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U.K.'s arts industry navigates uncertainty amid coronavirus pandemic

“It's not just a temporary shutdown in business, it's a question of survival to next year,” said Paul Reed of the Association of Independent Festivals.
Image: A street entertainer performs on Edinburgh's Royal Mile during the city's Festival Fringe.
A street entertainer performs on Edinburgh's Royal Mile during the city's Festival Fringe.Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images file

LONDON — The pubs may be bustling but inside Britain’s world-renowned theaters and performance venues, seats remain vacant and stages eerily silent.

Despite a recent financial lifeline from the government, the risk the coronavirus poses to mass gatherings has stifled the return of the arts. And this delay, many say, could force out the most vulnerable artists and organizations, those critical to bringing creativity and diversity to the sector.

“It actually is becoming pretty desperate for a lot of people,” Phil Pemberton, a spokesman for the U.K. creatives union Equity, told NBC News.

While Britain’s government launched a wage subsidy program to pay workers and keep businesses afloat during the lockdown, freelancers — who dominate the arts industry — weren’t always eligible because they weren’t on any payroll.

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Funding for self-employed workers was later introduced, but Pemberton said many creatives have fallen through gaps of both programs.

Freelancers with patchy work histories, young artists recently entering the field and women returning from maternity leave have been among those without the records to prove themselves eligible for funding, he said.

The situation has revealed inequalities, for artists and among venues, according to Steven Kavuma, a theatre director and founder of the Diversity School Initiative that addresses underrepresented groups in the United Kingdom’s drama schools.

“What that is about is who can afford to be doing this ... to write plays, to direct plays — and I think a lot of those people are white middle-class people,” he said.

The potential losses aren’t insignificant. The creative industries, ranging from film and television production to music, contributed at least £111.7 billion here ($140 billion) to the British economy in 2018, according to the government. Cultural and heritage attractions are also major drivers for tourism to the country.

The London Coliseum, the largest theatre in London's West End is closed along with the rest of the theatre district due to the coronavirus pandemic.Chris Jackson / Getty Images file

On Sunday, the British government announced a £1.57 billion ($1.98 billion) relief package for the arts. While it’s been applauded by the industry, the details of who will receive the funds and how long the package can prop up the sector are unclear.

“It will go quite quickly,” warned Michelle Terry, artistic director of the Shakespeare’s Globe theater.

The Globe, a registered charity, was forced to lay off roughly 300 freelancers and furlough its staff after the lockdown halted preparations for its summer productions — a peak revenue period for the open-air venue. In May, the theatre made an urgent appeal for donations to prevent it from shuttering permanently.

The new government funds should pull organizations back from the brink. But Terry said returning to regular operations will take time — and lots more money. For the Globe, getting productions running again will cost £3 million to £5 million ($3.7 million to $6.2 million), she said.

For actors like Ben Hall, 27, waiting for productions to resume has been unnerving. He had last played Henry V in a production in Bristol, about 115 miles west of London, and was auditioning for a new role when the lockdowns were implemented.

“You're building up a career and then you're worried that that’s it,” he said.

Pedestrians walk past the Shaftesbury Theatre, which remains closed due to restrictions, in London's West End on Monday.Tolga Akmen / AFP - Getty Images

Even his fallback restaurant job is on hold after the place where he worked closed during the lockdown. While he remains determined to stay in show business, Hall said if the government funds stop before work resumes, he will have to look at other sectors.

And it’s not just theaters facing these challenges.

Festivals, which employ more than 85,000 people in the U.K., were looking at an average loss of £375,000 ($474,000), according to Paul Reed, chief executive of the Association of Independent Festivals, representing 65 music, comedy and performance arts events across the country.

“It's not just a temporary shutdown in business, it's a question of survival to next year,” he said.

Beyond the financial implications, festivals have an important role in launching emerging artists, Reed said.

“They really have a part to play in terms of developing a pipeline of talent,” he said. “If they're to disappear, there isn't going to be a platform for those artists.”

Beyond that, a larger question looms: Will there still be an appetite for live performance in a post-pandemic world. But venues and organizers are beginning to imagine adaptations to the new realities of health and safety.

“The arts have always been ingenious at turning these things to its advantage and responding to crisis,” said Nick Kenyon, managing director of the Barbican Centre in London.

Festivals could build on their experience screening for terror threats to screening for the virus, Reed said.

Visitors wear protective face masks as The National Gallery prepares to open its doors to the public for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak in London.Dylan Martinez / Reuters

The Barbican’s art gallery is slated to open Monday with social distancing measures in place, but its concert hall and theater are only looking at experimental small-scale performances in the autumn, pending further government guidance, Kenyon said.

Fewer people in the seats won’t work for every venue — as most rely on high attendance numbers to break even.

“London will survive as a great world center of culture,” Kenyon said, adding, “but that is going to be a gradual rebuild.”