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Call to pay it forward as coronavirus causes theatre cancellations | Stage

Theatres in the UK have made clear the disastrous economic impact caused by even short-term shutdowns because of the coronavirus. The Arcola in east London, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, has suspended all shows until further notice and stated that its future is now at risk and that coronavirus was a “critical threat to the livelihoods of all those who work in the arts”. The Old Vic has cancelled the last two weeks of Endgame starring Daniel Radcliffe. Its next production, 4,000 Miles, starring Eileen Atkins and Timothée Chalamet, is almost sold out and still scheduled to begin performances on 6 April. The Old Vic said it would be “financially devastating” if it had to refund a fortnight’s worth of Endgame tickets; the seven-week run of 4,000 Miles will clearly be crucial for their finances.

While venues are considering the effects of a temporary closure, the precarious existence of individual creatives working in every aspect of theatre has rarely been more clearly felt. On social media, actors, writers, designers, technicians and many others in the industry have shared their experiences of cancelled gigs, problems with travel, sickness, persistent uncertainty and the financial fragility of freelance work at this time.

Arts Council England released a statement announcing its intention to ensure “as strong a sector as possible as we come out the other side of this crisis”. ACE said it will refocus some of its grant programmes to help compensate individual artists and freelancers for lost earnings. Equity has published a briefing about the financial support available for its members. A petition for the UK government to offer economic assistance to the events industry has received more than 100,000 signatures.

But theatre-makers have also been active at a grass-roots level to ensure that their colleagues gain immediate support with rent, food and essential bills. Bryony Kimmings is a live-art performer who started out on the fringe before having a production at the National Theatre and co-writing the film Last Christmas with Emma Thompson. She has called on fellow theatre-makers to donate money to those who are in need. Artists had helped her out in the past, she said, encouraging a spirit of pay it forward.

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, directed by Bryony Kimmings, at the National Theatre, London.

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, directed by Bryony Kimmings, at the National Theatre, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“People are having gigs cancelled with no back ups, money disappearing with no sign of help from govt yet; end of month bills INCOMING!” she wrote on Twitter. Her #GigAid scheme intends to match individual donors to artists as swiftly as possible. “People are brilliant. Resourceful, kind, resilient, humble and brilliant,” said Kimmings. Her callout has resulted in not just financial pledges but offers of food, spare rooms and other support.

The Civic theatre in Tallaght, Dublin, is one of many that has cancelled productions due to the coronavirus. It has committed to honouring wages and fees on co-productions in progress but has also called for donations for an emergency relief fund for Irish artists who need assistance. “Artists in Ireland are living with no safety net, working from gig to gig, event to event,” it states. “The grim reality is that some are living in poverty with no security, no pensions, no sick leave, no parental leave and no means to plan for the future.” It intends to pay small grants of up to €500.

Similar fundraising appeals are under way in other UK regions. Amahra Spence organised the West Midlands Artists Coronavirus Impact Fund. “The creative and cultural industries are now valued at £101.5bn, growing at twice the rate of the economy,” says Spence. “These same industries are reliant on the labour of freelancers, self-employed workers and artists, yet these are the same people who are at the frontline of precariousness. In times of crisis, change, cuts and pandemics, the foundation of our workforce that we ‘celebrate’ annually for their contributions to economic growth are most vulnerable.”

Luke Barnes, a playwright and screenwriter, has set up the Liverpool Artists Coronavirus Fund. “I am now, thankfully, in a position where I have enough savings to get me through a few months of hardship, but this is a recent thing,” said Barnes. “A few years ago the closing of theatres, productions for film, and the industries that employ creatives when they’re not working would have led to me to serious financial hardship.”

The Bunker theatre in London is among those venues that have cancelled productions this month. It has spent months organising the Power Share week, which would have brought together almost 100 artists. One curator and four contributors to the season of work had gone into self-isolation, it explained, and others had to withdraw for health reasons. The Bunker is weighing up options to present the work at a later date and has kept a Crowdfunder appeal going to support the artists involved in the project.

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