Pantomime dames lead protest calling for theatre industry support

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Pantomime dames, actors and creative industry workers have taken part in a protest to highlight the plight of the theatre sector amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Demonstrators marched to Parliament Square in central London to highlight the impact that the cancellation of the pantomime season will have on theatres and their employees.

The protest was organised by the unions Bectu and Equity, along with Excluded UK, a campaign group calling for support for workers who are ineligible for financial help from the Government.

Gary Bridgens, who performs as a pantomime dame and works under the stage name Gacko, said more needs to be done to help support the industry.

Coronavirus – Wed Sep 30, 2020
Gary Bridgens, who performs as a pantomime dame, said more needs to be done to help support the industry (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Mr Bridgens, who said he normally performs in a pantomime at Christmas, said the shows are “hugely important” for venues.

“Most theatres make most of their money, regional theatres anyway, make most of their money from pantomime, so not only is it a big payday for them over the festive period, it also helps to keep them afloat through the rest of the year.

“Pantomime is the first time that the entire family will generally go to watch a piece of theatre and if a pantomime is good and children are engaged, they might go to theatre for the rest of their lives.”

Coronavirus – Wed Sep 30, 2020
Pantomime dames in Parliament Square, London, as they join a rally to highlight the impact of the pandemic on live theatre (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

While socially distanced indoor performances have been able to take place since last month, many venues have not yet reopened.

In July, Jon Morgan, the director of the advisory public body Theatres Trust, warned that the majority of theatres will not be able to open with social distancing measures in place because it is not financially viable.

Actor Paul Valentine, 32, from south London, described the situation actors are facing as “bleak”.

He added: “At the moment, really the industry is on its knees.

“It is very difficult to get auditions at the best of times but at the moment, obviously there’s no stage work available.

“Then of course you have to think about what we sometimes call the ecosystem of the industry as a whole.

“Often when we are out of work from acting, we will go and work front of house at the theatre or we will work in hospitality or something like that to pay the rent or put the food on the table.

“Obviously all those jobs have gone as well.”

Coronavirus – Wed Sep 30, 2020
Pantomime dames in Trafalgar Square (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

“There’s only one pantomime villain performing this year and that’s Rishi Sunak,” he said.

Last month it was announced that four of the biggest pantomimes in London will not go ahead this year because of the uncertainty over whether indoor performances can resume without social distancing.

Hackney Empire, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Theatre Royal Stratford East have all announced they will not be producing their annual pantomimes this year and will postpone until 2021.

A £1.57 billion support package for the arts has previously been announced by the Culture Secretary.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “Our arts are a huge part of our culture and it is because of this that we are making the biggest ever one-off investment in the sector through our £1.57 billion Cultural Recovery Fund with hundreds of millions in grants being given out in the coming weeks.

“On top of this, Arts Council has provided £95 million for freelancers, and industry data shows that more than two-thirds of cultural freelancers have got support through our self-employed scheme.

“Indoor performances in front of a socially-distanced audience can now take place and we have always been clear that we will get full audiences back in theatres, when it is safe to do so.”

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