Neal Street News

Sam Mendes: re-open theatres without distancing — or risk disaster

As printed in The Times, 24th July 2020 

The director and former theatre boss tells Dominic Maxwell how his crisis fund for freelancers has run dry — and why the government must scrap the 1 metre rule by December. 

Five months ago the director Sam Mendes was scooping up Baftas for his First World War film 1917. Soon afterwards, the sky fell in on the world as we know it. Mendes’s response has been to spend the past few months devoting himself to his first love, theatre; or rather to the lack of any theatre in the time of Covid-19. He’s spent time lobbying the government to help keep theatre from outright ruin and setting up a charity, the Theatre Artists Fund, designed to help the freelancers he fears will fall through the cracks of any state handout. In the process he’s come to a firm conclusion about what theatre needs to do to survive. It must reopen, without social distancing, in time for Christmas — or risk oblivion.

“There will be no ‘back to normal’,” says Mendes. “That is not going to happen. This obsession with ‘well, when things are back to normal’. No. Everything has changed. There will be a fundamental change in the way we live. We have to imagine a different future. And the theatre is no different — its future has to be reimagined so that it is practical, safe and coherent.

“My feeling now is that what is necessary is a hard date for reopening, which I feel should be December 1 this year. We have to give a date for theatres and artists to work towards. Then we have a series of practical safety measures to achieve before that date. So that if people choose to come to the theatre they must wear a mask, they have their temperature checked, the auditorium is disinfected every day and the rest. Then it is a matter for personal choice. If they can choose whether or not to get on a plane or go to a restaurant, they should be allowed to choose whether or not to step inside a theatre.”

By that time wearing a mask indoors should feel a lot more normal than it does now. “I know I have no problem with it myself. It’s a small price to pay for the pleasure of sitting in an audience again.” And while a lot of the debate up till now has been about reopening theatre in a socially distanced way, Mendes suggests that such measures can only be a sideshow. Social distancing means playing to 30 per cent capacity. “You have to basically agree to lose money. The moment you reopen you’re pouring money down the drain.”

He appreciates the difficulties the government faces, yet he thinks it’s “laughable” that it gave theatres two weeks’ notice to reopen — with the right precautions in place — on August 1. “Who’s going to make these performances, you know, how are you going to start the theatres? You can’t just switch it on like a television set. Time needs to be allowed to make it work.”

Mendes, 54, is speaking on Zoom, giving away only a bare wall of the home in Gloucestershire he shares with his wife, the trumpeter Alison Balsom, and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Phoebe. He had been planning to take time off this year after the release of 1917 and the Broadway transfer of his most recent London play, The Lehman Trilogy. “Not like this, though,” he says. As it happened he had to go to New York to pull the plug on the show after four preview performances in March, when the city’s theatres all closed. As he saw the damage to the theatre industry, however, he felt something needed to be done. Even through his film career, which began triumphantly with American Beauty in 1999 and led up to huge box-office success with the Bond films Skyfall and Spectre, he kept alive his career as a theatre director.

And he argues that because he has worked in the commercial sector — he directed the West End production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory between Bond films — as well as working for the RSC and the National Theatre and running the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden from 1990 to 2002, he was well positioned to make theatre’s case. Being best known as a film director now also suggests he has no axes to grind.

“I’m not in danger of someone saying ‘yeah and he would say that wouldn’t he because he runs, you know, the National Theatre or the Old Vic’. And I felt from the start [the government reaction to the crisis] was very slow-moving and vague. And I still feel that. One is immensely positive about the [£1.57 billion] rescue package that was given to the arts. But it remains unclear how that money is going to be used, and it remains an issue that so many people who make the work are being overlooked.”

He adds: “I just thought I’ve got to be able to look myself in the mirror at the end of all this and know I’ve done everything I can.”

At the start of June he wrote an article in the Financial Times asking for a concerted collaboration between the government and the private sector to save theatre. He also pointed out that there are almost 300,000 people employed in the theatre industry, 70 per cent of whom are self-employed. “And none of this money appears to be going to them,” he says now. “If footballers were self-employed, it would be as if the stadium were fully staffed but with no one to play football. In the theatre, if we’re not careful, we will have some very healthy accounts departments but there’ll be nothing on stage.”

Part of his FT argument was that streaming services such as Netflix, which had been one of the few parts of showbiz to prosper during lockdown, should give something back to the industry. When this got reported as “Mendes calls upon Netflix to help British theatre” he decided that he’d do well to actually call upon Netflix. He rang Netflix’s boss, Ted Sarandos. They had a ten-minute conversation. A couple of weeks later Netflix agreed to donate £500,000 to kickstart the Theatre Artist Fund, which sets out to give £1,000 grants to freelancers who don’t otherwise get any financial support.

Since then he has raised another £1.1 million, including donations from actors including Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Craig, Imelda Staunton, Colin Firth, Hugh Jackman, Hugh Bonneville and Eddie Redmayne. However, the fund has just dished out its first grants but has been able to help less than half of the 4,000 applications so far. He hopes to raise another £3 million. How do they determine who deserves help? The applications are vetted, he says: there is a long application form to fill out so that the money doesn’t go to “white middle-class people living in north London who’ve got no wifi signal”.

He is quick to admit, though, that it’s an emergency bailout, not a long-term solution. “It’s really food bank money. It’s basically money to stay alive.” Part of the reason showbiz figures donate, he suggests, is that they know how thin the line is between success and failure.

“And I think a lot of those people, including myself, see themselves when they were younger. We realise that had this been us when we were 21 or 22, we wouldn’t have made it. I myself wouldn’t have made it. I would have done something else. Who knows, maybe I would have followed my other true love and become a cricket commentator. But I wouldn’t have been working in the theatre. I wouldn’t have been able to afford to.”

So, yes, the money is a “drop in the ocean”. It’s specific and it’s doable, though, he says. “When I started to get involved, I felt that there was a great danger, as there sometimes is in the arts, that it might become a chorus of hand-wringing. And I wanted to present a series of practical solutions for how one might fix it. We need to think about the future as a series of practical solutions, rather than simply saying ‘give us more money’. The [government] money has been given. Now it’s about how the money is used.”

Things will be tight, however much gets donated, however much gets subsidised. The Department for Culture, Media and Sports Committee suggested on Wednesday that theatre had lost £630 million so far. Mendes argues that we have to get past “a nostalgic cry in the dark for what we’ve lost”, however. Fewer cultural organisations will mean fewer job opportunities will mean intensified competition for what work there is. “And the people who win those competitions will be people with the economic resources to survive. And in terms of diversity, in terms of minorities, you do the math. Generally speaking, a lot of the work that has been done to try and create diverse audiences and artists is going to be seriously damaged. Balance is going to have to be somehow maintained. And that’s going to be hard, because there’s fewer jobs to go around, and because some theatres will close.”

He is looking forward to being able to get back to directing again, once his stint of activism is over: but, no, he says, he’s not available to direct panto this Christmas, even if the theatres do reopen when he thinks they should. He is, however, keenly looking forward to getting into a theatre auditorium again. It won’t be wholly without risk, but then nor is leaving your home. So are there even any grounds for optimism, amid all this carnage? He thinks there might be.

Theatres will need to streamline their administrative side more, co-operate with each other more, work even harder to win people back with “work that has to be consistently brilliant. I also think people are recognising, after long periods of not having the theatre, what it means to them, and why it’s important in their lives. Why it’s one of the few things that gives them joy, and gives them a reason to get up in the morning.

“I’ve never wanted to be in a crowd more than I do now. I watched my team Arsenal make it to the FA Cup final the other day and I thought, I cannot wait to be in that crowd again. Now let’s try to make it happen.”

Click here to donate to the Theatre Artists Fund.