Brian Beacom

THEATRE has long utilised the ticking clock device to create a powerful dramatic narrative, in plays from Glengarry Glen Ross to The Thirty-Nine Steps.

But right now the clock is close to midnight for theatre itself, thanks to the Covid crisis, because we can’t assume the present closure only represents an interval. “The facts are that without a bit of help, 70 per cent of theatres will be closed by Christmas,” says playwright James Graham, who penned the Parliament-set hit, This House. “And they won't reopen."

James Graham isn’t being overly dramatic. The Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh has announced all jobs are at risk of redundancy and shows scheduled for this year have been scrapped.

Meanwhile, Pitlochry Festival Theatre is facing making 40 people redundant – and going out of business by the end of the year. Across Scotland, the business fears that re-openings will be ruled out until the spring of 2021 at the earliest.

The Tron Theatre in Glasgow has confirmed its 500-year-old doors won’t open again this year and its artistic director Andy Arnold warns of greater impact down the line. “The danger is that if a building is allowed to close, it will never open again. When the Arches (the popular Glasgow theatre he presided over previously) went bust we assumed some other cultural organisation would come in and take up the rent. But they never did. You can’t really allow a theatre to close.”

He adds: “We are luckier than some theatres because we only rely on half our income from box office. We have the subsidy which really helps us. But others are in a terrible position.”

Scottish theatres are trying desperately to save every penny, until such times as the doors can be opened safely. The King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, for example, is asking those who have already bought tickets to forego refunds. The Gaiety in Ayr is in a perilous position, as is the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen.

Producer Sonia Friedman, the talent behind West End hits such as The Book of Mormon and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, says that more than 1,000 theatres around the UK will be insolvent soon. “British theatre,” she said, “is on the brink of total collapse.”

The Ambassador Theatre Group is a hugely worrying case in point. ATG runs 47 theatres including the King's and Theatre Royal in Glasgow, and the Edinburgh Playhouse.

The company now has a net debt of £352m. And the worries are that the owners, the American equity company Providence, which owns ATG via two holding companies registered in the Cayman Islands, will sell its assets and move on.

ATG’s theatres in Scotland run on advance ticket sales. Without shows to sell the debt can’t be serviced. The furlough scheme is currently allowing for staff to be retained, but for how long?

Already, the theatres have had to cancel huge money-making shows this summer such as Carole King musical Beautiful, and Abba songsheet Mamma Mia! If panto doesn’t run there is a real fear for the business model. “The coronavirus has thrown businesses such as ATG, unable to access government-backed loans due to their high levels of debt, into crisis,” said business journalist Sabah Meddings this week.

But the worry over theatre extends beyond keeping buildings sound and paying the bills. The business threatens to lose the armies of lighting programmers, freelance writers and dancers, the sound system suppliers, the caterers and the lorry companies who transport sets. Some are facing millions of pounds of hire purchase debt on equipment and can’t make the payments. And if you have no set builders, trucking or sound companies there is no touring theatre.

There is no argument that theatre won’t be missed. Britain’s theatres draw audiences of 34 million each year – twice that of the English football Premier League. James Graham argues: “It's not that arts funding costs hospital beds. We can pay for hospital beds through our theatres and our films." (If the UK Government can back rugby league with £16m Covid funding, surely it’s easy to make a case for theatre?)

In the UK last year £1.3bn of tickets sales were sold. Andy Arnold says: "For every pound you put into the arts you get five pounds back.”

But theatre needs the majority of bums on seats. The break-even for most theatres is 60 per cent capacity. And even if you achieve this, how can you recreate public confidence when social distancing is relaxed? Actor David Tennant pointed out: “You’re asking people to pay a lot of money to potentially have someone coughing into their packet of boiled sweets and infecting them.” One independent producer in Scotland summed up the predicament: “How do you market yourself out of this shitstorm?”

Theatre organisations such as the Society of London Theatres – whose thoughts are echoed north of the border where funding is devolved – are arguing the business has to be a special case for extending the furlough.

The UK Government is now telling people to go back to work, but that can’t apply when the doors are closed. The theatres, it’s argued, need to be given insurance in the form of shortfall funding; if it costs £30k to put on a show and the company makes £20k then the government makes up the difference.

Time’s cruelty is conspiring against the survival of theatre in another form. It takes months of planning, sometimes a year, to bring a show to the stage.

Even if there are no more Covid-related deaths in Scotland this year and doors can be safely opened in the autumn, there will be a real shortage of shows. Certainly, the large-scale productions won’t be appearing. And the following year could conversely see a pile up of producers desperate to see their shows run.

Yet, there are signs for optimism. SOLT are currently trying to agree on principles whereby strict social distancing isn’t required, talking to public health agencies, to try and reopen in the autumn.

The idea is that audiences will receive advance health questionnaires. Queues can be distanced, temperatures taken, masks worn, skin covered, theatres deep cleaned and sanitised.

The optimists may well point to the South Korean case (which Australian theatre is now looking closely at) whereby the country managed to keep most of its large-scale venues open during the pandemic.

All audience members were required to have their temperature checked upon entry as was each member of the production cast and crew.

There are other positive signs. From next week, Italian theatres will reopen. And in London, the immersive production of The Great Gatsby is set to be performed in October, (capacity cut by 40 per cent, at a secret location) after closing in March.

What’s also clear is the likes of Glasgow City Council won’t be keen to see the King’s Theatre and Theatre Royal mothballed. These theatres are reckoned to make £1m profit a year, and if ATG do walk away, others will surely step in.

What’s obvious is there is an immense will to keep theatre’s heart beating in Scotland, until fully revived. One theatre producer is already making plans to borrow enough money to pay a cash-strapped sound company an advance on future engagements, in order to ensure their survival.

It’s not a plan formed on altruism; if the sound company goes out of business it will be next to impossible to find a substitute with the same skills.

Cameron Mackintosh says theatre won’t open again until spring of next year, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Andy Arnold says he’s ready to create theatre – in some form – just as soon as groups are allowed to form. “It won’t be people sitting together in rows, but we will find a way to make it happen, whether it’s promenade theatre or whatever.”

It may happen outdoors. It could be in a giant tent. “Initially, I may have to look at productions geared to younger people. They seem more likely to take the chance in coming to theatre. Younger people aren’t so frightened. They will go out there.”

He adds: “Theatre online is a substitute. But it’s not theatre. Live theatre has survived since Greek times because it’s so important to cultural life. It has to return. And I hope to be doing something by the autumn.”

Will Scottish councils take the chance on letting theatres close? “It’s a huge risk,” says Arnold. “Hopefully, the government will realise it’s just too big a price to pay.”

Theatre needs help to allow time to return. The Scottish Government said recently: “Working alongside [councils], Scottish Enterprise and Creative Scotland we are looking into what financial support can be offered.”

That, along with the work being done by pressure groups in London, has to be a positive.

Oscar Wilde wrote: “Theatre is the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

At this moment in time, Scotland is crying out for that shared experience. We have never needed theatre more, say those in our arts world. To escape with others. To marvel. To be provoked. To laugh, to cry. To sit in wonder at a performance. To wonder, sometimes, how a production ever made it to the stage.

Andy Arnold agrees. “The audience need that connection with the actors. The actors need to see those different faces every night. Nothing can replace that.”