THE PRIME minister has announced that theatres can reopen for indoor performances from 1 August as long as they adhere to social distancing measures. But while the opportunity to reopen is the news many in the theatre industry have been waiting for, the COVID-19 induced shutdown has left many much loved institutions and organisations on the brink of closure.
Hackney Empire is one venue under threat and fighting to safeguard its future.
With more than 85 per cent of its funding coming from box office revenue, closing because of the pandemic has put Hackney Empire’s plans to reopen at risk.
Last month a crowdfunding campaign was created to ensure the iconic theatre can reopen its doors.
Actor and Hackney Empire patron Clive Rowe, who launched the crowdfunder, said Hackney Empire “brings people and communities together like no other venue I’ve experienced and its atmosphere is legendary”.
“Theatres have been hit incredibly hard by lockdown, but a world without them is unimaginable,” Rowe said. “Places like Hackney Empire must survive, and you can help to make sure they do.”
In need of support
Support from those who recognise its value to the local community, its contribution to the UK arts scene and the platform it provides to creatives has seen the crowdfunding campaign raise more than £61,000. But there are just 22 days left for the £100,000 target to be reached.
There are alternative funding streams and the venue is “doing everything it can to secure funding”, but it is in great need of public support.
While the government has unveiled a £1.57 billion rescue package for Britain’s arts, culture and heritage industries, there are concerns that some institutions may not receive the funds necessary to survive through this avenue. The culture secretary Oliver Dowden has said the money will not save every job.
“Hackney Empire is one of our capital’s best-loved venues”
Deputy Mayor for culture and the creative industries Justine Simons OBE
Speaking to The Voice last week, Hackney Empire’s executive director, Jo Hemmant, said: “The government support for the arts is a step in the right direction. However we don’t know the detail of how it can be accessed and based on current distribution and funding patterns, I think we all have concerns that it might not filter through in the kind of quantity needed to organisations like Hackney Empire.”
Responding to the government giving theatres the green light to stage indoor performances from August, Hemmant said: “This news was surprising and was contrary to what most of us had been thinking. We are planning our approach but it is extremely complex. It needs to be economically viable and of course, safe for our audiences, artists and the staff team.”
Although normal programme hasn’t been possible under the restrictions and is unlikely to resume for a while because of the ongoing outbreak, Hackney Empire has continued to provide online support and engagement activities to hundreds of young people during lockdown.
It’s modern services like this and its commitment to young people, plus the theatre’s rich legacy – which includes the staging of so many black plays and productions – that make it such a valued piece of the UK’s arts landscape.
‘Hard to imagine city’s nightlife without it’
Deputy Mayor for culture and the creative industries Justine Simons OBE told The Voice: “Hackney Empire is one of our capital’s best-loved venues and one in which Londoners of all backgrounds have laughed, sung and danced away evenings. It would be hard to imagine our city’s nightlife without it.
“Like many of London’s cultural venues, Hackney Empire has faced huge financial challenges since lockdown.”
Simons said she and the mayor of London Sadiq Khan are committed to doing all they can to help, citing the £2.3 million emergency fund to support music venues, LGBTQ+ venues, independent cinemas and artist studios and the expansion of the Culture at Risk office to provide support to business owners as examples of the help available.
“Even so, there is still so much to be done,” Simons said.
“Now Government must do more to help them recover from the impact of lockdown. The furlough scheme needs to be extended for the creative industries and support for freelancers, who have been particularly hard hit, must be extended through the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme,” she added.
‘A legendary venue’
Hackney’s Mayor Philip Glanville told The Voice that arts and culture generally – and Hackney Empire more specifically – will be necessary to inspire and reconnect people following the COVID-19 outbreak.
Glanville said: “Hackney Empire is a legendary venue which plays a key role in the cultural, civic and economic life of its community. With an enviable track record in engaging young people from traditionally the most isolated and at-risk communities, Hackney Empire has expertise that we anticipate will be much-needed in the months to come.
“We are going to need arts and culture to inspire and reconnect us on the other side of this, and we’re especially going to need places like Hackney Empire – which are embedded in their communities and able to bring people together.”
To support the Hackney Empire crowdfunder, click here.