It is generally recognised fact that only a tiny minority of theatrical productions ever managed to turn a profit. That was in the good times, and where we stand now is infinitely worse and there must be a fear that some producers are currently trying to achieve the mathematical equation in the title.
It will therefore be fascinating but terrifying to observe activity over the next year or two, especially if the government continues to behave as if the arts are a minor but vocal irritation that they would love to be rid of.
As ever, hope has to come from the generosity of both corporate and individual angels. There is a reason why those who pour money into plays and musicals rejoice in that title rather than the more obvious term for those who put money into the stock market: investors. That is because investors expect to get a return on their funds, while many angels view their activities as little more than a charitable gesture to support an art form that they love.
This kind of support is going to be much needed over the next few months, as theatres face what everyone else seems to be calling “a perfect storm” but we know as The Tempest but without the happy ending.
There are so many unknowns at present. First, it is far from obvious that audiences are flocking back into theatres, although some word-of-mouth is encouraging. Secondly, if the experiences of our critics are anything to go by, a significant number of performances are having to be cancelled at very short notice due to coronavirus issues. Thirdly, thanks to what might be seen as governmental short-termism, the virus is once again spiralling out of control meaning that this winter could be very tough.
Indeed, hearing experts ringing alarm bells while the Prime Minister keeps his head in the sand pronouncing that everything is okay seems an all too familiar prologue to serious but belated action.
Having had the best part of 12 months without any income, the cultural sector really does need everything to go well through the winter, whatever the impediments. There could be hidden problems as well. One scenario that has not been highly publicised and is not necessarily the case relates to successful work that was stopped in its tracks 18 months ago.
In order to survive last spring, like those in the travel industry, producers desperately attempted to persuade those holding tickets to forego refunds in exchange for free entry when theatres eventually reopened. That was a sensible strategy at the time, but there was also going to be payback time. This critic has been wondering whether one or two of the shows that reopened recently did so having done the calculations and decided that it was cheaper to incur all of the costs with virtually no income rather than having to repay large numbers of ticket-holders at face value.
As with everything else, if that wasn’t bad enough, the last thing that businesses which spend significant amounts on heating and air conditioning, ventilation and lighting needed was a doubling or tripling in power prices, but that is now another burden that they will have to bear.
In theory, the influx of tourists should begin to make a massive difference, although if I were resident in anywhere but Brazil or a handful of the United States, the last place I would want to visit at the moment is the United Kingdom, where one in 60 of the population has coronavirus. Official figures are claiming a rate of 665 per hundred thousand, but simple maths would come up with close to twice that figure. Those with long memories might recall that last summer, the government banned incomers from countries with a rate of 25 per 100,000.
What we knew already and have had reaffirmed is the remarkable durability of everybody who works in and around the theatre. Let’s hope that the vaccination programme along with boosters and a ridiculous amount of good luck turns the tide. Otherwise, theatres might be battening down the hatches again and crossing their fingers in the hope that some heavenly angels are happy to keep the ship afloat until the good times return.