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Theatre in the COVID-19 era

07 May 2021

The National Theatre

Since opening in 1963, the National Theatre (NT) has never before experienced a threat like the past year. While planning and replanning to try to predict the direction of ever-changing scenarios, the NT has had to remain nimble and has endeavoured to stay positive during an incredibly difficult period. From the outset, the organisation had a clear mission: to ensure its survival and to return to making work as soon as it was safe to do so. The NT was also determined to share theatre with audiences wherever they were in the world and continue to deliver their vital work with young people. 

The NT is an entrepreneurial cultural organisation and the majority of its income is self-generated, with much of this coming from ticket sales at the South Bank, on tour nationally and internationally, in cinemas with NT Live and from the NT’s bars and restaurants. In March 2020, the NT, along with most in the performing arts sector, saw the majority of its income immediately halted. 

A national response

Lisa Burger, Executive Director and Joint Chief Executive of the National Theatre, quickly realised the sector’s survival depended on targeted financial support from the Government. Having worked in theatre, opera, ballet and the museum sector, as well as leading the NT’s collaborations with partner theatres across the UK, Lisa was well-placed to lead the lobbying on behalf of the cultural sector. The package secured on behalf of the sector was a huge relief and has been instrumental in supporting organisations across the country during this period of significant disruption. In December 2020, it was confirmed that the NT had been successful in securing a repayable loan of £20 million, an essential component in its survival.

Creativity in lockdown

Despite the NT’s closure, it has achieved a great deal in the past year, not least because of the dedication, resilience and ingenuity of its staff and the theatre’s freelance community. Just days after the NT closed and as schools across the UK also began to close, the NT widened access to its education streaming service, National Theatre Collection. This provided students with continued free access to NT productions and learning resources from home.

Shortly after, the NT began streaming free weekly productions from its NT Live back catalogue on YouTube to an audience of millions locked down across the world. This offering evolved and, in December 2020, the NT launched a new on-demand streaming platform, which allows theatre lovers to subscribe and enjoy unlimited productions or pay to access single plays. National Theatre at Home is available to watch anytime, anywhere – online, on TV, mobile and tablet apps, with more plays added every month. Nineteen productions have been added to the streaming service so far, and it continues to grow.

Alongside its digital work, last year the NT remodelled the Olivier theatre, its largest space, transforming it for performances in the round, reopening twice during the pandemic when restrictions allowed. The first instance was in October 2020 with a new play by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams Death of England: Delroy. This was an incredibly proud and important moment for the organisation, marking its readiness to return to live performances through its agility to adapt to the new restrictions and welcome audiences back safely. When the production run was cut short due to a national lockdown, the final performance was recorded and shared for audiences for free on YouTube.

Looking to the future

From June 2021, the NT will once again be reopening its doors for audiences and continuing its work towards recovery, along with theatres across the country. Reopening ensures productions can be staged once more, vital income streams can flow, and the freelance workforce can return to their craft. Alongside this, the NT will continue to be hard at work with schools nationwide, particularly in areas of disadvantage, to support their creative recovery from the effects of the pandemic. 

“I hope that we can open our doors on the South Bank to welcome audiences back to our theatres as soon as it is safe to do so. There is just nothing like having people in our building, and I look forward to welcoming you, our friends and supporters, back as soon as we are able.” – Lisa Burger, Executive Director of the National Theatre

Taking creative risks – the making of War Horse

LGT Vestra is delighted to have partnered with the National Theatre on a bespoke virtual event, Taking creative risks – the making of War Horse. With behind-the-scenes insights and featuring leading creatives from the theatre world, this event highlighted the innovation, risk and determination in bringing the award-winning theatre production from page to stage. Watch the recording here.

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