This month actor Mark Rylance was supposed to be wowing audiences from the stage of the Bristol Old Vic, one of the world’s most historic theatres, in the new play Semmelweis. Instead the venue, including the wonderfully-restored foyer with what was a vibrant cafe bar, is achingly empty.
“It’s feels very odd to walk around the place without people,” said the executive director Charlotte Geeves. “We can’t wait to welcome our audiences back here and get back to what we do. We see ourselves as a civic building. We are here for the people of Bristol. This theatre needs them back as soon as possible.”
This week Britain’s beleaguered arts and heritage sectors were promised £1.57bn of help in a long-awaited rescue package described by the government as the biggest one-off investment in UK culture. Ministers said it would protect the future of the country’s museums, galleries, theatres and music venues.
The announcement was largely welcomed by the sector but many industry figures have warned that the fund comes too late to save beloved cultural institutions from going bust and many people from losing their jobs. On Thursday the government announced that from this weekend outdoor theatres, opera, dance and music can resume as they take place with a limited and physically distanced audience.
The Bristol Old Vic is already tentatively talking to solo artists – and trying to engage with the government and Public Health England – to work out if there maybe a way of experimenting with putting on modest, safe shows, perhaps in the cavernous foyer later this summer.
“It’s inconceivable that we can start selling tickets for a Christmas show,” said Tom Morris, the artistic director of Bristol Old Vic. “But to be able to do experiments to take us towards that would be incredibly helpful.”
Morris described the size of the promised package as “amazing.” But he said it needed to come quickly. “We can’t complain about the scale of such an investment. But the longer it is until we know what support we have, the deeper the cuts we have to make. Anything that can speed up that process is hugely helpful.”
Bristol Old Vic has 60 members of staff and another 150 on freelance and zero hours contracts. Almost 90% are furloughed. The theatre is projected to make a loss of £400,000 this financial year.
A huge problem for the sector is that so many of those who work in theatre – from the actors to stagehands and set makers – are freelancers. The bottom line is that if there is no show for them to work on, they don’t get paid. The fear is that they may be lost to the industry forever.
The shadow culture secretary, Jo Stevens, was shown around Bristol Old Vic on Thursday. In the theatre’s intimate Weston Studio, she viewed a set built for the Patrick Marber play about non-league football, The Red Lion. The production was due to run from 11-28 March but had to be halted. The benches and lockers that represent the football dressing room are still in place, gathering dust.
Stevens said: “This money needs to be distributed as quickly as possible. I’m really concerned it’s not going to reach organisations until September, October time, by when they might be on to their second lot of redundancies. It’s people’s skills that make this industry so successful. Buildings are great but it’s the people we need.
“70% of theatre workers are freelancers. There’s a large number of people who have had no government support since the start of the crisis. Their voices are getting louder and more desperate. The government seems to think it’s a sector of the economy that can be ignored.”
Stevens wonders why, if people can get on passenger planes and go to pubs and restaurants in England, there is no firm plan, with dates, to get audiences inside theatres. “If there is evidence being used by the government to base their decision on, why not publish it.” She is also concerned that while the “crown jewels” – places like Bristol Old Vic – may survive, smaller theatres could be lost.
Across the city, at the Tobacco Factory theatre and arts space, the strange times are captured in the sight of props being stored in the otherwise empty bar. A oversize Jammie Dodger and tin of sardines from a production of The Borrowers are propped against the wall.
A chalkboard is still filled with the comments left by the last audience here who clearly enjoyed the production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. “Best play we’ve ever seen,” wrote one theatre-goer. “So moving, thank you,” wrote another.
“We can’t bear to rub them off,” said artistic director Mike Tweddle. “And we’re storing props in the bar to save money.”
The Tobacco Factory is much younger than the Old Vic (20 years against more than 254) and sees itself as a focal point for its south Bristol neighbourhood, which it has helped transform. It sees itself as a community theatre that stages world-class work.
It has just heard that it is receiving Arts Council England emergency funding that will help tide it over until the autumn and its loyal audience has donated £60,000, but on Thursday it was still talking to staff about redundancies.
“We need to make drastic decisions now,” said Tweddle. “It so sad. We’ve got such a wonderful team. The audiences are the lifeblood but the staff are the beating heart that make this place work. The announcements from the government are welcome but it’s about speed. We need help as soon as possible.”