Nicknamed the Grand Old Lady of Gray Street, Newcastle’s Theater Royal has held a central place in the city and in the heart of the Geordies for generations.
Meanwhile, the listed 1837 theater withstood its challenges but its 18 months of pandemic closure could have been fatal to it.
An independent charity, dependent on ticket sales, it was hugely relieved at the end of 2020 to receive a £3million lifeline from the Culture Recovery Fund, the government’s £1.57billion bailout pounds sterling for hard-hit arts and heritage venues, saving it from the risk of permanent closure. But, while this eased the immediate burden, future uncertainty remained.
Read more: North East events to look forward to in 2022
It was amid the Covid crisis that Marianne Locatori took on the role of the theatre’s new general manager following the retirement of Philip Bernays.
A former manager of the Theater Royal Plymouth, she’s realistic about the current challenges, but she’s also positive – and enthusiastic – about the future.
These challenges will continue for the foreseeable future and it is the support of those who love the Theater Royal that will prove crucial in getting it back on track.
“The future is bright”, says Marianne, even if, two years after the start of the crisis which turned all our lives upside down, life after confinement remains altered and the theater is not in the position it hoped for. be at this stage.
Omicron is to blame for this. The rise in instances of the new variant towards the end of last year – which resulted in the cancellation of several performances of its pantomime just as it was being run in by returning audiences – has them takes you off the path to healing.
Similarly at the Northern Stage, Covid cases within the theater company meant a sudden halt to its own festive show, bringing it to an early end just before Christmas, while – just days ago – the series of Sunderland Empire’s Beauty and the Beast was forced to go on temporary hiatus for the same reason.
For the Theater Royal, the missing performances of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was another big financial hit.
The cancellation of 10 shows was “really devastating”, leaving them with £420,000 down payment.
Marianne says: “Last year was very difficult – and it continues to be difficult.
“One of the overriding positives was the response from the public, it was so encouraging.
“It’s really clear – and it’s not the case everywhere – that theater holds such an important place in people’s lives and that there was a real desire from the public to come back and experience live theatre.
“But it was extremely difficult financially.”
She adds: “We were grateful for the CRF we received in 2020-21 – this financial support was essential, a lifeline for a charity, and without it the charity would not exist now.
“It has helped us throughout this year.
“We expected this year, even by the end of 2021, to trade in a more normal pattern.
“We expected to be on the road to financial recovery now and in fact, in November, we felt very buoyant, really positive.”
Ticket sales for the panto – the lucrative annual event that that year was to be more crucial than ever – were the source of much of the optimism.
“And then we had the Omicron variant and that challenged us significantly and we had some unexpected show cancellations,” she says. “Omicron has served notice that the broadcasts have been taken down.
“It’s been a tough few months and that means we’re still at the start of this road to recovery – it’s been delayed because of Omicron and we’re still feeling the impact of those 18 months of previously canceled shows.
“So there’s a long way to go, but it’s encouraging to see that there really is an audience out there eager to come back.”
The ticket office is essential to the resumption of theater – “it’s what will make us live”, says Marianne.
Sudden Covid cancellations remain a risk – and costly for theaters and producers.
“I think we’ll have to live with that uncertainty right now – hopefully it’s not too long.”
But those who take risks have none of the protections available to the public.
Marianne explains: “The challenge for the theater as a whole is that there is no insurance for this scenario.”
Major theaters and producers can invest large sums in creating a show and running it but “there is absolutely no recourse, which is very different from the television and film industry”. The government won’t guarantee it, so it’s financially very risky.
So why are they taking such a risk?
“Theaters and producers are passionate about theater and believe in theater,” says Marianne. “But this risk of cancellation is a real worry.”
One show that was intended to air at the Theater Royal but is now a victim of the current uncertain situation is Fat Friends whose entire tour has been cancelled.
Marianne points out: “At the moment, if a show is canceled, the public gets their money back and that’s it. The loss is borne by the theater and the producer.”
Ticket holders are offered a refund or credit if, as in the case of Snow White Almost Sold Out, there is no availability to move them to another performance.
The sincere hope is that they choose to see another show rather than see the theater lose the ticket price.
But the Royal Theater is “lucky” to have a solid program of shows appreciated by the public.
If a show is cancelled, they will try to fill the gap in the schedule because sinking the theater also costs money.
With 100% of its revenue generated from ticket sales, the theater team will seek other money-making ideas for its program this year, including fundraising.
Operating costs, already high for such a large building, will increase across the board, not to mention ever-increasing energy bills.
There’s nothing more available in the government pot at the moment, although Marianne joined theater bosses across the country this week in a meeting with the DCMS, Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.
“They wanted to understand the situation that theaters like us, charities, find themselves in when it comes to funding. It’s not that the will isn’t there, but the government has many funding priorities.”
As for the current experience of going to the theater, compared to pre-Covid, the theater is sticking to its mask-wearing policy. Although they are no longer mandatory now, they are “strongly recommended” for the protection of the public and staff and to try to minimize the risk of disruption to the show due to Covid.
But the buzz is back.
This week’s show was Scottish Ballet’s Nutcracker – which ends its run on Saturday, with The Addams Family to follow from Tuesday – and Marianne says there was consensus as they all took stock on the first night .
“The vibe on every level – the audience, the staff, the backstage, the company – was special – because we missed it.”
They all want to come back and do what they do best, she said.
And the public wants it just as much, which reinforces Marianne’s positivity for the future.
“There’s a real buzz there. There’s a real call for people to come together and have this experience live.
“It’s really important for all of us and for our overall health and well-being.”
She adds, “It’s the vibe. We want to put on shows, bring people in, and we feel like we can do that and we know people want that.
“The hope is that we are on the road now; we have been through Omicron and the last two months and we are looking forward to it.
“During the 18 months of lockdown people realized what they had been missing and how important creativity and theater are again. We need that connection as human beings.
“I came here to make a difference and I am very privileged to be able to lead this beautiful theater in a beautiful city.
“The future is bright.”
For more information on the 2022 programming of the Royal Theater see here.
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