Scottish Theatre's nightmarish waiting game

Like Vladimir and Estragon, Scottish theatre is waiting for something that might never come – a government bailout that could prevent huge job losses and even bankruptcy, writes Joyce McMillan
Bill Paterson and Brian Cox in the Lyceum Theatre's 50th anniversary production of Waiting for Godot PIC: Laurence WinramBill Paterson and Brian Cox in the Lyceum Theatre's 50th anniversary production of Waiting for Godot PIC: Laurence Winram
Bill Paterson and Brian Cox in the Lyceum Theatre's 50th anniversary production of Waiting for Godot PIC: Laurence Winram

When Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary, back in 2015, it did so with a terrific production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, starring Brian Cox and Bill Paterson. Today, only a ghost light sits on the darkened stage where those two mighty stage veterans strutted their stuff; but still, that image of human beings waiting and waiting, for a powerful intervention that may never come, seems ever more relevant to the situation of Scottish theatre during the Covid lockdown.

“As one of our members put it, it’s like a conveyor belt,” said the joint chair of the Federation of Scottish Theatre, Liam Sinclair, after we last spoke three weeks ago. “Some theatres, because of their financial circumstances, are further along the track, and will drop off the edge a few weeks earlier. But without some kind of bailout, we will all reach that point, sometime in the coming months; we’re all on the same journey, towards the same crisis.”The “edge” Sinclair is talking about is the moment when theatres – like Dundee Rep, of which he is joint chief executive – have to face the choice of becoming insolvent and facing bankruptcy, or sacking large sections of their workforce. As the Covid crisis has deepened, it has become increasingly clear that most live performance venues cannot viably stage performances that involve social distancing, and are therefore facing closure until the spring of 2021 at best; and that means that the threat of looming bankruptcy now hangs most urgently over our building-based theatre companies, which have much higher numbers of permanent staff, and a much greater dependence on box office receipts and other earned income, than smaller touring groups.

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The first theatre to stare down the barrel of a gun, and to start issuing “at risk of redundancy” notices to a section of its staff, was therefore Pitlochry Festival Theatre, which took its first steps towards redundancy negotiations in late April, and last week issued a much larger batch of redundancy notices, covering almost half of the theatre’s 98 staff. “It’s absolutely terrible to have to do this,” says Pitlochry’s artistic director Elizabeth Newman, “but our top priority has to be to ensure that there is still a theatre company for audiences and theatre-makers to come back to, after the Covid crisis is over. We’ve also said that we very much hope to be able to re-employ many of those who have lost their jobs, once we get up and running again.”

The next theatre to move in the direction of redundancies was Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre Company, one of the flagships of Scottish postwar theatre, founded by Tom Fleming and others in 1965. On 20 May, the Lyceum announced that it was putting the theatre into “hibernation” until Spring 2021, and began to issue “at risk” notices to all employees, with 43 staff members – almost all members of BECTU, the technicians’ union – likely to face redundancy under current plans; but here, the moves to slash the company’s wage bill have proved controversial. More than 7,000 people – including high-profile stars Brian Cox and Alan Cumming – have signed an online petition to the Scottish Government asking for help to prevent the redundancies, and suggesting that the theatre’s senior management (essentially joint chief executives David Greig and Mike Griffiths) are using the cover of the crisis to get rid of the theatre’s in-house production staff. Paul McManus of BECTU in Scotland says that the company’s financial case for an urgent need to make redundancies is unconvincing, and that the Lyceum management has gone “too early, and too hard” on the need to cut its workforce.

Yet for Greig and Griffiths, the risk of acting too late far outweighs the risk of acting too soon. “If we act too soon, and a bailout comes along later,” says Greig, “at least the company is still solvent, it’s still here, we still have the lease on the building, and we can start to put on shows and employ people again. But if we act too late, and end up with wage commitments we just can’t meet – well, then the company’s gone, possibly as soon as February. The building reverts to the City Council; and that could be the end of the Lyceum as a producing theatre. I can’t risk that.”

Whatever the problems at the Lyceum, though, it’s increasingly clear that the broader picture for Scottish theatre remains one of looming financial crisis at all levels. This week, the MacRobert Theatre in Stirling announced the cancellation of its acclaimed annual Johnny McKnight pantomime, which accounts for almost half of its annual box office income. Within a few weeks, a decision is likely to be made about the fate of the huge King’s panto in Edinburgh, which sells over 90,000 tickets a year, and brings in over £2 million of income to Edinburgh’s Capital Theatres organisation, which runs the King’s and Festival Theatres. And theatre after theatre is beginning to realise that even if there is no resurgence of the virus, and doors can reopen again next spring, there is no guarantee that audiences will want to return in their previous numbers, at least at first.

“In a sense,” says Sinclair of the FST, “what theatre is going through is like a grief process. At first, we thought we might be closed for just a few weeks; but it’s gradually become clear that for live performance, this is a crisis on a huge scale, and that we’re never going back to the theatre scene we knew before, and which we all loved so much. The grief is immense, and people react to that in all sorts of ways; they go into denial, they lash out, some are on the verge of cracking up. Theatre will return, no doubt; but it will be greatly changed, and it’s perhaps not surprising that people are still in mourning, and feeling very emotional.”

And meanwhile, theatres continue to wait for the government help that will be essential, now, if live performing arts made in Scotland are to get back on their feet in any recognisable form. New Zealand just announced a $175 million rescue package for its arts scene; the Scottish government – operating under different conditions, as a devolved administration – has so far not offered even a tenth as much. The Cabinet Secretary for Culture Fiona Hyslop has been listening, though, and is fully aware of the scale of the problem. So now, it’s a matter of dealing with the crisis as practically as possible from day to say, trying to keep the ghost lights burning on dark stages across Scotland, lobying hard, and waiting for Godot; waiting for the package of help that may arrive soon, or then again – given the current pressures on government – may never come at all.