Sam Mendes

Much of our focus on the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have been on Hollywood, because that’s the business we cover. But we also have a vested interested in stage theater, since that’s where a lot of the silver screen’s biggest stars and filmmakers have cultivated their talents before becoming household names in Hollywood. That’s why Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (1917, American Beauty) has made a passionate plea for the government, donors and even Amazon and Netflix to help the stage alive.

Sam Mendes wrote an article for Financial Times with some ideas on how to help save the theatres in the UK. He begins by recognizing the threat facing theatres while also acknowledging that the theatre business is a successful one. Mendes wrote:

“In 2018 alone, theatre across the UK played to a collective audience of 34m people — approximately the same number that attended Premier League and English Football League matches. During that time, theatre venues generated ticket revenue of £1.28bn, and the cultural sector contributed £32.3bn to the UK economy — an astonishing increase of 21.9 per cent since 2010. Last year, theatre brought in £133m in VAT in London alone. In short, theatre and the arts are a giant economic growth engine.”

Even though some business are starting to reopen around the globe, the logistics of reopening a theatre for live performances is a little more complicated. Mendes said “the continuance of social distancing makes the prospect of reopening simply impossible,” making more financial support from elsewhere a necessity, and he elaborated:

“Many other businesses will be able to adapt — shops, offices, public spaces, some restaurants. Even a cinema with reduced capacity can have five showings a day of a single movie, making it perfectly possible to have a relatively successful socially distanced commercial run. But theatre and live performance — with one performance a day, and sellable seats reduced by an average of 80 percent — simply cannot stay afloat.”

So what does Mendes think can be done to help save theatres? First of all, Mendes is asking that the theatre tax-relief scheme, which previously helped fuel the growth of stage productions in the UK, be increased from 20% to 50% for the next three years in order to help with productions’ ongoing running costs and the remounting of productions that are currently on indefinite hiatus.

Mendes also proposes the introduction of what he calls the Cultural Investment Participation Scheme. The director believes the government could invest in productions with the promise of receiving some of the revenue of certain productions in return. The government would put forth money to support theatre, and some of the profits of successful shows would be given back to the government after the initial costs were earned back. Mendes mentions The Book of Mormon, The Lion King, National Theatre’s War Horse and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda as examples of shows that would work well under this new scheme.

Furthermore, on top of asking for more support from the “Theatrical Angels” who consistently make investments that are “the lifeblood of commercial theatre,” Mendes calls out Amazon and Neflix as companies “whom COVID-19 has made rich.” The filmmaker names them as beneficiaries of “making lockdown millions from our finest acting, producing, writing and directing talent,” and hopes that they don’t sit back “while the very arts culture that nurtured that talent pool is allowed to die.”

The performing arts is a critical part of our culture, and not just in the United Kingdom. I imagine plenty of stage theatres here in the United States will be facing the same crisis in the near future, even as businesses start to reopen. If you’ve ever gone to a Broadway show or even a small community theatre production, now is the time to help support these artists at the time when they need it most. As Mendes so succinctly said:

“The performing arts need to be saved now. Not next week, or next month. If they die, an ecosystem this intricate and evolved cannot be rebuilt from scratch. If it stops breathing, it cannot be resuscitated.”

The Guardian has directors, actors and other creatives from the stage scene offering up suggestions on how you can support the art of live theater, and hopefully, when all this is over, they’ll be there on the other side to raise the curtain once again.

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