Theatre industry “on the brink of ruin”, warns Sir Nicholas Hytner

Pantomime season “won’t happen” because of the financial impact of Covid-19, theatre director Sir Nicholas Hytner has warned. This will pile the pressure on an industry that is worried about keeping afloat, and has increased demands for government aid to save theatre.

Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show, Sir Nicholas said that the industry needs “unprecedented and immediate” Government investment to help enable performers to find a way to work, and to help protect arts jobs that are under significant threat. “Honestly, the entire arts sector is on the brink of ruin and that’s not just the theatres,” he said. He was asked about whether changing the two-metre rule would be enough to help, but his answer was negative.

He said: “Even with the one-metre social distance, the maximum capacity any of us would be able to manage even if we had a go would be around about 25-30%, which simply isn’t enough to run a big show or an opera or a ballet. Most of that won’t be able to happen until the other side of social distancing.”

One usual source of income is the Christmas pantomime season, but it is unlikely to go ahead

Even as restrictions begin to be lifted, it may be very hard for theatre to bounce back. One usual source of income is the Christmas pantomime season, but it is unlikely to go ahead. Sir Nicholas said: “This is the time of year when theatres have to start spending on their Christmas shows, it has to start now, and nobody can do that at the moment because there’s been no box office for the last three months, so there’s no cash.

“At the moment, panto season won’t happen, whatever happens to the pandemic between now and Christmas, and panto season is when entire families go to the theatre and when theatres make the money at the box office that sustains them through the rest of the year.” According to the Society of London Theatre, 70% of theatres will have ran out of money by the end of the year, so this is hugely worrying news.

Theatre stars are aware of the threat to the industry. Big names including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, James McAvoy and Toby Jones backed a letter warning that the industry is “on the brink of ruin”. It stated: “Without Government investment, theatres will be forced to close and may never return. The threat of British theatre being destroyed by accident is as real as it is bleak. It would not only be a spiritual tragedy but an economic one.”

Sir Nicholas did hold some hope for the future

Despite painting a negative picture of the current situation, Sir Nicholas did hold some hope for the future. Speaking of investment, he said: “The good news is that if it happens, and it happens quickly, all sorts of good things will follow, because we’re full of incredibly inventive people who’ll find a way of performing safely if the investment is there. We’re ready to bring life and joy back to communities all over the country but we do need [the] government to act now – this month. The word is that the Chancellor gets it. I’m really hopeful that is so.”

Job losses have already been proposed at several major theatres, and many organisations have warned that they only have enough reserves to last a few months – this really is make or break time for theatre. If we want the arts to survive, the government will need to speak to theatres and figure out what financial aid it can provide. But, coupled with that, we will need to do our best to support theatres when they re-open, through seeing an extra show or making it a new night out. If theatre is to remain a major part of our society, then society will need to rally round and help it survive this crisis.

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