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About Brian Beacom
THEATER has long used the device of the ticking clock in plays from Glengarry Glen Ross to The Thirty-Nine Steps to create powerful dramatic narrative.
But right now, thanks to the Covid crisis, the clock is nearing midnight for the theater itself, because we can’t assume the current closure is just a pause. “The facts are that without a little help, 70 percent of the theaters will be closed by Christmas,” says playwright James Graham, who penned the hit “This House.” “And they’re not going to reopen.”
James Graham is not an overly dramatic person. The Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh has announced that all jobs are at risk of layoffs and that scheduled performances have been cancelled for this year.
In the meantime, the Pitlochry Festival Theatre is threatened with the layoff of 40 employees – and closure by the end of the year. Across Scotland, the company fears reopenings will not be possible at the earliest until spring 2021.
The Tron Theatre in Glasgow has confirmed that it will not open its 500-year-old doors this year, and its artistic director, Andy Arnold, warns that the future will have greater repercussions. “The danger is that when a building closes, it never reopens. When the Arches (the popular theater in Glasgow that he previously presided over) went bust, we assumed that another cultural organization would come in and take over the rent. But they never did. You can’t really let a theater close.”
He adds, “We’re luckier than other theaters because we only rely on half of our box office revenue. We have the subsidy, which really helps us. But others are in a terrible position.”
Desperately, Scottish theaters try to save every penny they can until the doors are safe to open. For instance, The King’s Theatre in Edinburgh is asking those who have already purchased tickets to forgo refunds. Like the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen, the Gaiety in Ayr is in a perilous position.
Producer Sonia Friedman, who is behind hits from the West End such as The Book of Mormon and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, says more than 1,000 theaters will soon be insolvent across Britain. “British theater,” she said, “is on the brink of total collapse.”
Ambassador Theatre Group is a profoundly troubling instance. 47 theaters are operated by ATG, including King’s and Glasgow’s Theatre Royal and Edinburgh Playhouse.
The company now has £ 352 million of net debt. And the fear is that its owners, Providence, a U.S. holding company that owns ATG through two holding companies registered with the Cayman Islands, will sell its assets and move on.
In Scotland, ATG’s theaters survive on advance ticket sales. Without shows to sell, it is impossible to service the debt. The redundancy scheme means that employees can currently be retained, but for how much longer?
Theaters have already had to cancel shows this summer that made a lot of money, such as the musical “Beautiful” by Carole King and the sing-along “Mamma Mia!” by Abba. The business model is in serious jeopardy if panto doesn’t run. “The corona virus has thrown companies like ATG, which can’t access government-backed loans because of their high debt levels, into crisis,”The corona virus has thrown businesses like ATG, which can not access government-backed loans due to their high debt levels, into crisis.
But the theater’s concerns go beyond maintaining the buildings in good shape and paying the bills. The industry faces the loss of armies of lighting programmers, freelance writers and dancers, suppliers of sound equipment, caterers and carriers who transport sets. Some face millions of pounds in lease-purchase debt for equipment and can not make the payments. And you don’t have a touring theater if you don’t have set designers, haulers or sound engineers.
There is no argument that theater will not be forgotten. Each year, Britain’s theaters attract 34 million viewers – twice as many as the English Premier League soccer team. “It’s not that arts funding costs hospital beds. We can pay for hospital beds with our theaters and our movies.” (If the British government can support the Covid program’s rugby league with £ 16 million, it’s certainly easy to make a case for the theater.)
Last year, £ 1,3 billion in tickets were sold in the UK. “Andy Arnold says, “For every pound of that m, that m.