MTC boss Virginia Lovett.

MTC boss Virginia Lovett.Credit:Ponch Hawkes

The leaders of Australia’s top theatre companies held a phone hook-up on Tuesday to discuss their plight.

“[A federal support fund of] upfront capital would be absolutely welcomed,” said Melbourne Theatre Company executive director and co-CEO Virginia Lovett after the call. “Certain companies are getting close to a crisis point. We’re so reliant on box office and we are now drawing down on our reserves.”

She also welcomed the government’s recognition of the catalyst role the performing arts play in the wider economy.

“2021 will be a recovery year, as audiences regain their confidence to return… We’ll need government support for that recovery. It will be a couple of years before we’re back at full performance capacity. We need to talk about how to underwrite that [temporary] ticket loss.”

But if enforced social distancing capped audience numbers at much lower than theatre capacity, theatres would not reopen.

“The most important thing is we’ve just got to get back to non-social-distanced performance,” Lovett said. “I can’t play to 25 per cent, 30 per cent of the house – it is not financially viable.

“We are working with government to be able to open at a capacity that works for us. We want performances to be [classified as] not a mass gathering but an organised gathering, we know everyone who sits in our seats and we will work with medical officials to monitor and make sure health and safety is paramount.”

Industry body Live Performance Australia is advocating for a full reopening in spring.

“I’m not sure what we are waiting for while community transmission is so low,” said LPA president Richard Evans. “There might be a transition period but subsidising social distancing for an extended period is unlikely to be viable.”

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Mr Evans said temperature checks, compulsory masks and enhanced cleaning could help patrons feel confident to attend performances.

LPA will consult with members for two weeks then present a proposed assistance package to the federal government. Measures being floated include business reactivation grants and a marketing campaign to encourage audiences to return.

“On top of that, an extension to the JobKeeper program is critical,” said Mr Evans.

A draft document leaked to the Australian Financial Review suggested that Mr Fletcher had resisted pressure at a meeting of federal and state arts ministers to extend the JobKeeper wage subsidy for a longer time and to more freelance and casual arts workers.

It was also reported that he had pushed back at a state-backed proposal for the Commonwealth government to “share the financial risk of a staged return to operations” for the cultural sector.

With Max Koslowski

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