The film and theatre director Sam Mendes has established an emergency fund for those theatre practitioners who have found themselves at “breaking point” after receiving no government support since the coronavirus crisis began to devastate their industry in mid-March. While the government’s announcement on Sunday of its £1.57bn rescue package focuses on protecting organisations and institutions, many of who rely on a huge freelance workforce, the fund launched by Mendes is designed to specifically assist those individual arts workers who are most in need – and to do as speedily as possible.
The Theatre Artists Fund promises quick access to one-off grants of £1,000 per applicant. “We have created a fund to which the most vulnerable freelance theatre practitioners can now apply,” said Mendes. “It is specifically designed for theatre workers who find themselves at breaking point, for those unable to put food on the table or to pay bills, or for those considering leaving the profession altogether.” The fund, said Mendes, “is not for buildings, or regular staff, but for freelance artists who actually make the shows that the public pay to see.”
It has been set up with an initial £500,000 donation from Netflix after Mendes called last month for the company to “use a fraction of their Covid-19 windfall” to support the performing arts. In an article for the Financial Times in June, Mendes warned of streaming services making “lockdown millions” while the theatre industry that nurtured today’s screen talent has been brought to its knees.
Mendes, who ran London’s Donmar Warehouse from 1992 to 2002 and directed theatre before beginning his Hollywood career with American Beauty (1999), has now praised Netflix’s “generosity and leadership”. He is calling on other companies, industry figures and charitable trusts to contribute to the fund. Thousands of theatre professionals in the UK are struggling, he said.
At the weekend, Equity’s general secretary, Christine Payne, warned that talent from across the creative industries would be forced out after such a period of financial strain and that “the first to leave the sector will be our BAME, female, disabled and working-class talent, worsening the diversity of the sector”. The Theatre Artists Fund’s guidelines similarly acknowledge that “those from underrepresented groups might have been disproportionately affected by the crisis”.
Many freelancers in the arts have fallen between the cracks in the self-employment income support scheme (SEISS) during the shutdown. The Theatre Artists Fund is designed to support those who have not been furloughed by employers, not received SEISS and have been unable to work since theatres closed in mid-March due to Covid-19. To be eligible for the fund, applicants must have worked in theatre between 1 January 2019 and 31 March 2020 and must prove they have limited savings. Applications for the first round of the fund open from noon on 6 July and remain open for one week; applicants should know the outcome by 27 July. A range of professions are eligible, from producers and prop makers to choreographers and comedians.
The Theatre Artists Fund has been set up with The Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre whose CEO, Julian Bird, called on companies and individuals “who have thrived in the sector and those who can’t imagine a future without theatre” to help sustain the fund. Anne Mensah, the vice-president of original series at Netflix, said that British theatre is a vital cultural force and she acknowledged how much talent emerges on stage. “We are deeply concerned by the challenges our friends in the theatre now face, especially in the regions, and the likely consequences for the diverse voices and stories at the heart of our culture.”
A huge number of the talents behind the TV hits of the lockdown period cut their teeth in theatre before working for the screen, including I May Destroy You’s creator Michaela Coel; the writer James Graham, whose ITV series Quiz was based on his own play about the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire scandal; and the writer Alice Birch, who co-adapted Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People for the BBC. In an article for the Guardian, the comedian Romesh Ranganathan wrote that the live comedy industry faced significant damage, that the most financially vulnerable comedians would leave the circuit altogether, and that it is worth remembering that “almost every comic performer you see on TV cut their teeth in the live arena, working the clubs and performing in theatres”.
Mendes’s Financial Times article in June was widely hailed for its practical propositions to steer theatre through the period of shutdown. As well as calling on streaming services to step up and support theatre, he proposed an increase in the rate for theatre’s tax-relief scheme, from 20% to 50%, and invited the government to become a “theatrical angel” akin to the private individuals who invest in productions and share in the profits of successful shows. “This is not a request for a handout, or for long-term life support,” he wrote, but rather an offer for the government “to become partners in a successful business”.