Anthony Alderson is Director of the Pleasance Theatre Trust, a charitable trust that runs three theatre spaces in London and has been presenting festival seasons at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for 35 years. With the closure of London theatre’s and the cancellation of the Edinburgh festivals in response to Covid-19, Anthony tells us about this unprecedented time for the arts and the Pleasance.
How did you get involved with The Pleasance?
I agreed to take on this challenge from Christopher Richardson, founder of the Pleasance, when he announced his retirement in 2004. I have been working in and around the Pleasance and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe since I was 16 years old.
We’re going through a difficult time, how has it affected The Pleasance?
We stopped performances at the Pleasance in London at the beginning of March, when audiences stopped coming to see shows and we have suspended our programme at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. If there is a chance that we can do something and we have the support of the authorities and the public, then we may do something yet, but I feel the chances are slim.
The effect of the social distancing rules and of the closure of the theatres is devastating. We have no income in London for probably the best part of six to eight months and we have lost the festival season which is the mainstay of our business, making up 85% of our annual turnover. We are a festival organisation with a Fringe centre in London, we receive no regular subsidy and we depend on ticket sales to survive, things could not really be gloomier.
Somehow, we must reopen the London theatre and then put the festival programme back on its feet in the summer of 2021, but that is a long way off and will take some considerable support to achieve.
The cancellation of Edinburgh Fringe is an understandable but devastating blow to the arts, what does it mean for The Pleasance?
In financial terms, the loss of around £1.8m, which covers the administrative costs throughout the year for both London and Edinburgh. The same team run both parts of the Pleasance. The Pleasance last year sold in the region of 600,000 tickets, it represents over one fifth of the whole Fringe in terms of sales. To performers that is a loss of around £4.3m to local contractors, festival staff around £2.3m, to the city of Edinburgh’s local economy a loss of around £180m.
For you personally, what will you miss most about spending August at the Courtyard and Dome?
I am lucky enough to now live in Edinburgh, in Portobello by the sea. I lived in London prior to that but moved back seven years ago. I will certainly miss seeing people in the Courtyard this summer, I can’t quite imagine a summer without it. But watch this space, we still might have something to put on, even if it looks like our very first programme from 1985 which was 12 shows, or if it is online.
Performances have been presented at the Pleasance since the very first Festival Fringe in 1947. Four of the original eight shows took place in what is now Pleasance One. It was a different organisation, but the very same festival and the very same spirit, I am sure. I think it is important that we do something to keep that spirit alive. We could take a leaf out of the National Student Drama Festival’s book, which did a fantastic and inspirational job online at the start of April.
How will you be supporting your staff, and the artists who would have been performing in both London and Edinburgh?
Full time and casual staff have been Furloughed and the festival staff already engaged are being paid. Artists will have their deposits refunded if they wish, or we have offered to hold onto them until next year, as we would love to have them then.
We have created a database of shows that would have been in the programme to circulate to the regional theatres who might have booked them following the festival. It is important that we maintain the showcase element. We are exploring digital options and will potentially have a portal for work to be shared.
The team at the Pleasance have also been advising individuals on how to best fill in grant applications. A great many never having seen one before. Most importantly the best support we can give will be in the autumn when we can reopen in London and when we can get tickets back on sale.
The industry has responded by moving work online, what’s been your reaction to that?
It is inevitable that people have turned to online digital sources of entertainment and it is amazing how generous people are being with their creativity. However, the majority are free and in terms of funding the arts and paying artists this is unsustainable.
What do you think the future holds for theatre and specifically The Pleasance?
This virus and the social distancing will likely be devastating to this industry. Effectively the audiences stopped in February and I can’t see people returning to theatres in any great numbers for months after the relaxation of the rules. Audiences have to feel safe in these places and that could take time – for some, until there is a vaccine.
Regional theatres will potentially not have work to present as so many shows that were in production were cancelled and never created. Sadly, for theatres, you can’t simply just reopen the doors. Comedians, all of whom are self-employed, will not have gigs all summer and the consumption of content online is expected by so many to be free. For the Fringe, the independent and unsupported sector many spaces may never reopen. Theatre companies may be forced to close. Mid-scale and large-scale touring has been brought to its knees for the foreseeable future. All the freelancers, the majority in this industry which includes performers, technical staff and hospitality staff, will have to find alternative work to survive.
Theatres cannot just reopen their doors and start earning again, it takes months and months of planning and marketing. There is no contingency in this industry. It has been starved of funds for so long that any kind of resilience is non-existent. What makes matters more difficult is that with staff on furlough and no immediate end in sight, it is impossible to put seasons of work together in future or to get tickets on sale. Whilst the furlough may be helping now, it is effectively delaying problem for several months down the line.
If we want a theatre industry, an entertainment industry, creativity at the end of all of this, we are all going to have to support it to recover.
For those who are missing out on opportunities to perform their work this year, what would be your advice?
Try to keep working. Once we are open again, we want to house your work at our theatres in London, come back to us next year if you can. We don’t have a programme without the artists who create such incredible work and if we can help, we will.
How can audiences still support The Pleasance during this time?
We will at some point in the near future need to raise money to remount the festival, those plans are still developing and we will be putting a campaign for support together. Many people have made donations already via our website and for that we are incredibly grateful. Most importantly, when all of this is over, please come and visit us and other theatres around you. I know people are desperate to perform their work and we would love to see you there.
Main Image: Anthony Alderson