The director Sam Mendes has outlined a rescue package for theatre during the coronavirus crisis and warned that if the performing arts are not protected, “an ecosystem this intricate and evolved cannot be rebuilt from scratch”. Mendes’ suggested measures, outlined in a long article for the Financial Times, have been applauded by key figures in the industry, with the choreographer Matthew Bourne hailing the plan as a “great call to arms”.
Mendes calls the Covid-19 pandemic “the biggest challenge to Britain’s cultural life since the outbreak of the second world war” and stresses that the arts are “a giant economic growth engine”, with theatre launching the careers of thousands who go on to work in the film and TV industries. Mendes started out as a theatre director and launched his film career with the Oscar-winning American Beauty after he had spent several years at the Donmar Warehouse in London.
While the careers of those in theatre have suffered in recent months, there are many, he writes, “whom Covid-19 has made rich”. He continues: “It would be deeply ironic if the streaming services – Netflix, Amazon Prime et al – should be making lockdown millions from our finest acting, producing, writing and directing talent, while the very arts culture that nurtured that talent pool is allowed to die.” He calls upon the titans of those industries to “use a fraction of their Covid-19 windfall” to support the performing arts during the crisis.
But Mendes goes further, detailing practical propositions for steering theatre through the period of shutdown and recognising the impracticalities of staging economically viable productions for socially distanced audiences in venues. He urges the continuation of the job retention scheme and a package to support theatre’s vital freelance workforce.
Asking for an increase in the rate for theatre’s tax-relief scheme, from 20% to 50%, Mendes invites the government to become a “theatrical angel” akin to the private individuals who invest in productions and share in the profits of successful shows. “This is not a request for a handout, or for long-term life support,” he writes, calling on the government to commit to a Cultural Investment Participation Scheme. “It is an offer for the government to become partners in a successful business.”
The Cultural Investment Participation Scheme was outlined last month by the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, which submitted a paper to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport proposing a series of practical solutions to support the theatre industry, amid warnings that 70% of theatres will run out of cash by the end of 2020. The paper points out theatre generates £133m in VAT payments for the Treasury in London alone: “We want the government to invest in our sector so we can continue to play our vital role in Britain’s future success and help the UK’s recovery.”