How is the industry coping with this crisis?
It has been very difficult for the live performance sector. I remember vividly seeing the PM’s announcement that theatres should close at 5pm one evening, and we already had audience starting to arrive for that evening’s 7.30pm performance. Everything was so sudden – the performers needed to be informed that their tour was cancelled for the indefinite future, and the audience turned for home. Since that date mid March, the Hippodrome has remained completely closed. Our building running costs are so high, we have effectively moth-balled the site, with all but security staff working from home. This is typical of theatres, concert halls , comedy and live music venues around the country. The Hippodrome’s income is almost totally derived from ticket sales and accompanying food and beverage sales- we have had only a trickle of donation revenue coming in. What has been most difficult was lack of information pertaining to our sector.
For months we had no guidelines at all about how we might get back to work- we still don’t have a reopening date- and only recently have we had news of financial support.
What steps have you taken to secure its future?
Sadly the biggest intervention we have had to make is in putting staff at risk of redundancy. This period will see over 200 casual staff and nearly 60 permanent staff cease to work with us. The job retention scheme worked for some months, but we can not now afford to pay a contribution towards salaries, as we have no guidance yet as to when we can return to operate as a theatre and start earning income. We are losing talented, highly skilled creative people- as are theatres and venues around the country. It’s heartbreaking.
How has this tested your leadership?
Well, these are the most difficult decisions to make for any leader, and they are never made lightly. I keep thinking that the Hippodrome has been operating in Birmingham over 120 years. It has survived wars, closures and recessions. This can’t be crisis that breaks us, and it’s the leader’s role to make difficult decisions to ensure our longevity. The support and guidance of the Hippodrome Board has been a great help.
What have you learnt about people in this crisis?
I’ve learned what an incredibly dedicated and loyal team we have. Even when at risk of job loss, our people have been expressing their concern for the future of the organisation over their own. On the whole everyone has been very gracious and understanding of the difficult path we have had to take. Those whose jobs are secure have all taken cuts to pay and hours- even though I know many are working just as hard as they ever did.
Learning how we behave differently when working from home has also been a really interesting , and unexpected, benefit of this strange time. I’ve met my colleagues’ partners, children and pets via Teams. We’ve all become more casual – in a good way- in our interactions. We are much more likely to check in with how other people are coping, and to talk about our own moments of struggle.
Do you have recommendations or suggestions for the government to safeguard the industry?
The government have announced a Cultural Recovery Fund, which we are in the process of applying to. It looks to support cultural organisations over the next six month period. The support has come too late to save any jobs, but may just be enough to save significant cultural organisations, for the time being. Whilst this may help some- and not all- survive the immediate crisis, with still no guidance available as to when we can reopen profitably as theatre, or as yet much understanding as to how confident audiences will feel to return.
I expect that 2021 and 2022 could also be financially difficult years across our sector.
More organisations will go under without ongoing support. Also, 70% of our industry is comprised of freelancers- everyone you see on a stage, in a creative team, many backstage and front of house are likely to be freelancers. I know highly skilled theatre directors who are (happily I might add) currently stacking supermarket shelves. At some time though they will need support to return to what they are trained to do- our industry won’t survive without them.
What tips would you have for other leaders?
Get enough sleep and make sure you get some exercise. Seriously, my tips would all be the obvious things about looking after oneself and staying resilient. Take time out when you can. I didn’t for the first 8 or so weeks and my health started to suffer. I’ve given myself a good talking to and I’m now back on track with diet, exercise and sleep. It has made a huge difference.
Artistic Director and Chief Executive
Birmingham Hippodrome, Hurst Street, Southside, Birmingham B5 4TB