I sincerely hope that you and your family are in good health.
You may have heard in the news last week about the enormous challenges facing theatres and artists, which was highlighted by a Stormont committee on the arts. The stark reality is that theatres are going to be one of the last to get back on their feet as a result of this pandemic. Even when we are permitted to re-open, for example, the Lyric may only be able to hold less than one-fifth of our usual audiences with social distancing. Indeed, many of you have told us through our audience survey that only 20% of you would feel that it is safe to come back to the theatre even if we were permitted to open. As a charity, the Lyric receives some public funding, but in the most part relies upon you, our audience, for up to two-thirds of our income through ticket and other sales. With our audience numbers capped, we are going to need much more public subsidy to survive and thrive.
We are working in partnership with other theatres and venues to set up a proactive cultural task force with cultural leaders, politicians, business leaders and arts commentators who are passionate about the arts to give visibility to where we are at in the arts community. The pandemic has brought the curtain down on every theatre and arts venue in Northern Ireland, where the industry was struggling to keep its head above water even before the virus struck, and there are real fears that some of them will never re-open. And of course our freelancers – a massive and often hidden workforce – are suffering the most. There’s an entire army of people behind live gigs, theatre shows and tours, and many of our actors, technicians, set designers, musicians, stage managers, make-up artists and other behind-the-scene workers operate on a freelance basis and have lost all of their income. Many of them have also been unable to avail of government benefits because they do not qualify for them. Artists are the fabric of Northern Ireland and its communities. It makes absolute sense to put a plan in place that is focussed on sustaining their ability to work and remain employed. We have to come together to formulate a strategy and a recovery plan to provide critical support for our freelancers during this time, and ultimately to bring all our theatres and venues back to life.
We, although with other big players on the arts scene in Northern Ireland, including the Grand Opera House, the MAC and the Ulster Orchestra, are concerned for the future. But I am confident that – with government support – we can, and we will survive and thrive.
After all, a healthy cultural sector is essential to a healthy society overall. It has many positive flow-on effects for other important parts of our economy, such as the creative industries (particularly our booming TV & film industry), hospitality, and tourism. We know that creativity and culture create jobs and drives economic recovery; but for me, it’s much deeper than that.
Arts organisations are woven deep into our society. Across the country, theatre companies reach out to all manner of people; they provide safe, public spaces open to all, where youth groups, book clubs and education programmes can take place. The role of arts and health is well documented, and the arts will play a vital role in helping our society recover and heal after this pandemic. We see that already during the lockdown as people read books, listen to music and watch films to help them get through. At the Lyric, every day we clearly see how engaging in the arts builds wellbeing – through our work with schools, with prisons, with community groups, with big businesses, and through the reaction of our audiences; 100,000 of you who interact with the Lyric every year.
Since the start of the lockdown in March, we have been committed to adapting and innovating, providing you our audiences with access to great theatre through our online platform, Lyric Theatre Online, as well as seeking out opportunities to keep the theatre lights burning bright with brand new work.
With that commitment in mind, we are delighted to share with you today details of a brand new programme, created in partnership with BBC Northern Ireland and BBC Arts, and reflecting the current Covid-19 lockdown. We are thrilled to be working with 20 artists – all of whom have strong links with the Lyric – to create Splendid Isolation: Lockdown Drama, six new short drama commissions which will be filmed and broadcast on BBC Two NI and BBC Four at the end of June.
We are also continuing to stream some of our hit productions, and next week it’s time for Good Vibrations which will be available for 24 hours next Wednesday night, during what would have been the show revival’s live performance at the theatre. As you know, we had to take the difficult decision to cancel our celebrated Lyric production of Good Vibrations this summer, which was coming back to the Lyric before going on tour to Donegal, Dublin and New York. The story of Terri Hooley and the punk bands he came in contact with, is one of the great ballads of Belfast and pointed towards a way out of the dark. It’s the uplifting, hopeful, fun-filled celebration that we all need, and we very much hope to re-stage it again soon.
In this challenging time for the creative sector, we are so grateful to you all for your messages of support, for your input to our surveys, and for your generous donations to us during this time which have been such a lifeline. We look forward to working with you on our recovery plan, on how we can re-build and re-open. We need to think carefully about the tone and manner of how we will open again, to ensure we are doing it with sensitivity and respect, imagination and creativity.
We look forward to that day.
With my heartfelt thanks.
Please stay safe and healthy,