A crisis at The Royal Exchange and the threat to British theatre

'You can feel it around - the fear'

On Wednesday afternoon, the staff of the Royal Exchange Theatre were invited to join an all-hands Zoom call. Like all theatres, the Exchange has been empty for months, haemorrhaging money. “When I read that email, I kind of gathered that they were going to have to make redundancies,” says a junior technician at the theatre. But she didn’t anticipate the scale of them.

What her bosses sketched out on the call was nothing less than a decimation of the Exchange, one of this country’s most storied theatres. The theatre’s finances had collapsed during the lockdown, staff were told. More than 65 per cent of permanent roles might be made redundant. A formal redundancy consultation was initiated by email the next day. Every division at the Exchange has been told to nominate a rep to negotiate on their behalf.

“After it ended, it kind of just hit me that for the next year, I don’t know where my income is going to come from,” says the technician, who asked to remain anonymous. She says working at the Exchange was a dream come true for her. In the past few months she has been applying for jobs at temp agencies and schools. This week she has been looking at warehouses. The other industry where her skills are usually in demand is on cruise ships. But she says her greatest sympathy is with colleagues who are veterans of the Exchange. “One of the people I work with has been there for 20 years,” she says, “and it has hit her really hard.”

The news from the Exchange sounded like a fire bell in the night. It was a clarifying moment, showing the depth of the crisis in British theatre. As the lockdown has dragged on, figures like Judi Dench and Phoebe Waller-Bridge have warned about the peril facing the performing arts world. But the sight of a leading theatre dismantling itself in order to get through the winter has given the situation new urgency. When the Exchange posted its statement online, it was met with a flood of tweets. Many directed their fury at the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, whose government hasn’t given theatres a date for the resumption of live performances, or the support package that the industry has been lobbying for (and which many still hold out hope it will get).

Around the same time, Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre announced that it was closing its doors for good because a rescue package “didn’t come in time”. Last month, the Theatre Royal in Newcastle began the process of laying off half its staff. Theatre lovers may have to steel themselves for many more announcements likes these in the months ahead.

Every Monday, some of the leading lights of British theatre have been having their own Zoom call. It started early in the lockdown as a catch-up between about 25 friends, organised by the multi-award winning director Stephen Daldry (director of Billy Elliot) and David Lan, who for many years was the artistic director at the Young Vic. “Now it’s like 200,” says the actor and director Jo McInnes, who says the call now features people from dozens of smaller theatres too, all by invitation.

On the calls, the leaders of British theatre share their bad news and try to offer each other encouragement. “When you see Rufus [Norris, artistic director of the National Theatre] tell us that he is going to have to lay off a third of his staff, it’s devastating” McInnes told The Mill. She believes that if social distancing is enforced when theatres reopen for performances, a lot will go bust. “It’s so huge, my imagination can’t hold it,” she says. “You can feel it around - the fear.”

The main house at the Royal Exchange is the largest ‘theatre in the round’ in the country, with 750 seats over three levels. The last play it served up was Wuthering Heights, in a wild, raw interpretation of Emily Brontë's story by the theatre’s incoming artistic director Bryony Shanahan. “It’s quite an empowering experience to wake up every morning and go into work at that building,” says Leeds-born Rakhee Sharma, who played Cathy in that production, and won praise for her performance.

Rakhee Sharma in Wuthering Heights at the Royal Exchange Theatre earlier this year

“There’s a feeling of achievement from working at the Exchange,” she says. Before the Exchange was founded in 1976, the building was a cotton trading hall, known as the “biggest room in the world.” But despite its size, Sharma says the Exchange exudes warmth. “It is a theatre that has a lot of care,” she told The Mill, “there’s a lot of love.” The women who work in the green room are well known among actors for their supportiveness and “good banter”, she says. “I don’t think the people there see it just as a job.”

Manchester actor Grace Cordell, who has played multiple parts at the Exchange, including Susannah Walcott in The Crucible five years ago, agrees with Sharma. “It really began to feel like a family in what is usually such a lonely career,” says Cordell. She said she felt deeply for the Exchange’s staff when she heard the news this week. Sharma says she felt “absolutely gutted” about the redundancies. She has spent the past few months at home, trying to keep herself occupied by learning a new breathing exercise and practicing her Liverpool accent.

Like many professional actors, even ones who get leading parts in theatres like the Exchange, she has a second job - waitressing, which has obviously gone too. She told The Mill that the industry will lose talented people in the months ahead. “I’ve got some friends who are considering dropping it,” she says. “You’ve got to respect that. Even before the virus, this career is a really hard career.” Nevertheless, she is optimistic that the Exchange and the smaller theatres in the North will find a way through. “I have full faith in that,’ she says. “We are grafters.”

It doesn’t require an accountancy qualification to understand the plight of British theatres. They get much less public funding than their counterparts in France and Germany, and most have become more “commercial” in the past decade, meaning that they are less reliant on public funds and drive more of their revenue from tickets, restaurants and bar sales. Funding from the Arts Council has been roughly flat for a decade, meaning that when inflation is taken into account, theatres have had to fill a hole. The Exchange says public subsidy accounts for less than a quarter of its £10 million income. The sad irony that theatres who have been most successful at weaning themselves off public money are now the most exposed to the damage done by the lockdown has been widely noted. The Exchange’s public statement said its “dramatic loss of income” means that it has “no other choice than to scale back the organisation and reduce our overheads in order to survive.”

“I’m extraordinarily sad and worried for my colleagues and friends at the Royal Exchange,” says Roddy Gauld, chief executive of Bolton’s Octagon Theatre. Gauld hasn’t ruled out redundancies himself, and had to give that bracing message to his staff about a month ago, via video call. “You don’t want to alarm people but you have to be honest,” he says. “We aren’t keeping secrets from anyone. We are making every effort to avoid redundancies.” The virus hit just before The Octagon could complete a massive £12 million redevelopment. The first production was going to be One Man Two Guvnors, which was going to open in September but has now been postponed until June next year.

Gauld is still selling tickets for his Christmas Carol, but is waiting to see if it will be viable. Like many theatres, the Octagon only breaks even at 75 per cent occupancy, but Gauld has worked out that even one metre social distancing limits him to 50 per cent. Cancelling his first two productions is going to cost The Octagon about half a million pounds in lost revenue. But the real disaster will be cancelling Christmas. “For most theatres Christmas is the crucial time of year,” he told The Mill. “The income we get at Christmas is what sustains the organisation the year round. Not being able to do Christmas shows will have a massive hit for the industry.”

The actor Sophie Mercell Fagon, who is due to appear in this year’s panto at the Coliseum in Oldham, thinks many theatres will close if they can’t do their Christmas program. She grew up going to Chorley Little Theatre, and knows the value smaller theatres bring to their communities. “It brings people together,” she told The Mill. “It inspires, it educates, and it tells stories to people that they might never hear otherwise.”

Before coming to Bolton, Gauld used to work at the Arts Council, so he is keenly aware of how arts funding works in this country, and how thin the margins are for many theatres between survival and collapse. He remembers the industry’s struggles in the 80s and 90s, when famous theatres were closing, robbing communities - particularly those outside of London - of their cultural heritage. “What we mustn’t do is slip back into that period, when theatres were failing,” he says. Redundancies are on the minds of permanent staff at theatres across the country, but Gauld’s thoughts are also with the freelancers who make up around 70 per cent of the industry’s workforce, as actors, musicians, technicians and others. “These are people who have invested everything they have got to start these careers,” he says. “People are very fearful in our industry right now.”

Recently Gauld went to his nearly-finished Octagon building, a place that was supposed to be so full of life this month, as preparations got under way for the new season. He sat there alone, thinking. “There was a moment where I looked around our studio, and I looked at how big and spacious it is, and what a transformation it was, and I just thought: what an absolute pity.”

The Exchange politely declined to put up any of its employees for an interview, which is perhaps understandable given the extreme sensitivities of a redundancy process. But one of the theatre’s leaders said they were grateful for the coverage. “The situation for us and the theatre sector more widely is dire,” they wrote in a private message. “We need all the allies we can get.”

You can support the Royal Exchange here, and the Octagon here.

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