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Arts of the UK 2020: An Interview with Theatres Trust Director Jon Morgan on saving the theatres of the UK

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LONDON – Dedicated to saving the theatre spaces, Theatres Trust, the national advisory public body for theatres, has a role that’s more important than ever in times of crisis. With the news being published that a £1.57 billion rescue package will be used to help the arts, Theatres Trust is now able to put forth more help when it comes to advice, upskilling and giving grants to help companies cover additional costs. But will it be enough?

We spoke to Theatres Trust director Jon Morgan, and found out more about Theatres Trust’s plans ahead, and how their presence will slowly but surely play a key part in maintaining the state of the arts in the UK. Read the interview in full below:

 

Bakchormeeboy: When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK, what was Theatre Trust’s immediate reaction, knowing that the performing arts scene would likely be greatly affected? 

 

Jon: We reprioritised our work to focus on responding to the pandemic. Our immediate concerns were to support theatre operators to manage their buildings through the lockdown and help them to update their business plans to sustain them through the lockdown, alongside lobbying the government for support for the sector. 

 

Bakchormeeboy: Theatres Trust has primarily been about preserving and maintaining theatre buildings. How has your role pivoted since the COVID-19 pandemic? How does Theatres Trust have the capacity to expand its responsibilities? 

 

Jon: Our role continues to be to protect and promote theatre buildings so that everyone can access theatre where they live. Theatres are community as well as creative hubs that support inclusion and wellbeing and contribute to the local economy.  We must ensure that the UK’s wonderful network of over 1,100 theatres large and small, old and new, can be saved and serve their communities once again.

So although our core role has not changed, in response to the crisis we have introduced new support and advice services focusing on helping theatres avoid insolvency and intervening when they do, worked with partners to lobby government for support for the sector and, as part of the Events and Entertainment Working Group, contributed to guidance for the safe reopening of venues.

Our small team is working incredibly hard to deliver all these extra initiatives alongside our core planning and advice work, but we have also received generous support from a number of sources to help us with some aspects of these new delivery areas.

Bakchormeeboy: Eventually, the way theatres operate in the wake of the pandemic is likely to change immensely, particularly when it comes to reduced seating due to distancing measures. What do you foresee as the future challenges that theatres will be facing, and how will Theatres Trust assist in those fields

Jon: I suspect that many theatres will choose to ‘mothball’, either fully or partially, for the duration of social distancing unless government can be persuaded that the mitigating hygiene measures that the Palladium and others are trialling are sufficient to allow performances without social distancing.  

But that does not mean they will or should be completely inactive.  Many will choose to reopen parts of their building to do workshops and to offer communal spaces for formal and informal social groups and many will find creative ways to put on shows with social distancing, including outdoors, site-specific, and immersive.  

I think there will be a greater emphasis on the small, the bespoke and the local.  It will be an opportunity for theatres to further embed themselves in their local community and to be more responsive and ‘democratic’ in the way that they engage with audiences and users.  Theatres in towns and cities across the UK will strengthen their role as important civic as well as cultural spaces.

Bakchormeeboy: Could you tell us more about the new initiatives that Theatres Trust is rolling out during this period, and what were the issues that the organisation saw that led to the creation of these initiatives?

Jon: We have developed a rapid intervention initiative to contact all stakeholders when sadly a theatre goes into administration to help explore ways of reopening those theatres and are currently in discussion around the four that have closed so far.

Thanks to some generous funders we have also been able to expand our advisory team with David Jubb, ex Artistic Director and CEO of Battersea Arts Centre, joining us to offer in-depth support and advice to theatres exploring new business models to survive the crisis.  He will be aided by many of our generous corporate supporters as part of our Skills Bank, offering pro bono advice on areas ranging from buildings management through to legal and insurance issues.  

Alongside calling for the very welcome government support announced recently, we have also successfully lobbied for changes to planning law which will provide extra protections to prevent vacant theatres from being demolished or irreversibly changed into other uses before the sector has had time to recover.

We are also fundraising to increase our grant giving capacity and will be targeting grants to help theatres with reopening costs in due course.

Bakchormeeboy: Considering it’s an organisation that isn’t just restricted to a city, but the entire UK, what are some of Theatres Trust’s own challenges that you face, especially considering how initiatives such as grants were already oversubscribed even before the pandemic began? How do you see yourselves working towards overcoming these challenges? 

Jon: We are a small organisation with limited resources, but as I’ve mentioned we have a number of very dedicated supporters and funders many of whom have been able to give us extra funding or in-kind support so we can continue and expand our work at this vital time.

One of the biggest challenges is just how fast-moving the situation is both on the ground and politically.  Keeping up with and responding to issues in the sector and developments in government is more than a full time job right now!

Our grants programme is always oversubscribed and we anticipate even more demands in the coming months but are hopeful we can raise more funds.  However, our grants programme is relatively modest and given the historic under investment in our nation’s theatres over the last 30 years the shortfall is huge.  Theatres are going to need a real injection of cash post-COVID to ensure our theatres remain fit for purpose.

Bakchormeeboy: The concept of space is always changing in the realm of performing arts, with traditional theatre spaces often coming at a premium. How do you envision the reliance on traditional theatre spaces will change in time to come, and as the industry expands into the digital realm will there ever be a time when theatre transcends the need for a physical space

Jon: Theatre makers are always pushing the boundaries of space and making exciting work which challenges traditional concepts of theatre, whether that is in the digital sphere or site specific, pop-up and immersive theatre. The lockdown and no doubt the recovery will stimulate further experimentation in this field.  The challenge for theatre buildings which are essentially ‘fixed’ for the most part is how to design in flexibility to accommodate these innovations. 

But there will also always be an important place for more ‘traditional’ theatres.  Actor and director, Mark Rylance talks about the importance of the ‘O’ shaped theatre as a natural storytelling space, not just the Globe in London, but many of our fine theatres have the audience arranged in a way that the seats bend round to ‘hug’ the stage and that will continue to be an intense and thrilling style of performance and shared experience.    

And the digital is a wonderful addition to our theatre making armoury, but it will never replace live performance.  Nothing compares to the sheer excitement and joy of witnessing a live performance surrounded by hundreds of others responding as one to the magic created on stage! 

Bakchormeeboy: Can you comment on the £1.57b package announced to assist the arts scene in the UK. How helpful would this be and for how long can this last? How do you think it will be divided between the bigger and smaller theatre companies across the UK?

Jon: We welcome the government rescue package for culture.  We don’t yet know how it will be allocated but I hope it will look at the whole ecology of theatres including regional and small community theatres.  These theatres are often at the heart of their local community, attract a wide demographic and provide support and platforms for emerging artists and practitioners.

Extremely welcome though the government support is, it only takes us through to March 2021 and is focused on stopping theatres closing down permanently.  We need to think about what support theatres are undoubtedly going to need beyond next March and also to push for support which takes us beyond just ‘survival’ to fuel a sector ‘revival’.  

Quite apart from being a public good in their own right, theatres are at the core of regenerating our towns and cities, animating the high street and supporting myriad local businesses. An investment in our theatres to ensure they remain fit for purpose, accessible, inclusive, environmentally friendly spaces which meet the needs of their communities will make a major contribution to the UK’s overall recovery post-COVID.

Find out more about Theatres Trust and their initiatives on their website here

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