Scottish panto season under threat as theatres stand 'on the brink of ruin'

A leading theatre director has predicted the panto season “won’t happen” this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic as decisions over the fate of some of Scotland’s biggest festive productions loom.

Former National Theatre director Sir Nicholas Hytner said the entire arts sector was “on the brink of ruin” following the closure of venues.

He also warned that even a reduction of social distancing from 2 metres to 1m would not be enough to keep the industry financially stable.

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Mr Hytner told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that the industry needed “unprecedented and immediate” investment which would enable performers to find a way to work.

Panto season is under threat

He said: “This is the time of year when theatres have to start spending on their Christmas shows, it has to start now, and nobody can do that at the moment because there’s been no box office for the last three months, so there’s no cash.

“At the moment panto season won’t happen, whatever happens to the pandemic between now and Christmas.

“Panto season is when entire families go to the theatre and when theatres make the money at the box office that sustains them through the rest of the year.”

His comments came as the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh is expected to decide within weeks whether to shelve its Sleeping Beauty panto, starring Allan Stewart, Andy Gray, and Grant Stott, which is due to open on 28 November.

A leading theatre director has predicted the panto season “won’t happen” this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic as decisions over the fate of some of Scotland’s biggest festive productions loom.

Eden Court in Inverness is reported to be deciding on its Cinderella show within the next three weeks, which could be crucial for the venue’s future.

The Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling has already postponed its Maw Goose panto to next year.

The Tron Theatre in Glasgow has done likewise with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The Lyceum in Edinburgh has postponed The Snow Queen until 2021.

Julie Ellen, the Macrobert’s artistic director, said: “Pantomime is a critical charging point in the life of most theatres.

"People from all parts of our community come ready to give their energy to sharing a great time with others.

"This boost of energy and joy re-charges the atmosphere in the building, the commitment of the staff and, critically, the economy of the theatre. “Postponement will leave us depleted but to proceed without all our audience members being able to fully participate risks everything – unbearable financial loss and the loss of true community spirit.”

Joyce McMillan, theatre critic of The Scotsman, said: “For most theatres in Britain, including almost all theatres in Scotland, the Christmas season accounts for between 25 and 50 per cent of annual box office income.

“No theatre would ever cancel Christmas if it had any other option.

"The loss of that huge slice of annual income is enough in itself to ensure most theatres will be insolvent and facing closure by February or March next year – unless there is a government bail-out, at both UK and Scottish level, that fully recognises the impossibility of staging viable and satisfying live performance under pandemic conditions, and extends support for theatre and live arts, and those who work in those industries, at least until the spring.”

Jude Henderson, director of the Federation of Scottish Theatre (FST), said: “The impact of Covid-19 on dance and theatre in Scotland has been immediate and devastating and our cultural infrastructure is now at critical risk.

“FST has been consulting with our members over the past three months and last week we proposed a support and stimulus package to Scottish Government to ensure that our industry can survive and thrive, enabling it to take its place confidently at the centre of a fair, creative and sustainable Scotland.

“We are heartened by the cabinet secretary’s assurances of support and by the recommendation in the Report of the Advisory Committee on Economic Recovery that culture must be given high priority in Scotland’s recovery plan.”

Iain Munro, chief executive of funding body Creative Scotland, said: “Panto season draws millions of people to theatres across Scotland, often as a much-anticipated annual family ritual.“Planning for these shows takes many months and the season is crucially important for some theatres’ budgets.

“Much will depend on how quickly theatres are able to regain the confidence of audiences to reinstate income lost once lockdown eases.

“Creative Scotland’s absolute priority is working with Scottish Government and our partner agencies to protect the sector’s future, which is so vital to the well-being and prosperity of the country.”

Sir Nicholas said even if distancing was reduced to 1m, ”the maximum capacity any of us would be able to manage even, if we had a go, would be around about 25-30 per cent, which simply isn’t enough to run a big show or an opera or a ballet.

He said: “Most of that won’t be able to happen until the other side of social distancing and, honestly, the entire arts sector is on the brink of ruin and that’s not just the theatres.”

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