Running a theatre under COVID-19

James Haddrell, artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

The challenges facing the UK economy as the COVID-19 crisis continues are being well documented on a daily basis, with premises closed, staff furloughed and production and distribution at a standstill across the country. Some businesses can operate in the remote way demanded by lockdown, but many cannot and theatre is among a group of industries arguably hit the hardest.

Most theatres operate on the basis of continuous cash-flow – not a healthy bank balance. Last month’s bills are paid with advance sales for next month’s shows. The model is not unusual, but is amplified in the not-for-profit sector where reserves are rare. Presenting theatres like Greenwich – those that rely on touring shows rather than having the flexibility afforded by making your own work – have been hit worst. According to analysis by arts management consultancy firm TRG Arts and data specialists Purple Seven, medium-sized presenting houses are most affected by COVID-19, losing 96% of income over the past month. A survey by the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre suggests that 80% of venues like Greenwich will struggle to survive if the shutdown extends beyond May.

At Greenwich Theatre this is particularly heart-breaking. We have worked for the past decade to clear an inherited deficit of a quarter of a million pounds, and we have done that in the face of continuously reducing grant income. Ten years ago, 60% of our income came from grants. Now that figure is less than 10%, but our reach, our artist support, our education work and the quality of our performance have all increased. We have found ways to replace half a million pounds per year, every year, of reduced grants, and to clear our debts at the same time. Now the current crisis threatens to put us back where we started, or worse.

We are not being passive in the face of this. We are engaging with audiences and artists through our online programme Greenwich Connects, while simultaneously working on a range of initiatives to protect our future. The local authority has agreed to pay our 2020-21 grant this month, rather than spreading it through the year, which will help with cashflow somewhat. Our creditors are working with us to ensure that everyone is paid over the course of the shutdown or in the period of reopening, and we are applying to the various grant schemes that have been launched to protect the industry.

However, if we are to retain any of the strength achieved over the past decade we also need the help of our audiences and our local supporters and partners. We know how difficult this time is for so many people, but anyone who feels able to help can either make a donation, buy a brick (and have their name permanently added to the fabric of our building), or become a Friend of the theatre and look forward to a range of discounts and benefits when we’re up and running again.

We have so much in the pipeline that we do not want to lose – new family theatre, a brand new musical, a range of exciting emerging theatre and of course our annual pantomime. We are excited to share it all with our audiences, and with their help we’ll be able to do just that.

For anyone who feels they can help – just email me at j.haddrell@greenwichtheatre.org.uk or contact me via any of the theatre’s social media channels. I have never spent a period this long without interacting with our audiences – I’d love to chat.


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