The word 'decimation' is one of the most misused in the English language. The common man or woman has been encouraged to believe that it merely means some form of destruction. In fact, it is far more precise than that.
The word, which derives from the Latin, refers to a lamentable policy operated by Roman commanders whereby one in 10 members of an underperforming cohort was executed, ostensibly to encourage the others.
While that might not quite be the appropriate description for UK government’s actions regarding the arts in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it isn’t too far off.
Following the latest pronouncements about the ways in which the meagre bailout fund is to be distributed, there has to be every prospect that far more than one in 10 theatres will die. It then follows that a significant number of individuals who used to work in the industry (and unfortunately, the past tense seems wholly appropriate) must already have concluded that they need to seek alternative employment or starve.
Taking the analogy a step further, while Oliver Dowden and Rishi Sunak will manage to achieve the one execution in 10 goal and probably more, there is little sign that it will do anything to encourage those who survive. A brief history lesson might help to illuminate the point.
As of mid-March 2020, i.e. 4½ months ago, theatre in the United Kingdom was thriving. It drew unbelievable numbers of visitors to destinations large and small, boosted the local economy and provided employment for hundreds of thousands of people both directly and indirectly.
It also generated vast amounts of income for the Exchequer via the tax system.
In one fell swoop, although even this was botched, the Prime Minister closed theatres and offered no suggestion as to when they would reopen.
As of this week, the Minister for Culture was able to shed no further light, suggesting that social distancing was not going to be reviewed until November, meaning that in the unlikely event that coronavirus disappears in time for the US election, very few productions will be possible before the spring of 2021 at the earliest.
During this fallow time, most theatres have no income, while staff have either been laid off on furlough or are being made redundant. The ineffectual attempts to reopen theatres with social distancing will guarantee that losses are higher and redundancies greater.
Using the good old Micawber principle, if you need 60 to 70% occupancy to break even and can only achieve 30% occupancy, then you will swiftly go bankrupt.
At the beginning of July, Dowden announced in a fanfare of publicity and praise that the wider cultural sector would be allocated £1.57 billion. Frankly, this is a pittance that, as has been shown in earlier articles, will help the few rather than the many.
Just take a simple parallel, the government is ploughing 10 times as much into buying protective equipment for the next few months. This writer would not suggest reducing the amount spent on keeping health workers safe but fervently believes that the arts deserve better.
Now, at last, the government has formulated the next stage of its strategy. This is to provide £500 million to the cultural sector under a scheme to be administered by Arts Council England with a further sum of £258 million held back without explanation probably for another 6 to 9 months.
In addition, large organisations will be able to apply for loans but not outright grants collectively worth £270 million.
It is worth emphasising that this is not just for theatres but also music and comedy venues as well as museums.
After 4½ months with no direct financial help, although the furlough scheme will have been of considerable assistance—but not to the self-employed, who have really been struggling—those at the sharp end might reasonably have hoped that this money would become available instantly.
Instead, it will be subject to a long process that will mean that most organisations find themselves out of pocket for nine months before funds finally stream or trickle in.
It is also sad fact of life that there is a long list of qualifying criteria and many theatres may find that they do not qualify, in which case they are literally being left to shut up shop. Others might just be rejected by the newly appointed panel as a result of what will inevitably seem to them to be serendipity.
Therefore, rather than being a sign of hope, the latest information from the government is likely to trigger a new wave of redundancies and closures.
At some point, it will be worth carrying out an exercise to try and ascertain what will be left in a year or two, if the government continues to behave as if the arts were of no interest. The chances are that the sector really will be decimated and may take a generation to recover.
P.S. it doesn’t happen often, but occasionally a journalist can feel like a prophet, although in this case it wasn’t hard to read the runes. Between the drafting of this article and its completion, Ambassador Theatre Group confirmed it was making 1,200 staff redundant, to add to the 130 that Nimax had announced earlier in the week.