The north west’s theatres face a fight for survival

Theatre by the Lake.

Theatre by the Lake. - Credit: Archant

Theatre is likely to take longer than many industries to recover from the Coronavirus crisis, but some of our best are making plans to turn the lights back on.

Lotte Wakeman, the new artistic director at the Bolton Octagon

Lotte Wakeman, the new artistic director at the Bolton Octagon - Credit: Jonathan Keenan


‘As an industry we rely on bringing big groups of people together in one room and obviously we’ve not been able to do that – digital work is not the same and we’re chomping at the bit to do things live and in person. ‘We are in a slightly unusual position because our theatre was not open because we’re coming to the end of a £12m re-building project. That project was impacted by the lockdown, so our opening night will have to be put back – rather than being ready to open this summer, it will now be late this year. It might be the case that the theatre is ready before audiences can return, we’re awaiting government advice.

‘Our theatre has been closed for two years and that has forced us to be nimble and to make things work. We have got used to dealing with change and adapting and that experience may well stand us in good stead for whatever the future looks like.

‘Ticket sales and fundraising account for 70% of our income so the furlough scheme has been a real lifeline for us. Our audience have been very patient and understanding and we’re lucky the Octagon has such loyal support. We have launched an Octagon Future Fund on Crowdfunder to help make up the shortfall – that runs until July and people have donated more than £46,207 and the messages people have left on there are wonderful, about the great memories they have of the Octagon.

‘The government’s funding announcement is very welcome and gives the theatre and cultural sector hope for survival. There is much detail still needed about how the funding will be distributed, guidance for how and when theatres may open, and any support for the freelance workers who are at the heart of our sector. We are determined we will be back and we’re working hard to protect our employees and serve our community until then.

‘We estimate the Octagon brings £6m into the Bolton economy each year and I really believe we are a sector that’s worth fighting for because of the positive impact we have and the emotional wellbeing we provide. We know how valuable the arts are in helping mental health. ‘Film and television drama comes from people who started in theatre – that talent pipeline is still in place and we want it to be there for the next generations as well. They show the value of institutions like the Octagon. We know people will need a space to come together and tell stories and I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to do that. Theatre has been around since the Ancient Greeks and I think we will always have a hunger for it.’

Ruth Eastwood, CEO, at Blackpool Grand Theatre

Ruth Eastwood, CEO, at Blackpool Grand Theatre - Credit: sean conboy

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‘We fire on three fronts: art, education and heritage, so we have more strings to our bow than many theatres. Our shows and tickets fund activity to create public benefit, so we might be a bit different. 91% of our income is from ticket sales and secondary sales - drinks in the bar, that sort of thing - we’re not subsidised like some other theatres, so we’re used to doing things on a shoestring.

‘Just after 5pm on March 16th the Prime Minister advised people not to go to the theatre and I’m sure people in theatres across the country were, like me, shouting at the screen because if we’re just advised to close we can’t claim any insurance. That was the opening night of Educating Rita with Stephen Tomkinson and Jessica Johnson. We talked to the company and all agreed that we would go ahead. We had sold about 700 tickets but only about 250 people came and at the end Stephen addressed the audience, thanked everyone for coming and that was it. We packed it all up and sent it off the next morning. We had one performance when we should have had eight.

‘We have furloughed all but five staff - that’s 54 people. We have some financial reserves and we’ve not had to spend them yet because of the furlough scheme. We have had a successful bid for emergency grant funding from the Arts Council so we will be receiving £193,000 which is very welcome. ‘The government money is entirely separate and is welcome but we don’t yet know what the conditions will be. There will be a competitive bid process, it’s not a gift and we need to find out what the rules will be - will they want theatres to hibernate, or do more performances outdoors or will they want a radical overhaul of the sector?

‘During lockdown we created a YouTube channel called At Home With You which has about 50 videos which we hope will comfort, communicate and uplift people. We have moved shows from the spring to the autumn and we’re hoping to be able to open in September. We’re planning a series of one-nighters.

Week-long shows are logistically more difficult to present in a socially distanced way than a stand-up comedian for instance. Tickets are on sale now. ‘When we do re-open we’ll have one-way systems in place and we might change the times of the doors to give people more time to get in and find their seats, staff will have their temperatures checked and will have appropriate PPE. We’ll also reserve the right to check customers temperatures and we are experimenting with how many seats we can keep. Our seating is flexible, but we’re also looking at options like having cushions on the floor.’

Helen Longworth

Helen Longworth - Credit: not Archant


‘There’s a real feeling of genuine fear for theatres. Every couple of days there’s another story about one going into administration. Once they’re gone, they’re very hard to get back and the more skilled professionals we lose - from the theatre admin to the people who build the sets and the lighting technicians and everyone else involved - the weaker our sector becomes.

‘You do have odd bits of hope - I saw one company had put on a socially distanced production with people sitting in tents in a car park watching and that was great but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

‘When lockdown began I had just finished a tour of a play, Ladies That Bus, and felt fortunate that was able to come to a natural conclusion before the lockdown.

After that I was meant to be doing the Dukes open air show in Williamson Park but shows were being cancelled everywhere. We realised it couldn’t go ahead and that was obviously demoralising, but I understand that health comes first.

‘I tried to work out how I could adapt to work from home and have been able to do some voice over work and some radio, but nowhere near what I would have been doing. I’ve done quite a bit of music but it’s been difficult without a brief or a commission - I did one commission for Spot On Theatre, a stop-frame animation called Rock Pool. I suppose, looking on the bright side, that’s a skill I wouldn’t have learned without this situation.

‘Christmas shows are the lifeblood of many theatres and it feels like Christmas is the next possible point theatres can aim for but shows don’t just happen; they need casting, sets need designing and building, costumes need to be created, the actors need to rehearse - it all takes time. A lot of Christmas shows that have been written will have to be changed or scrapped and venues will be thinking about how they can stage them. I think the only way will be with smaller casts, but then again we’re all only a phone call away from having to isolate, if the test and trace system works, and not many theatres can afford understudies so there’s an obvious difficulty there.’

Karen O'Neill, The Dukes Theatre, Lancaster

Karen O'Neill, The Dukes Theatre, Lancaster - Credit: Darren Andrews


‘It’s a very bleak picture for the sector. Theatres just don’t work with social distancing and it’s extremely worrying - the ripple effects of theatres going so dark and quiet for so long will be huge and they will reach beyond actors to all the theatre staff, suppliers, freelances, technicians, maintenance people. The danger is that if organisations close, they won’t re-open - we are already seeing organisations fold, places are making mass redundancies and when those people go, we have lost that talent.

‘The confirmation of support for the arts and culture across the UK from the government is both a huge relief and powerful message of the important role of cultural organisations, artists and the creative industries. ‘Our sector is made up of many talented individuals in roles on and off our stages who are a part of the community in which they live and work, as well as many organisations who provide pivotal support, acting as a hub for many villages, towns and cities across the UK. The Dukes is one of those organisations, with its community at its heart; this investment will allow it to keep beating. Things will continue to be tough for a while, but we are now focused on recovery and new adventures when we are able to bring back all aspects of the Dukes work.’

And she added: ‘A lot of theatres do a lot of work in their communities and if they can’t make money, they can’t do that work and a lot of vulnerable people will lose important services. I know how devastating it will be for the people we work with. We are deeply embedded in our community and we are part of what makes Lancaster great but we have lost £500,000 in income. ‘A show can take four or five months to plan. We need clear guidelines about safety or staff and audiences and the measures we can put in place to enable people to enjoy the theatre and be safe. ‘If we can do anything in theatre before Christmas, that would be a bonus but it will be hard. We are trying to think how we can put on a Christmas show if it can’t go ahead as normal. Some places are recording shows and selling tickets for people to access them - that’s ok, but a huge part of it for us is the atmosphere and the audience interaction, those things that make every show different.

‘Christmas shows and pantos are so important to theatres across the country and some won’t be going ahead. The panto is a huge part of who we are as a nation, it’s a huge tradition but unless things change it won’t be practical for schools to put students on a bus and bring them to the theatre. Parents might not have the same level of income, so the annual trip to the theatre might not happen.

‘We are hoping our cinema will be back in late July or early August and we’ll be able to welcome people back in a very controlled manner. But if we introduce social distancing in our cinema, we go from 300 seats to 26 and that is a huge drop in income for us.’

Sue Robinson, co-director of Spot On Theatre, Lancashire

Sue Robinson, co-director of Spot On Theatre, Lancashire - Credit: Spot On Lancashire


Spot On Theatre arrange a programme of performances in village halls and libraries across the county. This is their 25th year, but 14 shows were cancelled when the lockdown began. Sue said: ‘In a way it has been quite liberating – the forced stop has allowed us to reflect on the way we do things and has given us a chance to have a big think.

‘I miss the excitement of being in an audience but it has meant we have learned more about the possibilities of technology and how it can connect us with the world. We have worked with Lancashire libraries and commissioned artists to present stories online.

‘Putting a living breathing artist in a room full of other living breathing people can’t happen. We are thinking it will probably be the spring when we are up and running again – it takes time to plan and prepare our season.

‘Outdoor shows on a village green could be possible quite soon though and if it’s possible to hold a parish council meeting then we should be able to bring people together to listen to a solo musician or storyteller.

‘We work in partnership with community groups and if someone was to contact us and say they wanted a performance, we might be able to arrange that – we have to limit crowd numbers, but I know of performances that are going ahead with a socially-distant audience.’

Liz Stevenson of The Theatre by the Lake

Liz Stevenson of The Theatre by the Lake - Credit: Will Patrick


Having already cancelled the summer season and their Christmas production of The Borrowers, Theatre by the Lake is consulting staff over redundancies to reduce their annual payroll costs of just under £1m.

Executive Director James Cobbold and Artistic Director Liz Stevenson said: ‘Our industry is facing an exceptionally challenging situation for the foreseeable future. We’ve come to the incredibly difficult conclusion that we have to take action now to ensure Theatre by the Lake survives this challenging period of disruption and uncertainty’.

‘If there is to be theatre in Keswick, and if we are to provide employment opportunities in the future, then we have no choice but to consider these actions in the short term.’

Adding their voice to the industry’s calls on the government to consider specific support for theatres, they added: ‘For the theatre industry to survive this crisis, we must see further investment quickly. Over recent years, theatres have worked hard to operate on reducing levels of public subsidy by increasing their reliance on high ticket sales and as a result are at greater threat in this unprecedented crisis. Britain’s world-class reputation for theatre, its vital positive impact upon health and wellbeing, and the significant contribution it makes to the economy must be protected for the future.’

While the theatre has been closed, the team has been planning digital initiatives to engage audiences including Come to Where I Am with Paines Plough to co-commission four local playwrights to write a short play about where they live.

Julia Fawcett, CEO at The Lowry

Julia Fawcett, CEO at The Lowry - Credit: not Archant


With the doors closed to the public since Tuesday March 17th and box office income effectively evaporating overnight, the centre is currently operating with a skeleton staff.

The government’s job retention scheme has provided a vital lifeline and The Lowry has been one of the few organisations to have maintained full salary payments for contracted staff since March – voluntarily topping up the government contributions.

CEO Julia Fawcett said: ‘The announcement of £1.57bn of emergency investment in the UK’s culture sector is welcome news, but we are fast running out of time. This lifeline will come too late for some organisations who have already been forced to close their doors for good or made valued employees redundant.

‘While we await precise details of the funding mechanisms, I would remind government that the priority now must be to get these much-needed funds to the organisations most at risk – and fast. In doing so, they can help save programmes of work and thousands of jobs across our sector that will otherwise fall victim to Covid.

‘Our 300-strong volunteer programme remains on pause. Casual staff working in the venue’s catering, box office and front of house departments will remain on furlough until October 31st, with The Lowry introducing top-up payments in August as the government contribution tapers to maintain casual staff on 80% of their average annual weekly wage.’