It may be one of Britain’s biggest and best-funded arts organisations but without urgent support the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) faces being forced into “drastic hibernation” because of the pandemic, its leaders have said.
Public subsidy accounts for a quarter of the RSC’s income, but the rest has disappeared since lockdown, leaving it teetering on the brink. “Overnight, we lost 75% of our income,” said its deputy artistic director, Erica Whyman.
The theatre, based in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, is continuing with extensive education work and has kept on the acting company that was meant to open in The Winter’s Tale this year, with actors involved in community work.
It is also hoping to stage some form of outdoor performance over the summer and has been working with the BBC to get plays from its archive on-screen.
But being forced to shut down until the pandemic is over seems like a best-case scenario, Whyman said. “There are worse, including a major restructuring of the company from which we may never recover, in the sense of losing skills and the craft and the talent.”
Whyman was in final rehearsals for her production of The Winter’s Tale when lockdown happened in England. The day before it was announced by Boris Johnson, she went down with a fever and, unable to get out of bed for a week, is convinced she had coronavirus.
“It was quite surreal to start feeling better and realise what had happened … what had really happened. It wasn’t that we had closed and at some point we would reopen in the near future. We were going to have to start thinking about completely different ways of managing the crisis.”
The RSC furloughed 90% of its staff and ended over 100 contracts. In February 2019, it was generating £2.75m a month at the box office alone; now it is zero.
Tours were curtailed and productions brought to an end, including Julia Gilkes Romero’s The Whip, about the bailout of British slaveowners in 1833 and strikingly relevant this summer. “I wish it were on now,” said Whyman. “It is an extraordinary piece of work and we are fighting to find a way we can make an online version so people can access it.”
A season of work titled Projekt Europa was cancelled. That was hellish, said Whyman. “It was a very brilliant set of artists and four years of work led by Maria Alberg … it was horrific.”
The RSC summer school and annual London residency at the Barbican have been cancelled. Major autumn and winter productions including The War of the Roses Part 1 and Part 2 and the winter family musical titled The Magician’s Elephant have been put back a year.
No one has found a successful economic model for physically distanced theatre, whether 2 metres or 1 metre. “It doesn’t take long to do the maths,” said Whyman.
But they will have a go. “One thing I love about theatres is that they are ingenious organisations, they’ve always been able to adapt. We can see ways we can meet the health and hygiene challenge … We can make people feel safe in our buildings and limit the numbers. The problem is we can’t do that if we don’t have some form of alternative income. It simply won’t bring in enough to support the operating model.”
Whyman said everything they do is dependent on artists staying in the profession and that is by no means guaranteed. About 70% of the theatre workforce is freelance and their support carries on only until August. Many are also falling through gaps in the system and not receiving any money.
The RSC is luckier than some companies in that it has reserves built up from commercial successes, such as Matilda the Musical. But that money will soon dry up.
Whyman said the government needed to have faith in theatre and its ability to get back on its feet quickly. “This is a very affordable art. Theatres are incredibly efficient and it won’t be long, it won’t be forever. I was doing The Winter’s Tale, where they had to wait 16 years for things to come right. It won’t be 16 years but there is a gap between the end of the government support and the point when we will be able to re-establish serious income streams.”
It all comes at a time people need the arts more than ever, she said. “You see it every day, the need to tell stories, the need to express how you feel. This is a very emotional time.”