open our theater and perform without social distancing. We will then need a government-backed campaign to encourage audiences back into our black boxes.

FL: What would socially distanced theater look like?

MW: It’s simply not economically viable for most theaters. The Old Vic needs to operate at 70% of capacity in order to break even and social distancing reduces our capacity to 30% at 2 meters and 40% at 1 meter. Operating at 30% capacity would lead to a loss of 5.6 million pounds per year which obviously isn’t sustainable.

The goal is to rebuild an industry which is if anything more inclusive than the one we shut down. Solutions which increase exclusivity are not acceptable.

KKA: Social distancing can be done. But it would mean changing the model we currently have. That would mean funding our not-for-profit theaters in the way art is funded on the continent. Closer to 80-90% as opposed to 30% roughly at present.

FL: How do social-distancing concerns affect the selection of material? More Samuel Beckett? Less Tennessee Williams?

TR: We are looking at new creations that can take into consideration rules around contact, and trying to use household partnerships for duets. So for now no big classics but tailor-made pieces.

MW: A small audience would obviously imply smaller productions. Then there’s the restrictions on stage and backstage which also become harder to manage the bigger the show. It’s sad to imagine theater operating with one arm tied behind its back like this. 

FL: What do you say to theater-goers who ask why they can get on a plane for three hours, but can’t go to watch a play?

KKA: I say I have no idea!!!!!!! LOL

TR: I believe the issue now is not whether theater is safe but the decision by government to open sectors in an escalated way rather than all at once. How they came to open pubs, sporting events or horse racing ahead of theater is a question I would love to understand.

FL: How many people who work in theater have had access to furlough money? 

KKA: So within the Young Vic, 93% of our staff have had access to the job retention scheme. The problem has been with our freelance staff. Many of them have fallen through the cracks. It is causing great anguish and some bitterness in truth. Many have seen the package to institutions to be a betrayal of the 70% of theater workers — the freelancers. We are hearing of transitions to other professions daily.  The problem is serious for us if we lose too many, there will not be enough skilled creatives to reboot when we are ready to do that.

TR: As the furlough scheme comes to an end and the crisis continues with no clarity on when producers and venues will be able to return to normal I fear lots more jobs will be lost.

FL: How much will video streaming of performances become part of your revenue model?

MW:  The Old Vic has been streaming both pre-existing archive shows (for free) and also live streaming an ongoing series of performances from the empty theater as part of the Old Vic: In Camera season (at a conventional ticket price). It has been a real eye-opener how many people are willing to pay to see this work and how far it travels (we reached 69 countries). What we don’t know is whether this appetite will continue or for how long. Also, the work streamed live so far has been with just one or two actors. We couldn’t manage larger casts. So there is a sense that there’s definitely a new opportunity to be explored with streamed work. But how the finances will work is another matter. 

KKA: The costs of building a production has not reduced but the income from streaming theater has not yet proven to meet that cost. 

TR: At the ENB we started sharing online ballet classes for professionals, people with limited mobility and students in March and we were astounded when we reach 4 million people who joined us from all over the world. We also shared our pre-recorded performances for free during our Wednesday Watch Parties and were again very positively surprised as 1 million people joined in and also we received a considerable amount of donations. These numbers have made me realize that digital will continue to be a part of our activity even after we return to live performances.

FL: How can workers be assured that returning to the job is safe?

MW: The key to all of this of course is speedy testing. That’s what we all need — a reliable 10 minute test. The latest “Jurassic Park” movie is currently in production with a machine which delivers a test result in 90 minutes. The crew get tested on arrival every morning and then go about their activities with fewer restrictions. Apparently, the manufacturers of this machine say they expect it to be down to 30 minutes in a few weeks’ or months’ time. This is a game changer. But it is a very expensive machine.

FL: Are there any opportunities from the pandemic for theater to become more diverse and inclusive?

KKA: Yes, yes and yes again. Due to the international nature of this pandemic and how that is reflected in our cities and towns across the country, I believe our listening has increased. The need to want to hear how Covid for instance has effected all communities, sometimes in different ways, is of great interest. I come from a community that is a minority within a global minority. The ability to communicate in all directions at all times about the value of humanity, the value of empathy, the value of deep listening is the secret weapon of all art.

MW: I have always thought of art as being an extremely powerful social requisite. It has an indisputable power to heal, and to provoke change and progress. It is a great unifier, bringing people together from ideally all walks of life. It can be a profound comfort in the way it reveals patterns in chaos and highlights common ground in the human experience. It is an exemplar of collaboration in the way it is made and the way it is received. It is therapeutic and provocative and uplifting and hopeful. This is why it is so agonizing that live performance is absent at the very time it is so needed.

FL: Have charitable donations from the general public gone up during lockdown?

KKA: Yes it has for the Young Vic. We have been touched and moved by people wishing to support us in this way. Our fear however is fatigue may soon kick in. Without new works to inspire, giving may drop. But right now, the public have been wonderful. Please keep giving!

TR: We were surprised by the generosity of audiences in giving donations. At the same time, our business model means than only a third of our costs are covered by funding, so we really rely on box office income, commercial partnerships and fundraising activity to survive, so despite people’s generosity we wouldn’t be able to survive in the long run without a return to live events.

FL: How has Covid-19 and lockdown affected you and your work as an artist?

MW: There’s been a lot of shock and sadness. There’s been a lot of bewilderment which can be debilitating. There’s been a lot of fear and confusion. In some ways these things spur a creative response in other ways they leave you numb.

It has been heart-warming to see how the crisis has brought the disparate parts of the sector into close conversations together. This has been a wonderful consequence. But I fear there will also be competition for survival in the weeks to come — for example competing for the government money — and that is heart-breaking.

It’s painful seeing the locked venues and the stagnant creativity. And of course tragic to be making redundancies at work. That is a very hard thing to do. It’s challenging to maintain positivity but I have a great team around me and we take it in turns to be up and down. I keep remembering that the return of live performance (plus all the ancillary social mission work) is going to be so joyous. I hope we won’t take it for granted in the future.

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