Blog: Protecting our theatre infrastructure

Theatres Trust Director Jon Morgan outlines the work Theatres Trust has been doing to support and protect theatres in response to the pandemic.

Since theatres closed in mid-March, Theatres Trust has been working to protect the UK’s enviable stock of theatres. We have been giving advice to theatre owners and operators about business planning and building maintenance, but we’ve also been making the case to the government for the support the sector needs in these difficult times.

Conversations with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are ongoing and I’m pleased to be joining the Entertainment  and Events Working Group, which will feed into the thinking on the safe reopening of venues that we all so desperately want. I’m sharing here the main points we’ve been making to government, and which formed the basis of our submission to the DCMS Committee inquiry (read our full response here) as well as a flavour of what else will be our focus over the next year.

Our research in the first weeks of the crisis showed that of UK theatres that are charities (at least 581), 35% had less than one month of reserves and 59% had less than three months. Undoubtedly the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been a lifeline for theatres, enabling staff to be furloughed while their buildings are closed to the public.

But sadly this is not enough if we want to protect against erosion of our cultural infrastructure, which could have a long lasting impact on access to the arts, careers in the creative sectors and the UK’s position as a world leader in this sector and as a major contributor to tourism.

Theatre buildings even when empty have running costs, which quickly become crippling for organisations whose main source of income has been cut off. Theatres are complex buildings and many are historically significant heritage assets. Prolonged closure without proper supervision, maintenance and upkeep could cause these buildings to require expensive repairs to their fabric prior to reopening. We are encouraging theatre operators to keep maintenance measures in place however the furloughing of key staff presents a challenge, particularly for small organisations.

Buildings with a rateable value lowers than £51,000 have been given a rates relief holiday, but with many theatres located in prime spots in their towns and cities, hundreds are ineligible. We’ve argued that this should be extended to all theatres.

Emergency grants from the nations’ arts councils have been welcomed although only able to support a small percentage of organisations competing for them. The loans offered by the government, which may support other industries, are unlikely to be taken up within the theatre sector, where organisations operate on such tight margins that they would struggle to repay them and their organisation set-up may prevent them from taking on extra risk.

While nobody knows when the lockdown will be fully lifted, theatres by their very nature will be amongst the last places to reopen and the longer they are closed the harder the situation becomes.

To date four theatre operators have ceased trading and Theatres Trust continues to engage with stakeholders about these, including talking to freeholders, local authorities and any newly formed campaign groups to safeguard the building for future use. However, it is likely that more theatres will find themselves in this situation soon.

Unfortunately, it has been announced that the furlough scheme will only continue in its present form until the end of July, after which employers will need to make increasing contributions. More operators will undoubtedly go under when they have to pay staffing costs and many will already be starting redundancy consultations with their employees. To safeguard our theatres, the government contribution must remain at 80% for theatres and be kept in place throughout the lockdown and beyond as we enter a phased recovery period.  It is economically unviable for theatres to open with social distancing in place so ongoing support is essential.

And looking to that time when theatres might be able to reopen, the sector needs advance notice of this. We won’t simply be able to reopen our doors overnight – venues will need to be prepared to allow the public in, with whatever safety measures are agreed are necessary in place – as well as time for programming and rehearsing. We are talking to colleagues across the sector about what these measures might be and what the longer-term implications will be for building design and renovation – we’ll have more to say on this over the coming weeks.

If we do see more theatre operators failing in the coming months, we will be working to ensure that the buildings are at least protected. This will include making the case to local authorities to retain cultural use in the buildings and supporting local groups in their campaigns to save their beloved theatres, so that when this crisis passes, they can be returned to use by their communities.