Devastating, unviable, admin overload: UK stage companies count cost of Brexit

New visa rules, taxes and transport restrictions are some of the hurdles British dance and theatre organisations must now overcome to tour Europe

Brexit or Covid? Hardly a cheerful choice, but when I ask Colette Hansford, executive producer at Hofesh Shechter Company, which will be most decisive for UK theatre and dance companies, she doesn’t hesitate. “Brexit will have the bigger impact because it’s a long-term restriction. We’re a flexible, dynamic sector and can work our way out of Covid – but if we can’t produce and export our work, that’s going to have a devastating effect.”

Musicians have denounced the Brexit deal’s neglect of performers who depend on European work. They feel “shamefully failed” by the British government’s failure to secure free movement for touring artists. But for many of the UK’s stage companies the situation is equally fraught. Unresolved questions remain around touring, co-producing with European venues and attracting international collaborators to the UK. Which to unpick first? “Oh gosh,” sighs Farooq Chaudhry, executive producer of Akram Khan Company (AKC). “They’re all in varying degrees depressing.”

EU sources have claimed the UK rejected an offer to allow performers visa-free touring because it wouldn’t allow a reciprocal exemption. Had British companies foreseen this unresolved outcome? “Honestly, I didn’t,” Chaudhry admits. “Our biggest fear was always mobility – touring and access to talent. I didn’t seriously think that was under any kind of threat.”

dancers and musicians fill the Tower of London moat for East Wall, directed by Hofesh Shechter, in 2018.
‘Flexible, dynamic sector’ … dancers and musicians fill the Tower of London moat for East Wall, directed by Hofesh Shechter, in 2018. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

As things now stand, each of the 27 EU member states has its own rules on visa and work permits, making multi-country tours more complex and expensive. Transporting the physical elements of a production (such as the set, or musical instruments) becomes more costly, especially as “cabotage” rules prohibit UK trucks from making more than two journeys after entering the EU. There is also uncertainty about requirements for foreign nationals working with arts companies in Britain. Last week, the National Theatre put its European touring on hold, explaining that in this unresolved situation “it is currently not financially viable”.

Britain’s contemporary dance companies are also European stars. Festivals clamour for Khan, Shechter or Wayne McGregor: emotive, entrepreneurial choreographers who pull crowds and push the artform. Pre-Brexit, sorting the paperwork was almost routine for their companies, and as Hansford puts it, “we could travel in the EU like we were commuting”. Now, she puzzles over “short-term visas, work permits, carnets and cabotage”. She worries that six-country tours are no more, and that European partners may also face increased costs. “Does that make UK theatre less attractive, financially? Will they look for EU artists instead, or lower the fees for UK artists?”

Could leading British companies simply pause European visits until things resolve? Chaudhry sets me straight. “Ask any British company – touring in the UK is an absolutely tragic loss leader. If we were only touring in the UK we would run out of money – step, jetée and you’re broke!” International revenue accounts for 72% of AKC income over the last 20 years, and “the most lucrative market – where we have quick access and can make a good buck – is Europe.” Despite hubs like Leicester and Manchester, the British audience for contemporary dance is limited, he argues. “In 2006, we figured out that it was costing us £17,000 a week to tour to a UK venue. I don’t know what the cost is now. It’s not a viable model. We couldn’t survive.”

Companies are investing in administration. “If nothing changes,” Hansford says, “every company is going to need a full-time role just dealing with visas, travel, the spreadsheets. We’ve had to divert somebody in our company to logistics just to get us through this next three months.”

“Taxation is a big one and nobody understands it,” she continues. “Lots of people rely on co-commissions to support creative work. At the moment that’s part of a double-taxation agreement [exempting workers from paying tax in both Europe and the UK], but I haven’t got clarity on whether that exists any more.”

Visa regulations cut both ways, and might deter international talent. “It’s a big concern,” says Chaudhry. “Our art form thrives on different bodies and perspectives – we invigorate ourselves by different ways of doing and seeing things. I would worry if we don’t have access to that talent.” His comparison is elite sport: “Are they going to do that with football teams? That’s the perfect example of what happens when you bring global talent together – [without it] the Premier League would lose its global appeal.”

“People are the lifeblood and core of the work,” Hansford insists, noting that during most years the Shechter company employs more than 90 artists, creatives and technicians, from Britain and beyond. “There are core musicians and dancers who have been with us for 12 years.” She’s already had to “stand down” 10 musicians without EU passports – “if this becomes longterm we’re going to lose those valuable artists.”

Both dance company execs worry for emerging companies, inhibited by intimidating restrictions. To explore the impact, I talk to Lauren Mooney and James Yeatman of Kandinsky, one of Britain’s smartest young theatre companies. The pandemic halted their new, multilingual piece with Vienna’s Schauspielhaus (postponed to 2022). Its title, SHTF, refers to shit hitting the fan: who better to ask?

Forging connections … Kandinsky’s There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.
Forging connections … Kandinsky’s There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

“For a company like us, there’s not really a way of making it work as a career that doesn’t involve Europe,” Mooney considers. Berlin’s revered Schaubühne invited Kandinsky to perform there in 2019, demonstrating Europe’s appetite for ambitious work – Mooney says just three performances provoked “15 emails from different people who’d watched the show.” One was from the Schauspielhaus who, Yeatman recalls, “flew us to Vienna last January for a 20-minute meeting where they said, make whatever you want”. “That’s not what happens in UK commissioning,” Mooney adds drily.

Unlike bigger companies, Kandinsky lack administrative support – Mooney and Yeatman sift the post-Brexit detail on tax and contracts themselves. “This huge administrative burden fell on us,” Mooney explains. “The support the theatre gave was incredible, but it was still a bloody nightmare. There are larger companies for whom the income from European touring props up their UK work and overheads. For us that’s not the case.”

Last month, the Shechter company served as a case study in a joint letter from British arts bodies to British ministers. Hansford fleshes out the recommendations. She hopes the period of a European tour permitted by the Tier 5 certificate of sponsorship can be extended from three months to six, and that visas for paid engagements in the UK will be lengthened from the current single month. In the longer term, she advocates for a bilateral agreement with the EU exempting performers, creatives and crews from entry restrictions for up to 90 days.

Time for some worst-case scenarios. Might European venues shun UK companies? “We’re not there yet,” Chaudhry protests. “We need this to play out for a couple of years before we’ll have any sense of the implications.” And might some UK-based artists simply uproot their companies, or pursue a freelance career? “It’s possible,” says a reluctant Hansford. “You may look to where you can freely deliver work in the way you want to. I do think British companies are very proud to be here. But you might get tired after a couple of years if it’s not going well.”

I’m gagging for a silver lining. What good outcomes could there be for performing companies? Long silences. Mooney raises a hand: “I’ve got one thing, potentially.” She speculates that British artists may kick back against insularity to create more multilingual work. “There might be a greater desire in the arts to speak to Europe, to forge connections.”

Watching poet Amanda Gorman at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Chaudhry “realised that in adversity, when the voices get to speak, they shake us, they conjure a vision of a new world. In my idealistic and romantic notion of what [might come], I hope we’ll get better art. We won’t be bereft, we won’t end up in a cultural desert.” But first, Hansford insists, the UK and EU must negotiate to protect their artists. “We do not want the UK to get left behind.”

Contributor

David Jays

The GuardianTramp

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