Context – This event came out of a conversation with freelancers who felt isolated and frustrated at not knowing what venues were thinking or having to consider (and how that would impact them in their careers). One freelancer described the situation as being on a “long haul flight without knowing where you are going or how long you’ll be up in the sky”.
* Freelancers were an Agent, Choreographers, Composers, Directors, Musicians, Performance Artists, Performers, Playwrights, Producers, Production Managers, Sound Engineers, Stage Managers, Storytellers, Theatre makers and Dance artists.
** Venues represented were Aberdeen Performing Arts, Dundee Rep Theatre & Scottish Dance Theatre Limited, Lyth Arts Centre, Perth Theatre, Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, Tron Theatre.
The Meeting was facilitated by Caitlin Skinner.
These notes have been anonymised – removing all names, cities, & local authorities.
We wanted to create a space where everyone could speak honestly about their situation in order to develop our shared understanding of what is happening to our sector.
Questions issued in advance to the venue representatives (submitted by attendees).
REOPENING / TIMESCALES
Do you have rough timescales for:
- For venue staff / programming departments? Box office opening?
- For rehearsals / R&D time and space?
- For public opening perhaps with a programme ensuring social distancing.
- For audiences to return as they did previously.
- Are you programming work of any sort at the moment?
- What kinds of work are you imagining that you will be programming in the short to medium term?
- Are you thinking about digital projects?
- Are you thinking about outdoor work?
WORKING WITH ARTISTS / FREELANCERS
- How will you collaborate with artists to reimagine the future?
- How will you communicate the changing situation to freelancers?
- If you are offering call outs during this time of uncertainty, how are you mitigating unpaid submission hours and the negative impact of rejection on freelancers?
- Which positive practices will you be adopting moving forward, in order to improve how you collaborate with artists?
(e.g. – slow touring, four-day week, allowing working from home)
- Understanding that performance makers and playwrights will be imaginative and resourceful, what sort of parameters should we be thinking about to inspire ideas?
NOTES FROM THE MEETING
Scottish Theatre & Dance overview
There are two major challenges for the sector.
- The economic crisis – the viability of what we do has been compromised – theatre and performance is about being close together.
- The public health crisis – considering the current guidance that has been published includes a route map with no timelines and a lot of conditions that have to be met, it’s hard to interpret the conditions that will allow the industry to resume ‘business as normal.’
Communication in/amongst the sector
- Part of the tension that has emerged is because not everyone can say what is going on because we’re all (as an organisation or an individual) having to navigate really extreme financial conditions and work out the viability of what it is you do. And because of the nature of it working it out you can’t really say or share what’s going on.
- Many of us representing venues today have been freelancers and will be freelancers again in the future, so there’s a real deep understanding of how soul destroying this period is with cancelled projects being cancelled and uncertainty over future work and careers.
- I wanted to start by apologising that we haven’t really as a sector been great at communicating with the freelance community certainly at our venue. I think we could have done better. I hope this is the beginning of better communication.
Scottish Government’s Route Map
- The route map doesn’t mention theatre in any of the phases.
- Some are interpreting the Route Map to mean that larger mid to large-scale auditoria-based performance is unlikely until phase 4.
- In phase 3 may allow opportunities for some sort of performance opportunities depending on guidance.
- In Phase 3 our staff will be able to get back in our building. We can work with our artists, actors and freelancers with all the appropriate measures put in place, but we will not be able to have audiences there in the conventional sense. Lots of R&D. Maybe some industry invited guests could attend sharings as part of the R&Ds.
- We’re looking at how we resume our residency programme but looking at the route map mixed occupancy is not allowed until Phase 4 so if we are doing residencies this year, they’d have to be household companies or individual artists.
- I’m hoping we’ll get back in the theatre in the autumn. If we can get the public in one way or another, we will, and we will get artists working in the place. We’ll be inviting theatre companies to come and use our spaces to come and develop work in the autumn to get the building going again.
Federation of Scottish Theatre (FST) & UK Theatre advocacy
- FST has been liaising with Creative Scotland and Scottish Government (SG) throughout the crisis, ensuring that both bodies understand the sector’s position.
- FST has written to Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop on 17 June with a very clear ask of what will be required for the sector over the next two years to ensure stability and make sure a restart is possible and outlining the contribution that theatre and dance make to Scotland.
- Meeting with FST and Cabinet Secretary w/c 8 June – since we know that timelines cannot be giving for opening, are we able to provide more clarity by giving a “not before” date, so we know that theatres are not guaranteed to open on that day but we do have the clarity of knowing that they won’t open before that date.
- SG has said that there is no money in government right now. They have an element of loan finance which organisations are very wary of (as EdFringe have received).
- UK Theatre has been lobbying DCMS (UK Government’s Department of Culture Media and Sport) to lobby the UK Treasury to come up with a meaningful package for theatre and dance across the UK.
- DCMS guidance for Performing Arts sector is nearing completion.
- At the moment SG are saying that they wouldn’t rewrite DCMS’ guidance for the sake of it, once its published (whilst recognising that public health advice, and the political response and decision-making based on that advice, is devolved so Scotland might well continue to be different from the other parts of the UK)
- FST Members have been liaising with SG to ensure there will be clear guidance on what the conditions have to be for us to get back into studios and rehearsal rooms and then, in the fullness of time, into touring and presentations.
- It feels like the next 2-4 weeks are critical (18 June – 17 July) on the lobbying front to know either way to know what money might come through in order to stabilise the sector, and in terms of the guidance so that we’re clear on the physical conditions that have to be met.
Venues figuring out how to survive
- Things are really difficult for us. Not all theatres are in the same position, we all have different funding models, we all have different ways of making income.
- We are down 70% of our income because most of our income comes through ticket sales.
- This gives you an indication of just how fragile an organisation like ours is – one that depends so much on income from our presented work (conferences, bar, catering, tribute bands).
- Every venue is in a different situation. Our situation was really grim, really quickly because our economic model is about 70-75% box office, which vanished overnight.
- The economics of our theatre were incredibly precarious and reliant on a huge amount of audience coming in and future investment that has just been demolished and washed away.
- How are we going to get through what we estimate will be a three year period of disruption because:
- We know we won’t be back in the theatre until spring 2021 or possibly later.
- We then have a recovery season where we would make work at a small scale and hopefully bring people back, trying not to bankrupt ourselves
- Then hopefully we’ll have built up enough resource that we could have another season which we would then hope to be operating at something like the previous level.
- Once we get the organisation onto a stable financial footing is then to start looking at what kind of work that we can do.
- Each venue is on a bit of spectrum. We range from being in a relatively stable position to others who are making heart breaking decisions and there are other organisations like us who are facing insolvency and figuring out how to cope with that situation.
- We sell more than 400,000 tickets every year. We have a trading arm that manages two cafes, two restaurants and six bars. We do all that with just more than 10% public subsidy. Almost everything is ticket sales is earned through ticket sales and trading income. The impact of the Covid-19 situation has been instant and devastating. We’ve cancelled or rescheduled 350 performances which equates to 100,000 tickets worth nearly £3Million. We are fighting for the survival of our organisation. We’re applying for grants, lobbying whatever we can. We’ve brought in more than £800,000 (including £70,000 of donations from customers). Our organisation is in a precarious position. I’m sharing this to answer the question – what venues are thinking – this is all we’re meaningfully thinking about at the moment.
- We’re the same but different. Our struggle at the moment is planning beyond this year and we think we will survive this year but beyond that it is really tricky to say.
- We’ve been meeting colleagues in museums and galleries sectors and they’re definitely further ahead. They have technical guidance about how to run the building safely and use them differently. Their plans are quite evolved so there’s something about draw on their guidance as to how to use foyer spaces, allow backstage tours, and do what a number of museums and galleries have managed to do is work out how to monetise what is essentially a free experience. I think that’s something we need to keep an eye on – we need to keep monetising where possible so that the theatre public and new audiences get used to having to pay for some of this along the way. We don’t want to be in a scenario where people are out of that habit and there’s potentially less money in the public pot too.
Theatre with social distancing
- Can we do theatre with social distancing? What happens if an actor gets a cough? Does the whole company go into isolation? It’s not possible economically for a theatre like ours to only have a fifth of our seats available. There’s added costs with cleaning and setting up the structure. Leaving aside the question of whether it’s actually an attractive invitation to people to come spend time indoors together during a pandemic. So, when will social distancing end? Maybe the end of the calendar year but the only thing that can really stop it is the invention of a vaccine or a cure. We know that this is going to take place for an indefinite period of time.
- We did an initial analysis of one venue, with two metre social distancing and we were forced to reduce the capacity to 18%. And that doesn’t take account of small foyers, toilets and bars.
- Social distancing in our theatre isn’t going to be possible. It’s difficult to make it work normally anyway.
- I’m desperately hoping social distancing will be gone by the end of the year.
Post-pandemic theatre audiences
- A lot of those are new audiences engaging online. We’re really hoping that they don’t stay virtual. That we can take them with us back into the theatre when it reopens.
- We know that following other periods of theatre closures including other pandemics we know that audiences have only ever come back at 30-50% of their previous rates.
Staffing / furlough scheme
- Only 3 staff remain. Everyone else is furloughed, including me.
- There’s just 6 of us running the entire organisation now. Everyone else has been furloughed for weeks.
- We have a bare bones staff still working.
- Everybody’s ripped up their job description and is doing what’s necessary.
- We have 1 box office person processing all of those tickets (100,000). We’ve closed our phone line.
- 96% of our 300 employees are furloughed.
- Everyone in our team is furloughed except for 2 of us who are furloughed on a rotating basis. One member of staff started her new job with us on the first day of lockdown so she’s had a real baptism by fire. We think we’re going to start bringing back some of the team on a part-time basis, working from home from August. Work and planning for 2021 and any winter or Christmas activities.
- All our freelance staff are paid until the end of this month and our sessional staff are on furlough as well.
Venues approaches to planning / responding to the crisis
- We committed to honouring all of our freelance contracts until the end of June including projects that hadn’t even started, we were glad to be able to do that, but it’s about what happens next.
- Asking ourselves: What is our purpose as a sector? What type of work do our audiences want and what do they need?
- Asking ourselves: What is our civic function?
- We are fighting for the survival of our organisation.
- We’re just thinking more and more about our role in the community and our civic role.
- It’s a need that frontline services have seen and they’re approaching the arts as people that can potentially fill soe of those gaps which is really interesting.
- It feels like a really exciting opportunity to reimagine how we work and how we programme. We really want that kind of community engagement to be at the heart of what we do.
- The situation was bad enough before all this happened, and all theatre artists are struggling but I was really conscious of the lack of work there was for actors in Scotland. I wanted to meet new performers and so I put a call out for performers based in our area, were on Spotlight and who I had never cast or auditioned before and I got 420 self-tapes submitted on that basis. Then we auditioned 40 of them. Other directors were involved so it was really worthwhile, and we hope to see them on stage in the spring.
- The most important thing is to get work going.
Venues focus on local communities and local artists
- A key focus for us has been community engagement and programmes of resilience.
- Planned a series of micro-commissions from local artists for pop-up work outside. We’ll do call outs for these to local artists.
- What can we do to support the concerns of the immediate area and the council’s immediate concerns? We’re looking at what is happening in schools and what is happening in care homes where we might be able to provide support.
- One of the big problems that we’re just about to face is schools going back and all sorts of different conversations about it – kids attending one week out of three or every other day, or one day a week. There’s a gap there that it’s useful to pay attention to.
- It’s all going to have to be very local because we can’t even factor in an overnight with us at the moment. Not safely.
- If we do hold any events this year they’ll likely be outdoors, with a focus on local artists in the autumn and wintertime.
- The locality of it and the possible global international reach of online are room for hope, quietly.
- I don’t feel like theatre can only be live. I think there’s a massive opportunity in online interactive work and there’s an intimacy there that we should be grabbing hold of and running with. There’s an opportunity to access audiences that we’ve not accessed before. I don’t want to be cynical about that. I want to try and use it.
- We want to do online work both audio and video. I think there is possibility of making online work theatrical. We’ve been thinking about the power of theatre – ephemerality, liveness, event. So, on this date we’ll have 650 seats available and you have to pay for a seat or some of you will have to pay for a seat and we won’t stream it endlessly after.
- We have found that there is extensive digital poverty across our community. So digital work would need to be outdoors and in the public realm. We’re not averse to working with artists digitally.
- We’re doing it. We got involved. We’ve done workshops and classes and a big national project but as soon as we can do live work we will be.
- The reason why theatre has remained the same format since the ancient Greeks, and it survived the advent of magic lanterns and the radio and silent movies and television is because the extraordinary unique experience of an audience congregating in a room with performance, every performance being different for the performers and for the audience. And that can never be replicated any other way.
- We’re exploring the idea of an alternative Christmas offer. There are many challenges with that and risk.
- We have every intention of making the panto happen – but it may not. It probably won’t happen. Actually, it almost definitely won’t happen in the form it has happened in before. We’re trying to figure that out.
- Christmas is major. The loss of Christmas is an absolute devastation to every theatre but to us it’s like kicking us when we’re down because Christmas pays for the rest of the season. If I know that we can open Christmas of 2021 and I know that people will come that’s when I’ll truly believe that our theatre is fully reopened again, because that will be the biggest single symbol of us being ‘back’.
- We have some thoughts about Christmas offer – it will probably be online.
- Christmas is massive for us. The net income we generate from panto is more than our public subsidy for the whole year. It’s critical for us – we haven’t entirely given up on it – except that we have and it’s devastating.
- We’ve cancelled our panto – we’d rather postpone until next year. We still hope to have a Christmas event of some sort.
- We’re pencilling work from late spring 2021 onwards but all that is subject to phasing.
- We have tentative pencils for the spring.
- We’re not programming dates just now. We’re developing elements of new works. Once more information is released, we will work that into more of a programme.
- We have no planned productions at all.
- There is little to no prospect of reopening in 2020 and certainly no prospect of it happening for us with social distancing measures in place.
- We don’t know how to plan when we currently don’t know how to get to the end of the year. We have huge arts organisations seriously at risk.
- We’re not proactively programming anything at the moment. We are assembling the jigsaw puzzle of the existing program and trying to retain as much as we can. Going forward we’ve been able to reschedule about 50% of what has been cancelled so far. We’re trying to accommodate new dates for as much as we possibly can. Having said that, I’m keen to hear from people who have productions in place and I’m happy to have conversations about future programming, albeit with that massive caveat of our present situation.
- Two festivals have already been cancelled and I suspect a third is likely to follow. We’re trying to maintain engagement with the sector and our audiences.
- We’re not considering any digital work or any outdoor work because we just don’t have the cash.
- We have suspended all our programming and we don’t anticipate opening this year. Were currently planning, looking at resuming activity in March 2021.
- Our existing audiences are 100% up for going out to outdoors stuff which is great to hear but they are not willing to book for paid events, so that’s interesting and we’re thinking how we balance that.
- We’re not actively programming in the same way we used to right now, especially as we don’t have any funding secured for a public programme next year – we can’t commit. We are happy to discuss pencils but, on the understanding, that they are very, very tentative.
- We’re definitely interested in outdoor work that can work across a landscape.
- It does look like we will be reducing the number of touring work presentations that we do. We’re going to develop a new programme strategy and policy.
- We want our programme to include anti-racism and social justice and local issues too.
- We’ve cancelled or postponed our spring summer season. Next year will likely be a rerun of 2020.
- In spring 2021 we have a full programme worked out – none of it can be contracted until we know it’s definitely happening. Financially we might know in the autumn but if there’s a second wave – so we may need to include a clause in the contract that says, “subject to government shut down.”
- We’re thinking in ever-increasing circles of engagement. Starting very small and making work which is for care homes and gradually upscaling as we go.
- At the moment I’m making an online, interactive show for children.
- I’m excited about doing this. It’s not going to look like the mainstage work that I might have thought that our future would look like.
- We’re trying to find bits of budget to do work which in some way keeps us in contact with our audience and with artists.
- In spring, we’re looking at outdoor work. We don’t know yet what the rules will be and we don’t know yet what the infrastructure will need but I do think that there will be outdoor work.
- One of the things that really attracts me is that we’re able to look at very, very modern technology as a way of presenting theatre as we go forward, and we’re also looking at very ancient technology.
- Theatre will come back. I have faith in that. It is an indeterminate period of time but we will come back and we will need plays and we will need projects and we need exciting projects. The least we can do is spend time working with artists on projects.
- All the projects that were really difficult before we went into lockdown that didn’t fit into the programme and were really hard to make. Those are the projects that I’m turning to. Smaller scale, outside the building, maybe online.
- Online work, outdoors work, R&D work, work with participation and we will commission for the future.
- Small amounts of creativity, small amounts of engagement become incredibly important for morale and for the soul.
- We won’t be producing a Christmas show like we normally do.
- We have a promenade piece planned for the autumn.
Working with freelancers
- As soon as we can make work we will be working with the freelance community. As soon as we put the work into care homes, we’re going to be working with freelance artists.
- We’ll try and making work during our closed period, and if we can make work then we can start to re-employ people, including freelancers.
- I’m sad to say we don’t have any opportunities to offer to freelancers or artists. I wish we did and as a result of that, we’ve not given any meaningful thought to how we will work with artists going forward.
- I would love to talk to any of you again about our artistic ambitions and our producing ambitions in the area. I’m always keen to chat.
- We are commissioning freelancers through specific funding streams that we’ve received but currently again this is really focussed on local artists.
- We will be looking for artists and freelancers to collaborate with us on this, so this may involve longer term collaborations or commissions.
Q & A
Theatres have mentioned new ways of working, processions, audio work, online work, etc. What’s the best way for freelance creatives to work with venues on these new works? Will they be doing open calls for freelancers or do we need to pitch to them, and are people furloughed?
- We’ll do call outs to local artists. We’ll be working with a lot of local artists. Some projects that were in development before has moved online in Zooms.
- A mixture of things for us:
- Some will be work we already had in development
- We’ve tried to continue our process of meeting people – we can meet people online and hear ideas. Send an email – my email is on the website. Ask to have a Zoom meeting. I’m up for it.
- We have invitations and call outs.
- More and more we will be looking at local artists. We need to fundraise for every piece of work we do.
- We want to hear from local artists / artists in our local authority – cynically that’s because that’s the kind of funding we can get right now. But always up for a chat.
- It’s a moot question for us until those measures will relax. We’re really keen on looking at our local/regional role.
- We’ll be working with artists in our city.
- We have to try and connect to our community. The local focus is partly practical and partly moral.
Could any of the theatres offer exhibition space . . could have exhibitions of work not happening that has been put on hold . . . this could be in foyer windows on poster sites round theatre . . even sound installations playing out the building?
- It’s very much something we’re thinking about. As things change, we’re going to be talking more and more about this kind of activity. We’re thinking about it. It could kick off in August. I love the idea of doing impossible shows or something we won’t do. That really resonates with me.
- I think that’s a great idea. I’ll take that back to the team.
- We have a large digital screen that we can use for digital artworks.
- We’ve been talking in meetings about how all venues work together as a sector, about how we use this moment to become more relevant, more integrated with the community, more present, wider… all of these things and that theatre buildings aren’t the biggest part of the answer. There’s something to be found in how we access audiences that I think this would be really useful for. How do we use this moment to not be the last thing on the government’s list of priorities.
Questions we didn’t get time to answer:
- After this initial firefighting process has happened, but this year we have naturally caused a bottleneck of productions, that would be trying to hit our stages. My question speaks to the freelancers who are not part of this bottleneck. They are potentially looking at years before their work is on the stage, particularly mid career writers makers and designers. I wonder how organizations are engaging with these individuals.
- How would venues like to receive feedback form the Freelance TaskForce? There’s 7 of us in Scotland.
- I wonder could an efficient and collective approach to promoting the good work that is happening, act as a form of soft lobbying for the value of what we do. And also we have community growing, and then how do we actively focus on connecting with people who would maybe enjoy being part of the fear community, but have never considered the possibility. And how do we do that beyond individual projects, and how do we do it as a collective unit?
- How do artists know how to pitch to venues? And is this an open and accessible way of programming work?
- If you can’t bring 400 audience members in to sit down and watch something. How do you keep the interest in the building alive and, you know, something like backstage tours, whether they’re a small fee paid to get in see them? I think the backstage side of things I think we all take it for granted, and people who’ve come as an audience member never see outside, and whether it’s the opportunity to open it up to. If there is a design exhibition or something, or sound exhibition or something to go alongside it is an added thing. Are we thinking about using the buildings in a different way?
Our next meeting will take place on 14 July at 11.30am – 1pm with 6 more venues and 40 more freelancers. If you are interested in attending, in either capacity, please email email@example.com***.
*** The email address wasn’t working initially but we’ve now corrected the error. Apologies for inconvenience. Please email and we’ll get back to you at the beginning of July.