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Sam Mendes: how we can save our theatres

Sam Mendes outlines a plan to save the country's theaters as the coronavirus lockdown continues to take a huge toll.

Sam Mendes: How we can save our theatres

Britain’s powerhouse cultural sector needs investment, not charity, writes the director.

This is a recipe for a rescue package. 

What we are presented with at this moment in history is the biggest challenge to Britain’s cultural life since the outbreak of the second world war. The country’s theatres and actors, musicians and music venues, dancers and dance spaces, concert halls and opera houses are all under threat. The theatre needs a plan, and I believe we have one. 

But before we go into details, let’s get this clear: people who work in the arts are not poor relations who depend on others’ charity in order to survive. It is a massively successful business. In 2018 alone, theatre across the UK played to a collective audience of 34m people — approximately the same number that attended Premier League and English Football League matches. During that time, theatre venues generated ticket revenue of £1.28bn, and the cultural sector contributed £32.3bn to the UK economy — an astonishing increase of 21.9 per cent since 2010. Last year, theatre brought in £133m in VAT in London alone. In short, theatre and the arts are a giant economic growth engine. That is not because the arts keep us alive (thank you to the NHS for that) but because they give us something worth staying alive for. 

The prolific theatre landscape is made up of a number of different elements, from the large to the small. First, the commercial sector, which includes the West End and commercial touring venues; then a nationwide network of subsidised and not-for-profit theatres; then a multitude of fringe venues; beyond that, a cohort of smaller local and touring companies. Many of these entities have extensive outreach programmes that bring creative opportunity into the lives of communities of all ages in every city and region in the country. Put simply, live performance is everywhere.

This multi-faceted organism is largely fuelled by live theatre, which — apart from being the envy of the world — has also been essential to the UK’s multi­billion pound film and television industry by launching the careers of literally thousands of actors, writers, producers and directors (of which I am one). 

The success of the arts in the UK is not only definable in financial terms. The UK’s position as a global “soft power superpower” is now widely accepted. It is this that draws millions to Britain every year for its thriving arts landscape, and exports huge numbers of productions across the globe. 

But theatre and live entertainment are now in grave danger. This is not being alarmist; it is simply a statement of fact. The lockdown in response to Covid-19 has forced a total closure of all public performance spaces, removing all trading income at a single stroke. Initially, limited cash reserves cushioned the blow of closure, and the UK’s job retention scheme has mostly saved arts organisations from making immediate redundancies. But the continuance of social distancing makes the prospect of reopening simply impossible.

Many other businesses will be able to adapt — shops, offices, public spaces, some restaurants. Even a cinema with reduced capacity can have five showings a day of a single movie, making it perfectly possible to have a relatively successful socially distanced commercial run. But theatre and live performance — with one performance a day, and sellable seats reduced by an average of 80 per cent — simply cannot stay afloat. 

What is the solution? In the short term, the performing arts obviously cannot restart yet because of what the science tells us. So, we need to keep them alive until venues can reopen. First, the workforce must be sustained. The job retention scheme for retained staff needs to be continued, and a package has to be created that supports the army of freelancers and self-employed artists who create so much of the work itself. 

Then, the more complex long-term job. The government’s introduction of the theatre tax-relief scheme has transformed theatre’s development of new productions and fuelled the sector’s growth. For a start, we’re asking that the rate of tax relief be increased from 20 per cent to 50 per cent for the next three years, and that it apply to the production’s ongoing running costs, and to the remounting of suspended productions.

“It would be ironic if TV streaming services were to make lockdown millions while the very source of our acting, producing, writing and directing talent pool was allowed to die”

We’d also like the private individuals who invest in productions, commonly known as “Theatrical Angels”, whose personal financial investment is the lifeblood of commercial theatre (collectively, their investment in theatre constituted more than £150m annually pre-lockdown), to be able to offset production losses against production profits, a simple relief not currently possible under existing tax legislation. 

This needs to be a joint endeavour. So, the entire performing arts sector has mobilised to make a game-changing proposal: The Cultural Investment Participation Scheme. It combines the joint potential of commercial and subsidised ecologies to offer the government the genuine prospect of substantial financial return. In short, our offer is to treat the government as an “Angel”, using the same formula to return investment and share in the profit of successful shows once those shows have earned back their initial costs. 

In this regard, London’s West End, together with commercial national touring, provides a rich and continuous stream of potential profit. These productions can come directly from the commercial theatre — The Book of Mormon, for example, or The Lion King — or the subsidised sector — the National Theatre’s War Horse and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda. All are recent examples of plays and musicals that have returned weighty profits. My own production of The Lehman Trilogy from the National played a relatively short West End season last summer at the Piccadilly Theatre, yet still grossed £8.75m. This is not a request for a handout, or for long-term life support. It is an offer for the government to become partners in a successful business.

The performing arts need to be saved now. Not next week, or next month. If they die, an ecosystem this intricate and evolved cannot be rebuilt from scratch. If it stops breathing, it cannot be resuscitated. It is the product of decades of capital projects, loyal audiences, and of communities large and small. We have had dreadful warnings already. Theatres across the UK are already going out of business (Southampton, Southport, and Leicester among them), while others are on the brink of redundancy consultations with most of their staff. So here is our message to those in government — let us work with you now to find this solution. There is a way. 

One last thing. While a huge percentage of working people have suffered over these past three months, there are also many (whisper it) whom Covid-19 has made rich. It would be deeply ironic if the streaming services — Netflix, Amazon Prime et al — should be making lockdown millions from our finest acting, producing, writing, and directing talent, while the very arts culture that nurtured that talent pool is allowed to die. Is there anyone among those people willing to use a fraction of their Covid-19 windfall to help those who have been mortally wounded? If so, I hope you’re reading this, and that you are able to think of the arts landscape as more than just a “content provider”, but instead as an ecosystem that supports us all. 

Sir Sam Mendes is a film and stage director, producer, and screenwriter.

A version of this article appeared in the Financial Times