"We are not worried about the future. We are just worried about getting there." Philip Bernays, Chief Executive of the Theatre Royal, Newcastle talks to Sophie Swift on coping with the Coronavirus pandemic.
Since the UK went into lockdown, the world has become a vastly different, and often difficult place to inhabit. People were forced to spend more time indoors and work from home where possible. Many businesses had to adapt their trading methods or stop working altogether. These issues have weighed heavily upon the UK’s theatre industry and have now reached breaking point. By the end of 2020 it has been predicted that 70% of the UK’s theatres could be closed for good and this is a problem that needs to be addressed quickly.
On 29th May, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and UK Theatre submitted a paper to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport informing them of the current circumstances theatres across the UK are facing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The paper presents two main points. It acknowledges that social distancing in theatres cannot work. The Theatre Royal Newcastle can hold up to 1247 paying customers, but with social distancing measures it can only hold 350. As a result, theatres across the UK would make huge losses and would not generate enough income to cover the costs of the shows they are offering. SOLT and UK Theatre have requested financial support from the government to help “plug the gap” as Philip Bernays, Chief Executive at the Theatre Royal Newcastle points out. The aid, if offered by the government, will give theatres much needed support between furlough ending and theatres opening.
Although theatres may not be at the top of the Government’s concern list amid a global pandemic, they should be. Across the UK, theatres contribute substantially to the social, cultural and educational sectors of our society. Theatre is a massive part of our national identity and contributes heavily to the British economy. More people see a theatre show each year than attend all league football matches in the whole of the UK. At the Theatre Royal Newcastle, they have more ticket holders than St James’ Park, making theatre bigger than football. The theatre industry adds greatly to tourism and to the UK’s night-time economy; around 37,000 people see a show in the West End every night and a quarter of audience members are from overseas. Not only do these figures illustrate the importance of theatre in the UK culturally, but they also outline the economic impacts we could face if 70% of our theatres close.
I spoke with Philip Bernays from the Theatre Royal to discuss these issues and how they may impact the North East. Having held the position at the theatre since 2005 and being one of UK Theatres’ board members, Philip knows the industry well. He commented on how “blessed” we are in Newcastle to be surrounded by five incredibly different theatres; as well as admitting that “there would be a real hole without the Royal” and that “Newcastle would not be the same sort of city it once was and wants to be”. Philip acknowledged that he was fearful for the theatre when saying “we are not worried about the future, we are just worried about getting there”. Although theatre buildings can reopen from 4th July, live performances are not allowed. Ultimately the Theatre Royal requires the confidence of the public to get them through this difficult time; they need tickets to be sold. Performances have been cancelled until 24th November 2020, there are many shows available for 2021, when hopefully the worst of the coronavirus pandemic will have subsided. The Theatre Royal also takes donations via their Acts of Kindness’ programmes, which offer more creative ways to give, such as seat naming and joining the Friends of the Theatre Royal community group.
When the pandemic entered our daily lives in March it felt as though the world had stopped turning. As the restrictions are slowly lifting, we have the opportunity to decide how the future could look and we must take steps to ensure that theatres are part of that future. The Theatre Royal first opened its doors to the public of Newcastle in 1788, please do not let them close in 2020.