Pantomime dames lead protest calling for theatre industry support

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 march was led by six pantomime dames who were in costume.

Coronavirus – Wed Sep 30, 2020
Coronavirus – Wed Sep 30, 2020

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.

“If the Government don’t support theatre in its hour of need, there won’t be any – or worse, it will all need rebuilding after this disaster,” he told the PA news agency.

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
Coronavirus – Wed Sep 30, 2020

He added the impact from the cancellation of pantomimes this year “will ripple through the entire theatre industry for a generation”.

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
Coronavirus – Wed Sep 30, 2020

Equity general secretary Paul Fleming said 40% of his union’s members have not received coronavirus-related support from the Government and the industry is “genuinely on the point of collapse”.

“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.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport have been contacted for comment.