Lauren Clancy: Extreme measures in a time of great uncertainty
The Bush Theatre has made the very difficult decision to introduce cost saving measures in order to remain financially stable. Our Executive Director Lauren Clancy reflects on the ongoing challenges for the theatre industry’s recovery, the looming cost-of-living crisis and the need for further government support.
Studies have shown that one of the greatest assets of a strong community is its arts and culture provision – and Shepherd’s Bush is no different. There is huge potential for theatre to play a key role in rebuilding stronger communities and thriving local economies. But, as one of the most impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic and constantly battered by funding cuts, the theatre world is struggling on its recovery journey.
As Lyn Gardner reported in The Stage this week, Government funding to Arts Council England has decreased by 40% in real terms since 2009 and London is facing further cuts made real when the delayed investment programme for National Portfolio Organisations 2023 – 2026 is eventually announced. We are very conscious these are difficult days for everyone but the time has come when we need to speak out.
“As we welcomed live audiences back, we began to understand just how important theatre would be to our national recovery. The joy on audiences’ faces on their return was palpable.”
Back in 2019 I wrote a piece about the lobbying by the arts community as the country headed to the polls to decide who our next government would be (you can read it here). As we know, that election resulted in the Conservative Party receiving a majority of 80 seats.
Quickly after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit us all hard. Theatres and cultural institutions were closed for the first time in many of our lifetimes. Our worlds shrank, as we watched the effects of the pandemic unfold on tiny screens.
Although it felt like a lifetime, the Bush was proud to be one of the first London theatres to reopen our doors. On 4 August 2020, we restarted a programme of community activity that listened and responded to the needs of local people. We did our best to roll with the punches, furloughing staff, keeping the building open as a vital community hub, producing work online and in person whenever possible – planning and re-planning.
As we welcomed live audiences back, we began to understand just how important theatre – and art more widely – would be to our national recovery. Our stories expand audiences’ worlds, provoke empathy and develop participants’ confidence and creativity. The joy on audiences’ faces on their return was palpable, and we received many touching comments from those happy to be experiencing the magic of live work and communal experience again.
“Even at a time when Bush Theatre productions are winning awards and playing to full houses, this is not enough to make up the financial shortfall for the year and it is necessary to make savings across the organisation.”
But audiences for theatre haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels and this has a huge effect on revenue. The pandemic changed people’s work and leisure habits in ways that we do not yet fully understand and once again, along with our peers, we face uncertainty over the winter months. We still live in a world where COVID could derail performances and, in doing so, make swathes of our income disappear overnight.
In addition, we are experiencing wage inflation, supply chain issues and substantial cost increases across a range of services. The Bush’s utility bills have increased nearly 200% (in some cases up to 600%) and we are not eligible for any government support.
This comes at a time of extreme vulnerability for organisations and for the freelance community who work with them. Even at a time when Bush Theatre productions are winning awards and playing to full houses, this is not enough to make up the financial shortfall for the year and it is necessary to make savings across the organisation.
In consultation with our staff team we have taken the very difficult decision to put self-help measures in place, including energy efficiency plans and core cost-cutting measures beginning with immediate effect. Reluctantly, we’ve taken the difficult decision to close the building to the public during the day from 31 October.
Even then, these measures alone may not be sufficient for the Bush to continue producing work at the powerhouse level for which we’ve been celebrated.
In order to be a strong and effective support for government priorities we need to be financially stable, which is why we continue to lobby the government for sector specific support. In a climate so tough for us all, I share this piece in the spirit of solidarity and openness about the challenges facing us and our sector.
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