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Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo by Peter Dazeley.

Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo by Peter Dazeley.

One Year On: Reflecting on the past & hopes for the future

Hira Desai

By Hira Desai First Published 16 March 2021, Last Updated 17 March 2021

On 16 March 2020, theatres across the UK were forced to close their doors as a result of the global pandemic. On this one year anniversary, we’re taking a moment to reflect on the past year and to share our hopes for the future.

Supporting the industry and its world-class talent

Apollo Theatre

Throughout the ongoing pandemic, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and UK Theatre (UKT) have been working closely with the government to lobby the needs of our industry and it’s world-renowned talent. Soon after theatres closed, SOLT shared a survey with its members to find out what impact the closures would have and what returned was a shocking. The results found that 70% of theatres or production companies would run out of cash, go out of business, by the end of the year. This information was used to urge the government to provide the sector with support. Though these findings contributed towards the government announcing the Cultural Recovery Fund, SOLT and UKT continue to lobby for further support where needed.

Today, survey results collected by SOLT and UKT from across the theatre sector paint a picture of an industry that has struggled to survive the past 12 months and faced huge financial strain – but remains resilient and adaptable.

The survey was completed by 944 theatre venues, venue groups, non-venue theatre businesses and individual theatre freelancers.

Over 95% of surveyed theatre organisations around the UK reported being worse off because of Covid. 53 of the 186 theatre organisations answering a question about financial loss due to Covid reported a loss of over £1m each – this includes 16 organisations who have lost over £5m each. The total loss of those 165 organisations able to provide figures is estimated at nearly £200m so far.

The survey also reveals that many of the highly skilled freelance theatre workforce have been forced to take alternative jobs during the pandemic, or even leave the sector altogether. One in four of the freelancers surveyed said they had gone out of business or ceased trading due to Covid. 270 alternative roles were sought within performing arts, and 456 outside the industry.

Almost a third of theatre venue respondents said they have had plans to create an outdoor performance space due to Covid – despite the fact that the majority (61%) will operate at a loss. Almost half are developing a revenue-generating digital space or product.

For England-based theatre organisations, 60% are planning to restart trading from 17 May (Step 3 of the Government Roadmap), and 83% said they would resume from 21 June (Roadmap Step 4).

Julian Bird, Chief Executive of SOLT and UK Theatre, said:

‘At that fateful moment a year ago when we were forced to close theatres, we could never have imagined that venues would remain closed today. It has been a year of incredible challenges, and would have been even bleaker were it not for Government support schemes including the Cultural Recovery Fund, furlough and SEISS.

‘It has also been a year in which we have truly witnessed the resilience, creativity and community-mindedness of theatre, from digital innovations allowing streamed productions to reach a global audience, to theatres creating educational and wellbeing resources, and venues offering themselves as vaccine centres or hosting pioneering scientific research on measures to prevent Covid spread.

‘We look forward to continuing to work closely with Government and industry partners, welcoming audiences safely back into theatres and playing a part in the national economic and social recovery.’


Theatre Artists Fund

Theatres across the UK closed for the majority of 2020 and still remain closed today meaning thousands of theatre workers and freelancers have been unable to work for long periods and are unable to claim through Government schemes through ineligibility. Despite the recent Government roadmap and Budget announcements, thousands of freelancers in the theatre industry are in crisis right now, and face weeks and months of uncertainty before theatres can fully reopen.

To mark 16 March, a host of famous faces are joining colleagues from across the theatre industry today in highlighting the plight of freelancers and raising awareness for the Theatre Artists Fund, using the social media hashtags #16March, #TheatreArtistsFund and #FirstInLastOut – referencing the fact that theatre workers were first into lockdown and will be among the last to return to work.

Created last July by director Sam Mendes, SOLT and UK Theatre, the Theatre Artists Fund provides emergency financial aid to the freelancers who make up an estimated 70% of the theatre sector. Eligible freelancers in need can apply for an individual grant of £1000 to help pay bills and put food on the table. The latest round of grant applications has opened today and will close on 30 March. Full details of eligibility and how to apply are available on the Theatre Artists Fund website.

Sam Mendes, director and co-founder of the Theatre Artists Fund, said:

‘The immense level of support for the #16March Theatre Artists Fund campaign illustrates that while theatres may be closed, the spirit of the theatre community is well and truly alive. I want to thank everyone who has contributed to the campaign, and all those who have shown their fantastic support for the Fund. It has helped enable fellow members of our community stay afloat during these extremely difficult times.’


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Those who have lent their support to the #16March campaign include Joe Alwyn, Ellie Bamber, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Bonneville, Michaela Coel, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anne-Marie Duff, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfie Enoch, Michael Fassbender, Claire Foy, Hugh Jackman, Ruth Madeley, Ian McKellen, Liam Neeson, James Norton, Sophie Okonedo, Weruche Opia, Andi Osho, Elaine Paige, Maxine Peake, Simon Pegg, Eddie Redmayne, Imelda Staunton, Juliet Stevenson, Mark Strong, David Walliams, Harriet Walter, Zoë Wanamaker, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams, Ruth Wilson and Kate Winslet. You can find out more in the story below. If you’d like to support the theatre industry, please do consider donating to the Theatre Artists Fund. No matter how big or small, every little really does help and will go directly to those in need.

Related Article: Celebrities rally together to support Theatre Artists Fund in video series
To mark the anniversary of theatre closures, we're sharing the stories of our celebrity friends who, when faced with struggles, were lent a helping hand.


See It Safely campaign

See It Safely mark

Last year, SOLT and UKT worked with industry professionals to ensure that theatres could reopen safely, offering training advice and practical support.

We launched our See It Safely mark in collaboration with the sector and it was welcomed by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in order to reassure theatregoers that venues are following the latest government and performing arts guidelines. A number of strict safety measures were implemented in venues including mandatory masks, social distancing, temperature checks and one-way systems as well as an in-built Track And Trace system so we know exactly who is in the theatres and where they are seated. In addition, ticket exchange was also made available at least 24 hours prior to a performance if a ticketholder was feeling unwell.

As theatres and productions begin to announce their reopening dates, we want our audiences to book with confidence, knowing that their theatregoing experience is as COVID-safe and as comfortable as possible. When you see the See It Safely mark, please rest assured that the venue is following government guidelines and you can feel confident that you will be safe in these venues.


The #BackOnStage campaign


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To celebrate the shows that were able to reopen in 2020, we introduced the #BackOnStage campaign. We encouraged our audiences, venues and theatre professionals to share their experiences by using the hashtag and will continue to do so as soon as theatres are able to reopen.

Whether it’s a new production or a popular show that’s making a comeback, we want to champion our industry and support each show as much as we can.


Our hopes for the future

The 2021 budget announcement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak included a number of announcements which impact our industry in a positive way:

  • New recovery fund package for the arts, including around £300m for the £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund
  • 5 month extension to furlough scheme until end of September
  • Another SEISS grant available from April, and a 5th later in the year – also around 600,000 people previously unable to claim because they only became self-employed in the 2019-20 tax year will now be eligible
  • Extension to business rate reliefs and continued VAT cut until end of September for tourism and hospitality
  • £7m fund from July 2021 to help employers in England set up and expand portable apprenticeships
  • £150 million Community Ownership Fund allowing communities to invest to protect assets such as pubs, theatres, shops or sports clubs
  • Production Restart scheme for Film and Television extended until December 2021, but disappointingly no equivalent scheme for theatre

SOLT and UK Theatre issued the following statement following the Budget:

‘The 2021 budget contains the extension of many vital support mechanisms that have helped the performing arts industry through the pandemic, and it is wonderful that the Government recognises the value of our world-leading culture sector.  The announcement of a further £300m for the Culture Recovery Fund, coupled with announcements on furlough, self-employed support, business rates and VAT remaining at a lower rate for hospitality and leisure businesses, is all hugely welcome and will help ensure our industry can reopen with additional financial security.

“The extension of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme to cover new entrants in the 19/20 tax year will help many in our sector, but we urge the Government to continue to look at the plight of other individuals who have fallen through the gaps of furlough and self-employed support.  In order to reopen, theatre and the performing arts continue to need insurance cover, and we call upon the Government to put this in place as for other sectors.’

Looking to the future, we will continue to lobby for Government-backed insurance, an increase in the rate of Theatre Tax Relief and support for freelancers, who make up 70% of the theatre sector.

While theatres are currently closed, a year on from the first lockdown announcement, the roadmap is showing some light at the end of the tunnel with industry professionals across the board working tirelessly to ensure they can reopen as soon as it is safe to do so.

The past year has proved how treasured our industry is and what a huge part it plays in bringing people together. We can’t wait to get our audiences comfortable in their red velvet seats again and for our world-class talent to be back on and off-stage, doing what they love the most.

Because theatre really is nothing without its audience, we want to say a big thank you to each and every one of you for supporting the industry during one of it’s most challenging years in history. If you’re missing theatre and want something to look forward to, please support us by booking tickets to see one of the many shows that have announced openings in the coming months. Take a look at the round up below!

Related Article: London Shows 2021: Great theatre to look forward to this year
Check out our running list of London shows 2021 and give yourself something to look forward to when theatres reopen. There's something for everyone!

Please rest assured that you can book your tickets with confidence at Official London Theatre and that you can exchange with ease. And while we wait for theatres to reopen, please remember you can continue to connect with theatre by checking out what’s online over on our Virtual Theatre Fix page and by tuning in to our Theatre Chat Live episodes every Tuesday night at 6pm on Official London Theatre’s Instagram channel. Tonight, we will be joined a number of special guests including West End star Kerry Ellis, Head of marketing and communications at the Society of London Theatre & UK Theatre, Emma D’Souza and founders of Theatre Support Fund+ and the Show Must Go On! merchandise, Chris Marcus and Damien Stanton.

We look forward to seeing you then! x


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