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Voices from Scotland & New £10M Fund

Theatre of Scotland

Playwright, Artistic Directors, Political Leaders , Pandemic and Performance , July 3, 2020
Theatre of Scotland by Playwright, Artistic Directors, Political Leaders On June 22nd the Scottish Government’s advisory group on recovery from the Covid crisis announced a National Partnership for Culture. On June 24th its make-up and remit was announced.

At the daily press conference of 26th June First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said:

“A Scotland without a flourishing arts and culture sector is not a Scotland any of us would want to see, so there is a real commitment here on behalf of the government.”

“I am absolutely determined that we will have a flourishing theatre sector and an arts sector that will be something that we can all look forward to when we come through this very very difficult period for them – as well as for all the individuals and families personally effected by Covid.”

I don’t underestimate the difficulty of the challenges,” she said. “There’ll be some tough discussions and tough decisions along the way.

“But the government is full square behind not just our theatre sector but arts and culture generally because it is such a fundamentally important part of our country and who we are as a country. I think it’s important that that message goes out to the sector right now.”

Peter Arnott, a playwright-commentator in Scotland, wrote a tiered article on a possible future.

“Another aspect of this chaos has been that everybody has been trying to think of everything all at once. What kind of shows can we do under lock-down conditions? How do you monetise the internet? How about drive-ins? Will audiences ever come back even when they’re allowed to come back? What happens if a civic asset, like a theatre, goes bankrupt? How do I get on the furlough scheme? What happens to my staff when it ends?

“But I don’t think that “normal” is a useful concept at this moment. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about wishing for it, or for asking ourselves all of the questions we need answers to all at the same time. But emergency conditions do not make make for clarity of thought. My sense is that it is only now that we are now moving into the next "stage of recovery" that we can take a breath and put forward something like a plan for a series of realities, none of which are going to approach normality as we've known it.”

“My immediate suggestion is for a Scottish National Commission for the Performing Arts which can decide on that policy of recovery, and seek support in implementing it...First, it has to be “good,” not just “good, considering.” Second, live performance may need to happen first in non-theatrical spaces where audience numbers and density can be easily controlled. Rural touring may well be key to this, as might the use of community centres and the like.

“I would suggest that if we once again prioritise a community focussed style of production appropriate to audiences in socially and geographically isolated circumstances…in health and prison settings, for example, schools…as well as village halls and community centres. We can become integral to the recuperation of these community assets and cement ourselves into the wider society. We are already an economic asset and a social one. We should make the most of the potential for enhancing our presence. We would be going a long way towards asserting communitarian values as part of the recovery that we want to keep when the recovery is over. As with the "convalescence" work, the rule of thumb is to seek support for the kind of work we can be proud of.

Oh…and in DECEMBER 2021, we should be doing the best set of Christmas shows, all across the country, in every kind of venue and public space, that we have ever seen.”

Elizabeth Newman is artistic director at Pitlochry's theatre and looked at the human cost:

“I see people being really sad and that affects me. They will have lost months of their lives, they will be grieving for that, which I don’t think people have contemplated yet. And illness is not the same as war. There are some similarities in that we can’t go about our daily business, there’s rationing of sorts. I can see how that narrative is helpful but this is going to affect people very differently – they might have seen a parent or child carted off in an ambulance. We’re dealing with something fundamental here which is that we can’t overcome nature – we are realising our own mortality.”

And on her theatre:

“I think we have passed the point of no return. Even if a package was to come, we know it’s going to be such a length of time before the recapitalisation process that there is no way we can sustain staff for that period. What we’ve got to do is mitigate the risk. We won’t be able to guarantee the same level of audience even when the government says ‘we have a vaccine’ etc. We are still going to have less than we had before. We have to make 85 per cent of our income from the box-office.

“Our staffing is £2m, that is half of the £4m we make. We looked at our cash-flow the other day – we worked out that if we achieve anything less than 60 per cent audiences, we would go bankrupt in two months. We know that we can shrink, we can put plans in place with agencies to help staff who are facing redundancies look for work and during this interim period retrain, and we are helping them apply for the benefits they are eligible for. And we are trying to work out what we can do in that period to remain relevant, to engage our audiences, to support people through their lives through art. We are the biggest employer in the region, the next bit is: how do we make sure when we are in the act of growing that we don’t end up dying?

“We started our first round of redundancies before most other theatres in April. Now it’s the second round, the most significant round. This is one chapter of the story but it’s not the completed novel. I think it’s important that the guardians of theatre in 2020 don’t announce the death of an artform that has been going for millennia. It’s important that we find a way of holding our nerve and saying: we are the captains of ship during the greatest storm we’ve faced in our lifetime, but we are going to find a way through that storm with the public, with our audience. For me it has been a balance. It is horrendous. But no one said at the beginning of life saying you’re going to have a lovely time, enjoy. We’re in a global pandemic and people all over the world are suffering and it’s to us to find our way through the storm.”

David Greig is a playwright and artistic director at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

“Basically we’re consulting at the moment, a majority of our company are at risk of redundancy. We’re reducing our company to a core. We do not know when we can come back. That is the brutal truth. If you told me for a fact, March 31, theatre will come back, we could probably find ways of stretching our income out and lose less people, I don’t know. But if we go past March 31 and get that wrong then we are bust. We have to prepare for ‘indefinite’ even though we know and hope it won’t be that. We hope that at some point the theatre will come back, but it’s not until the end of this calendar year. We’ve been told that by both governments.

“The question is: can you perform theatre with social restrictions, and all the theatres in the UK have said: with our funding system it’s impossible, it cannot make financial sense. But that’s before you go: you can’t sing along, because singing indoors is a vector for disease; clapping makes particles spread more; laughing does too. The more you think about the invitation to the audience – as you say ‘come, be blocked off behind screens, we will spray you and present shows where actors stand apart, and we will try to encourage you not to sing along’, it’s like an anti-theatre.

“So what you’re thinking is: we could cut our capacity to a quarter, massively increase our costs in cleaning, have no or limited bar income, then we would be inviting an audience into a risky environment but then is the invitation life enhancing? If you add all that together – theatre in a world of social restriction is certainly financially implausible if not artistically so. We can’t do the fundamental thing which is our income generator. So we have to create organisations that do something else indefinitely but keep the keys to the building and look after them, and keep as much as we can in knowledge and skills so that when the time comes we are there and we can regrow like a bulb underground waiting for the spring.”

3rd July: Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop announced a fund of £10,000,000.

“Our theatres and performing arts venues and the talented freelancers who work with them are an essential part of the fabric of Scotland’s culture and communities and promote our international reputation, and we are determined that they will survive and be able to thrive again.

“We reacted quickly to help culture and the creative industries from the earliest days of this pandemic, including through the £120m Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund, which is unique to Scotland. This new fund is the next step.

“Our performing arts venues effectively had to close overnight, with an almost complete loss of income. There is no doubt that in doing so they saved lives, and for that I am extremely grateful."

Abridged, with thanks, from:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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