Catherine Mallyon, Royal Shakespeare Company Executive Director, talks to Gill Sutherland about the closure of the theatre and what it means for the company and Stratford in the short term. This interview took place on Wednesday, 18th March, and is an edited version of a longer interview in the Herald newspaper.
What was the process of deciding to close the theatre?
We’re all a bit shocked by the suddenness of the announcement. Most people are very busy sorting out the situation. It is a generally worrying time.
We have been on the alert, seeing what was happening in other countries and the like. We were surprised at the speed of it on Monday – it was quite late in the day for a closure. But as soon as the government advised people not to go to theatres, bars, cafes – everything we run – we clearly had to make a rapid response to that.
We’ve had a major incident plan in place for years to deal with this sort of thing, but in taking this specific decision we also liaised with our industry’s bodies, UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatres, as well as organisations like the Arts Council, to try and get clarity about whether it was best to close immediately. It was decided that was absolutely what it meant. Obviously we can’t do anything that risks the health and safety of people working with us or visiting us, so we made the decision to close.
The plan we have in place governs how we close down safely and how we keep everyone informed – from audiences to staff and everyone else – and how we keep the buildings safe. Then we start to move into the next phase.
I’m sure one of your questions will be how long are we closed for and at this moment we just don’t know – it’s such a fast-moving unprecedented situation. [The RSC subsequently announced they would close end at least the end of April.]
Many have called the government out on not enforcing closures, what’s your stance on that, would you have preferred more concrete directives?
It was retro-fitted yesterday – the chancellor did go on to say that clearly theatres should close. On Monday had it been a bit clearer it would certainly have saved us quite a few phone calls trying to get the clarity. But I don’t think it’s for us to worry about the minutiae of the government advice, the crucial thing is to make sure we do the right thing.
What about the point that because the government did no order a decisive shutdown it may have compromised insurance – can you make a claim with your insurers?
Obviously we have a range of insurance in place, some of which will cover aspects of the situation. But broadly we like most theatres don’t carry insurance to cover prolonged loss of performances, it would simply be too expensive. There won’t be recompense for our loss, it is a serious financial situation.
What advice are you giving to ticket-holders at the moment? Are people asking for refunds?
There’s a choice. When a performance is cancelled, like it is now, the first thing we offer an exchange or a credit note; and at the moment we are saying they can donate the ticket cost to us if they’d like to or we of course can just give a refund. What we will be doing in the very near future is confirming what the current tranche of performances we are cancelling is. The message is if you’ve got a ticket don’t worry we will work out what you would like to do with it in the course of time. As you can imagine there’s a lot of tickets that will need processing.
What is happening with the productions planned – has all work ceased, are actors being kept on, and when do you envisage work commencing again, etc?
The Whip and King John companies were cancelled on Monday – their run was due to come to an end this coming Saturday.
The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors were in rehearsal, but are currently suspended while we assess what the implications of the government advice is.
It’s a very fluid situation, but our objective at the moment is that we get Winter’s Tale, Comedy of Errors and the Europe season, due to be on in the Swan, back to rehearsal and get them ready to go onstage whenever we are able to do so. That’s the intention, but of course it really depends on how long this closure is – it’s hard to tell how the virus will hit us. It’s a strange time because broadly most people are well.
We’re keeping the public areas of the theatre closed at the moment but we’ll keep reviewing that based on the government advice.
Can you give an idea of when the productions might restart?
At the moment we are finalising the dates when we are cancelling performances up until. So we’ve cancelled shows this week, we then need to work out how long the next cancellation period will be. But we couldn’t say when the productions dates would be.
Of courses we also cancelled Kunene and the King in London; and Matilda is also on hold for now. We’ve postponed all our education workshops. The Taming of the Shrew was due to tour America, South Korea and Japan in late May/June, so we are in conversation with all those venues. You don’t realise how busy you are until something like this happens.
What impact will this have on the theatre in the long term? How long could you carry on like this for?
I have to be cautious because I can’t really give an answer, it depends on how things pan out, how we can adjust things behind the scenes. I’m very conscious people are concerned about their job security. The best answer I can give is we are a resilient company, we’re in a good place, and we are well positioned to weather this for a little while. Our intention is to do that and then hopefully when we reopen we’ll be ready to go, but I wouldn’t’ want to diminish the seriousness of it or the worry people have.
Are you aware of how your closure will affect the local economy, and did you think about the impact on local businesses?
In normal circumstances local business is something absolutely that we would consider. We always try and keep our quiet time to a minimum because as we are very conscious of that, but in this particularly incident we had to close, it wasn’t a choice as such.
The impact on the small businesses in town will of course be devastating – it doesn’t bear thinking about. It will be a real problem if the closure goes on too long.
What does your closure mean to your staff?
Payroll is still operational. We were a bit quieter on staff levels as we were in a period of changeover. People who would have worked this week but are currently at home will still be paid and that will continue. But the broader picture is uncertain, because as you say so many people in this industry work on fixed term contracts. Of course we will do what we can, but normally when those contracts come to an end people would be moving on to something else. It’s extraordinarily worrying for everyone.
Do you have many staff on zero-hours contract?
We have them on variable hours, we have flexibility so how many we have working depends on what performances there are and audience size. And some of the creatives are on freelance contracts, so that is very uncertain and worrying. We’re trying to do the best we can and making sure we keep our staff. But if this situation went on for a considerable period of time we would have to be making some very hard decisions.
What would you like to see the government do to shore up arts organisations and help the people who work for them?
There’s a whole range of things, but in the immediate term across the whole of the arts sector people need help with cashflows as they are having to respond to ticket refunds. Then direct support for people who are on those different contracts who will find themselves potentially without work.
It was great to hear there was going to be support for those with mortgages, but what about those renting? This of course also applies to many people outside the arts – your readers and people in Stratford.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
What about you and the Herald? It’s so great that the community has the Herald. The fact that you are there is really important. All best wishes to you all.
Thanks Catherine, fingers crossed for us all.