Interview With….Robert O’Dowd

The Chief Executive of the Rose Theatre in Kingston spoke to us about the fight to safeguard the theatre industry.

Hi Robert, thanks so much for talking to me. Could you explain in a little more detail about SOLT and UK Theatre’s campaign to protect theatres during this time? Theatre and a few other performing arts organisations are unique in the UK as until we can open our earned income has dropped to zero or near enough. It is essential that the government understands this fully. The key challenge is that there is no economically viable social distancing model with which theatres can open. To maintain current guidelines capacities in our auditoriums would be 15-27% which would mean our haemorrhaging cash. We have to avoid theatres being compared to, say, cinema where their business model works on 18% capacity or galleries as they can manage self-distancing. The campaign is clearly setting out this existential threat and the need for special support as our revenue position in the theatre industry is so unique.

How do you feel that the theatre industry has been treated in general during this pandemic? The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been a godsend, but all sectors have had access. The extension to October is most welcome, but if we cannot economically open then we will have a major challenge; so, we need the scheme to continue for theatre and music venues. There has been no other direct government support. The Arts Council Emergency Response Fund has been amazing but that was/is not new money but is drawn from ACE grant funding and their reserves. So, you might say we have had no direct support from government yet. Our two trade bodies SOLT and UKT have been amazing. The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme is hard for theatres to access as many are not-for-profit charities and therefore do not meet the lending criteria.

What support would you like to see from the government? CJRS to carry on, self-employed scheme to carry on, special grants or loans for theatres from government, broadening and changing the Theatre Tax Relief scheme to include running costs and marketing costs and be paid in advance and at a higher rate, support and underwriting of business interruption insurance schemes as theatre cannot flicker on and off when we invest large amounts of money in the six months before a show goes up, not to mention what we need to do with actors if we are made to shut again.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the Rose Theatre?Hugely; we shut on 16th March and will soon have 85% of staff furloughed, we do not know when we will be able to open so planning is very hard. But we have ramped up our community outreach which has been great and will continue even when we reopen at this increased level.

Is there anything that the public can do to support their own local theatre at this time? Lobby their politicians both national and local, give what they can as donations are vital, retain their tickets for use when shows are rescheduled and spread the word far and wide.

What differences do you think we can expect in the theatre industry and the arts in general when this crisis has eased off? There is a realisation that our sector must change. We must work concertedly on broadening the demographics who consume theatre and move away from the evident tokenism of many theatres and institutions. We must build our community reach and outreach and grow our work with local stakeholders on pressing issues such as mental health, carers and those in care. As this emergency has focused our stakeholders on working more closely with us, it would be a shame to revert to old ways. We also must work to change audiences’ obsession with celebrity and move back to being focused on the quality of the work – rather than faces off the telly or from Hollywood. It is vital that we support more diverse talent and focus on building skills in the next generation of practitioners.

In addition, the Rose Theatre’s Artistic Director Christopher Haydon stated: Any extra money for theatre is an investment not a bailout: we have evidence of the Rose bringing in £7 million per annum for the local economy, which works out in line with SOLT’s stat of £1 spent in a theatre is £3 spent in local businesses.The VAT on theatre tickets alone is more than the amount of public money that is given each year to theatre through ACE.

By Emma Clarendon

To find out more about the Rose Theatre in Kingston and to support it visit:

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