Sam Mendes Calls for U.K. Government to Rescue British Theater Sector

Leo Barraclough

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Sam Mendes, who as well as helming movies like “1917” is also a successful theater director with shows like “The Lehman Trilogy,” has called for the U.K. government to assemble a “rescue package” to save the British stage sector.

Writing an op-ed column in the Financial Times, Mendes said the coronavirus crisis presented “the biggest challenge to Britain’s cultural life since the outbreak of the second world war.” He said that theater and live entertainment are now in “grave danger.”

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Theaters across the U.K. are already going out of business – Southampton, Southport and Leicester among them – while others are on the brink of redundancy consultations with most of their staff.

Live theater isn’t a charity, Mendes underscored. “It is a massively successful business. In 2018 alone, theater across the U.K. played to a collective audience of 34 million people,” he wrote.

Unlike the health service, “the arts do not keep us alive,” he said, “but they give us something worth staying alive for.”

He added that live theater has also been “essential to the U.K.’s multi­billion pound film and television industry by launching the careers of literally thousands of actors, writers, producers and directors,” including Mendes himself.

He said it had also helped U.K. become a global “soft power superpower.”

Whereas other sectors of the economy were able to reopen, “the continuance of social distancing makes the prospect of reopening [in the theater] simply impossible,” he wrote.

He added: “Theater and live performance — with one performance a day, and sellable seats reduced by an average of 80% — simply cannot stay afloat.”

Mendes proposed a package of measures that could help save the sector:

First, the workforce must be sustained. “The job retention scheme for retained staff needs to be continued, and a package has to be created that supports the army of freelancers and self-employed artists who create so much of the work itself.”

Second, the theater tax-relief scheme had to be adapted. “We’re asking that the rate of tax relief be increased from 20% to 50% for the next three years, and that it apply to the production’s ongoing running costs, and to the remounting of suspended productions,” he wrote.

Third, private individuals who invest in productions, known as “Theatrical Angels,” should be able to “offset production losses against production profits, a simple relief not currently possible under existing tax legislation.”

Fourth, a Cultural Investment Participation Scheme should be established. The government would be treated as an “Angel,” using “the same formula to return investment and share in the profit of successful shows, once those shows have earned back their initial costs.”

Fifth, he appealed to streaming services to contribute financially to the theater sector. He said they should think of the arts as “more than just a content provider, but instead as an ecosystem that supports us all.”

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