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Thursday 29th October 2020

Mouthy Money talks to a theatre producer put on furlough for four months about her experiences and worries for the financial future of the theatre

At the peak of the furlough scheme as many as one in three workers in the UK was placed on the programme by their employer.

In a series of three articles, we talk under condition of anonymity to three people who have been through furlough about their experiences, what the future holds for them now the scheme is coming to an end, and how their employers and industries have been coping. You can read part 1 here.

Coming from the worlds of law, theatre and product design, they each have different experiences, anxieties over their employment and concerns about the future.

In the second of the series, we speak to a theatre producer about their time on furlough. Ellie Carmichael* was placed on the scheme because her theatre was unable to function due to coronavirus. She tells us about receiving government funding over and above the furlough, and why it may not be enough to save her and many other theatres.

Theatre producer – four months on furlough

How was the communication with your employer when you were put on furlough?

When we first started working from home it felt like it might just be a couple of weeks and then we’d be back to normal, but quite quickly that feeling changed. Soon, it became apparent that they were taking the decision to furlough 90% of the theatre.

For me, it really helped knowing that figure because it just felt way less personal – that it wasn’t just happening to me. Management maintained fairly regular meetings throughout the whole process so even as things started changing, we were still part of those conversations.

I had a really communicative manager and that really helped put me at ease. But I think if I had a manager who was too busy or was just not a natural communicator who didn’t prioritise this, then it would have been much harder.

I should say that while this worked well for me, I am a full-time member of staff and a manager. Whereas, I think people on zero hour contracts, especially the people who work front-of-house, had a really different experience and maybe weren’t party to the same information I was.

At the theatre I work for, we spend £1.5 million on staffing every month. After the furlough, fresh government help doesn’t really touch the sides. Things are going to be difficult.

What was your experience of being on furlough?

I was worried because I’ve never had time off to this extent before. I normally keep pretty busy and I was quite concerned about what I was going to do with my time.

Luckily, in a way, my partner who I live with was furloughed as well so we were able to keep each other from going insane. When I went on furlough all the business’s work was put on hold too so I didn’t feel like I was missing out.

How was your money affected by being on furlough?

Like many, my pay was reduced to 80% which I knew I would be okay on. I live with my partner who luckily kept his job and have a second stream of income from renting out a property in Manchester.

We also have savings that we could dip into if needed. Our landlord was very understanding about the pressures the situation may put on their tenants, so they gave us a 20% reduction in rent which really helped. I have not been affected nearly as bad as I could have been, but I wouldn’t be eating out at The Ivy any time soon!

I am still on 80% pay with this being bumped up 90% next month. The theatre is beginning to ask some staff to come back to the office and this is to help with travel costs.

Were you ever uncertain about going back?

I knew it was really unlikely that I would lose my job. I work in the outreach programmes and they would have to change their whole ethos if they got rid of me. However, I was really worried about the junior members of my team, but thankfully they all stayed as well.

I should also note, my experience is rooted in already having a pretty established career. This would be much harder if I just graduated or was just trying to break into the theatre industry. This is a really rough time for many people.

How does the future look for your industry and organisation?

Well, we are not making any money which is pretty difficult. I think it is worth noting that the £1.57 billion from the government to the arts is more than we were expecting, so that’s great. But when you boil that down to the applications and all the terms and conditions you realise this is not very much at all.

The most an organisation can walk away with is £3 million, and that is a loan. At the theatre I work for, we spend £1.5 million on staffing normally every month. You can see that doesn’t really touch the sides. Things are going to be difficult.

If we come to April next year and we still must do socially-distanced performances we might struggle. Theatres normally work on the basis that 70% to 80% capacity is breaking even and for most theatres at the moment they can only have at an absolute maximum 30% capacity. If that continues there will come a point where what we are doing is untenable.

If you too have been furloughed or subject to any other government schemes to protect your income or job against the coronavirus crisis, get in touch! Please email editors@mouthymoney.co.uk because we’d like to hear and possible share your story too.

*pseudonym

Photo by Donald Tong from Pexels

Neil Kennedy
Neil Kennedy

Neil is a communications consultant based in London and has strategically invested most of his savings into wine, gin and whisky. He plays squash, the trumpet and at being a film buff.

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