National Theatre plans to cut up to 30% of staff are premature, union says

The theatre industry has been ravaged by the coronavirus crisis.

The National Theatre’s decision to cut up to 30% of its staff is “premature”, trade union Bectu has said.

The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union urged the theatre to continue to furlough staff using the coronavirus job retention scheme (CJRS) after employees were told the theatre was looking to make 20-30% of its workforce redundant.

It comes as top West End producer Sonia Friedman warned that 70% of performing arts companies will close by Christmas if there is no government rescue package.

The theatre industry, which employs more than 290,000 and usually generates ticket revenue of £1.2 billion, has been devastated by the coronavirus crisis.

On Wednesday the Government announced it was setting up an Entertainment and Events Working Group to find solutions to opening venues and businesses safely.

Philippa Childs, head of Bectu, said: “This is devastating news for all staff at the National Theatre and the wider theatre industry.

“Bectu believes that this decision is premature and the National should continue to use the coronavirus job retention scheme rather than pre-empting further decisions regarding the scheme from the Chancellor.

“In the short-term, Government must bring clarity to how the CJRS will continue to operate to stop employers taking such serious decisions.

“However, we are aware that many theatres across the country are weighing up their options and considering how they can continue to operate in the future. This latest news demonstrates how deeply concerned theatres are about their finances in the future.

“The workforce is also acutely aware of this which was reflected in a recent consultation of 750 theatre workers who outlined fears of: being forgotten by Government as the furlough scheme comes to an end as well as mass unemployment.

“The number of industry voices calling for direct Government intervention to help theatres survive the unfolding catastrophe caused by Covid-19 is growing each day.

“The cost of this crisis can’t be shouldered by the workforce. Government must step up and urgently provide an effective recovery plan to reassure employers that they don’t have to take such drastic decisions.”

The Society Of London Theatre (SOLT) has said it welcomes the establishment of a specific new group to find solutions to enable the sector to reopen.

Julian Bird, chief executive of the SOLT, said: “We have been liaising closely with our members and then with DCMS to ensure that the complex needs of theatre are understood.

“Theatre currently has no income coming in and over 70% of our venues will run out of cash by the end of the year if we are not able to find an alternative model to social distancing. The formation of this taskforce is critical.”

The SOLT has already set up three working groups with representatives from freelancers and organisations across the theatre and performing arts industry to find practical solutions to feed into the new working group.

Olivier Awards 2019 – London
Sonia Friedman (Ian West/PA)

Writing in the Telegraph, Friedman warned that urgent action is needed, saying: “British theatre is on the brink of total collapse. All the performing arts – theatre, dance, opera, comedy, theatre in education, Christmas pantomime, community shows – are facing the real possibility of complete obliteration.

“I know it sounds melodramatic. It beggars belief – but it is a statement of fact.

“Without an urgent government rescue package, 70% of our performing arts companies will be out of business before the end of this year. More than 1,000 theatres around the country will be insolvent and might shut down for good.

“The loss is inconceivable. What we take for granted has taken generations to create. It would be irrecoverable. We need our Government to step up and step in – sharpish. There is no time to waste.”

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