Coronavirus: Actor Simon Callow says performing arts sector needs urgent lifeline

25 June 2020, 23:39 | Updated: 26 June 2020, 08:25

Actor Simon Callow has told Sky News the government's roadmap for reopening the performing arts sector "lacks urgency" given the theatre industry is on its "deathbed".

The actor was speaking in response to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden's five-point coronavirus recovery plan in which he sets out how theatres, orchestras and music venues can get back to business.

Callow, who has been working in the theatre for more than 40 years, said the plan "was not rigorous or challenging enough" given what was at stake.

"It's just a statement of intent, of a rather general kind. I'm glad that he has made it rather than not make any statement, because the silence has been deafening up till now, but, we have to deal with the current situation, the critical current situation, and we have to have a much more rigorous plan on how to get back.

"I'm not pretending it's easy; it's really seriously problematic, but we really have to devise something, otherwise these precious aspects of our national cultural life will truly wither and die. Most people think we're crying wolf when we say that, but we are not. That's absolutely what will happen.

"It takes years to develop a company and it could die in ten minutes."

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the five-stage roadmap to bring back choirs, orchestras and theatres safely is similar to the one they used with elite sport and they would do all they could get them back up and running.

"I desperately want to raise the curtain on live performances in theatres and music venues as soon we can - they are the soul of our nation and a lynchpin of our world beating creative industries," he said.

"We know the challenges - theatres must be full to make money, and performers need to be safe on stage as they sing, dance and play instruments - but I am determined to ensure the performing arts do not stay closed longer than is absolutely necessary to protect public health".

Stage one - allowing rehearsals and training with no audience - is already allowed, as is stage two, which allows performances for broadcast.

Stage three will see performances take place outdoors with an audience; four allows them to be held indoors with a limited distanced audience; and at stage five, performances will be allowed both indoors and outdoors with a larger audience.

Missing, crucially, is the time-frame - and Head of the Society of London theatre, Julian Bird, told Sky News they need dates within weeks.

"We have said by the beginning of July we need absolute clarity on the dates that we are planning towards. And let's be clear, we also need clarity from the government on what support they are able to offer this industry," he said.

"We've delivered a very clear proposition to the government, there have been some positive conversations; but we need clear announcements from the government as to what they want to do to save what is one of the UK's leading world industries."

The Arcola Theatre in London has been shut since the start of lockdown, with no audience and no money coming in.

Associate Director Jack Gamble told Sky News "time is running out" for theatres all over the country, some of whom were going into administration, with many livelihoods lost.

He reiterated what they need from the government "is not what the stages are" but concrete plans of action.

"I think they've acknowledged it's going to be some time before theatres can reopen, but we knew that," he said. "What we needed - what we still need - is clarity on what the government policy is on how we are going to reopen safely and when".

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Referring to the Arcola Theatre, Gamble said: "our cliff edge is when the furlough scheme ends but from July they will have to make contributions with no money coming in and they want to know what the government is going to do for them, but also for the theatres who can't survive that long.

"What about the Plymouth theatre, which made redundancies this week, or the Nuffield Theatre, which has already closed? It's not good enough for them to know we're in stage two, going into stage three... I'm really worried our culture life is collapsing".

The culture secretary admitted he couldn't put timings on when we will move through each phase, but stressed he wants to do so as soon as it is possible when public health allows.