‘Brexit draws a massive line through cross-border work’: can theatre tours go on?

Marianka Swain
·12 min read
New visa requirements and border delays post-Brexit spell disaster for theatre tours - A Carrasco Ragel/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
New visa requirements and border delays post-Brexit spell disaster for theatre tours - A Carrasco Ragel/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Brexit is a major threat to international touring – and to the British theatre scene, believes leading commercial producer David Hutchinson, co-founder and CEO of Selladoor Worldwide. In normal times, Selladoor runs several British venues and tours multiple shows around the country and worldwide. But, in 2020, they had to “delay or cancel nine shows – including a 20-territory tour of We Will Rock You.”

Hutchinson identifies three key concerns in the wake of Brexit. “Firstly, the visa implications from both a logistical and cost point of view. The problem is that you’re looking at not just one set of arrangements, but 27 variants on how long you can visit without a visa and what kind of paperwork you need. It’s different in the Czech Republic [to how] it is in Spain.”

Usually, he explains, Selladoor productions “do dart about – we’ll plan a few different European cities in a row. That’s now a huge added workload, on top of the regular challenges of touring theatre.” And it’s hard to calculate the added costs. “I’ve got general managers on Government websites trying to work it out. But whether you’ve got a team of 50 actors, technicians and creatives on tour, or just a single musician, it’s the same bureaucratic burden.”

Hutchinson is also greatly concerned about the threat of delays at the border. “We might sometimes go to a country like China for a longer stretch – otherwise we rely on being nimble and popping over to Berlin for a few days. If there are longer inspections and you lose a day, then you lose hundreds of thousands of pounds.”

Of course, this is all untested, since “we’re in this weird period now where no one is touring anyway. So we can’t hear those stories on the ground. But when it comes to it, who is going to be the first to put their big shows out on tour and see what the effect is? Because the number of dead days will have a huge impact on the cost-to-return ratio. If we can’t make the numbers add up, we just won’t be able to tour in those European markets.”

Selladoor shows, like musical Fame, are usually toured extensively - Alessia Chinazzo
Selladoor shows, like musical Fame, are usually toured extensively - Alessia Chinazzo

Hutchinson’s third concern is about how the UK is perceived. “It’s been a bitter four years in terms of our separation from the EU. The arts are about sharing stories and embracing different cultures. I do worry that our fellow European partners and promoters might look within their own markets instead, because we’ve been seen to put up walls. All these headlines around nationalism and isolation.”

It’s a very different atmosphere from the beginning of the pandemic, believes Hutchinson, when it felt like the international arts community was united. “Even though it was terrifying, there was a sense that we would all pick up together and maybe rebuild touring in a different way. That is genuinely how I’ve expected every part of my sector to respond: with collaborative, joined-up thinking. But Brexit draws a massive line through cross-border collaboration.”

That’s actively unhelpful for British producers. “To make money, we need to export work and put it in front of the widest possible audience. We’re excellent theatre-makers, and the world is our marketplace, so it’s frustrating that this wasn’t part of the Brexit deal talks. With all due respect to the fishing industry – why was it all about fish? We are four times larger in terms of economic impact, so why were we forgotten?”

Neither does it help that the Government and the EU are blaming one another about the failure to secure visa-free artist visits. “They’re throwing it back and forth, you said this and you said that, but we’re the ones who lose out. We’re a massive sector with international clout – this is one of the parts of our economy that our leaders should be championing and endorsing. That they’re just ignoring us is staggering. What about the cultural capital of this country – isn’t that worth considering?”

The arts have huge value for other industries too, points out Hutchinson. “Just think about the cross-sector impact that culture brings. In a domestic sense, there’s all the small businesses that benefit from a theatre being open – such as bars and restaurants. But let’s not forget that we’re also international ambassadors for British-made work. The amazing artists we have, the stories we tell – this is advertising 101. That’s why people want to do business with the UK. They’re drawn to London for our West End shows, and then that drives other deals. If you’re looking at this ‘new world’, where we’re building new trading relationships, then supporting and promoting theatre is a no-brainer.”

Hutchinson recalls when he first started touring shows in Asia, local promoters would stick a Union Flag on the flyers and posters. “I wondered if it looked a bit tacky, and they said no, be proud – this is a badge of quality. Our shows were more expensive than if they’d just sourced the work locally, but they did it because the UK is renowned for being excellent at theatre.”

David Hutchinson, head of Selladoor Worldwide
David Hutchinson, head of Selladoor Worldwide

Because the end stage of the Brexit deal talks was “a very fast process”, Hutchinson says it’s tricky to gauge whether the arts were deliberately left out of discussion, or if it was just an oversight. Plus, the industry has also been preoccupied “with just trying to survive these past few months. But for a sector on its knees, trying to get through a period with no income and looking towards hopefully rebuilding this year, it’s daunting that there’s a whole other barrier because the Government hasn’t thought this through.

“I really hope they’re listening to the musicians’ unions, theatre heads and everyone else across the industry. We’re all reeling after so long without work, and we’re desperate to get out there and get people’s confidence back. Just help us do that.”

The restrictions would be particularly tough on grassroots or newer organisations – “it’s the difference of growing your business in that market or not” – but it’s certainly not ideal for bigger companies such as Selladoor either. “It wouldn’t make sense to travel across borders in these circumstances. So then British practitioners lose out, and so do international audiences.”

The reverse is true, too. “There are incredible artists from abroad who grace our stages here. That’s partly why London has this status: it offers the best art from around the world, as well as homegrown work. If we lose that, we diminish the vibrancy of our theatre community.”

The trouble is that the margins for touring theatre are very tight. “It’s a personnel-heavy art form, so just doing five or six shows costs a lot. But equally, you grow a company through geographic spread. We had a show recently that ran on three different continents. We can create ambitious, expensive work if we have all these markets where we can recoup. The domestic market is fantastic, but it will get over-saturated if everyone just focuses on Britain.”

In fact, the first show that Selladoor is planning for 2021 is in Auckland. “It’s DreamWorks’ Madagascar, which we made here. We can do a full-capacity run in New Zealand in summer 2021. We’re not making any plans for the UK until we know more about lockdown and the tier system. So right now, being able to take work abroad, without restrictions, that is a lifeline.”

Hutchinson is grateful for the support of the Culture Recovery Fund. Selladoor got £755,084 in the first round, and is applying to the second. “There’s a question in the form for this second round which asks what you’re doing to get income. So we’re said that we’re doing a show in New Zealand!

“Different countries will emerge from this at different times – and vaccine policies vary. In Indonesia, they’re vaccinating younger people first to get the workforce out there, since many elderly people depend on them for support. So we need to be able to make choices.”

DreamWorks' Madagascar in rehearsal: Hutchinson hopes to open the show in New Zealand in summer 2021 - Mark Dawson Photography
DreamWorks' Madagascar in rehearsal: Hutchinson hopes to open the show in New Zealand in summer 2021 - Mark Dawson Photography

Besides, says Hutchinson, if the Government can solve the visa issues for arts workers – once they’ve taken the economic and political impact into consideration – “it feels to me like an easy win. We all appreciate this is a movable feast, and bringing large numbers of people into a space to entertain them is a challenging thing. But we’ve always been advocating for transparency: give us the metrics you’re working towards, so we can start charting, making calculations, and do it in a way that fits with the timelines of theatre preparation. That’s months, not days.”

The more information the better, he adds. “We’re used to assessing risk in theatre – it’s such a risky business anyway. Just give us the tools to understand what you’re thinking, and we need it long term, not in a rush or a five-stage roadmap with no timelines. I need to know, can I keep my team together?

“And if I’m talking to commercial investors, who ask ‘What have you done to mitigate the impact of suddenly being closed?’, I’ve got nothing right now. So we need to work together, sector and Government. If they could back our insurance, that’s a really smart solution. Or let’s set up some working groups and have those discussions openly.”

Speaking to The Sunday Times this weekend, Andrew Lloyd Webber argued that British ministers need to take their cue from America, where president Joe Biden is launching generous support packages that will benefit productions which were forced to close by the pandemics. Applicants to the $15 billion scheme can get up to 45 per cent of their 2019 sales in cash – a maximum of £10 million. In contrast, less than one per cent of the Culture Recovery Fund has gone to commercial theatre operators.

Lloyd Webber fears that means there could be “a preference for shows to open on Broadway”, with its emphasis on supporting commercial theatre. Fellow producer Colin Ingram agrees: “If the West End loses a lot of money and has a rough year while Broadway does well, where are they going to put their money? It’s going to be Broadway.”

Hutchinson shares some of that frustration. “The Fund criteria didn’t take into account the challenges of commercial theatre. Lots of producers and shows weren’t able to apply because of technicalities in the application. It does feel like the process was driven more by the subsidised sector – I don’t know how many people on the Arts Council panel were commercial theatremakers.”

If Broadway’s commercial wing is propped up more financially, “it would absolutely disadvantage us in the UK. There’s this idea that it’s fine because we’re being bailed out by big rich people – but everyone has just lost a lot of money. Philanthropy is in a different place. I used to run a not-for-profit company, so I know both sides, and they work together. You need commercial nous to bring some of those shows from subsided theatres to a bigger audience.

Recent Selladoor touring shows include musical Amelie - Pamela Raith
Recent Selladoor touring shows include musical Amelie - Pamela Raith

But there was a clear separation, says Hutchinson, “like the limit for commercial applicants was £1 million, while not-for-profit was £3 million. Even though the latter might have had ongoing Arts Council help. That doesn't feel like a fair distribution sector wide. It shouldn’t be them and us. We actually have a not-for-profit entity within Selladoor, so it’s not cut and dried.”

It comes back to a certain prejudice about commercial theatre, thinks Hutchinson. “The important questions should be: how do you get people over the threshold, and then how do you encourage them to come back? I’m not going to be snooty about the tribute act that sells well in my theatre. We should be engaging as wide a cross-section as possible. If you asked me which sport I would watch first, it’ll be something popular like football. Anyone engaging in art is brilliant.”

The Fund money did help with overhead costs, though Selladoor still had to go through a redundancy process, and has also been put towards Covid-related technology. “When we’re touring again, we’ll be in contact with all the theatres to see what they’ve got, but we’ll also bring our own gear – temperature checkers, fast Covid tests, electronic counters which automatically calculate how many people are in a dressing room or in the toilets. And we’ll have contingency plans should someone test positive. But there may well be new guidelines by the time we can open.”

A big factor will be audience capacity. “We would only be able to do big venues unless that social distancing is relaxed. It’s just not viable for mid-sized venues with small audiences. But it’ll be a sad irony if the big, mainly urban venues get shows and the smaller rural ones miss out - so much for levelling up. The venues that the Fund has protected won’t have the product and won’t be able to sustain reopening, so that’s not the best use of public funds.”

But this is where international touring could make the difference. “In lots of European markets, they’ll buy into the show and guarantee your costs – so in commercial terms, those European dates are the most attractive, since it’s guaranteed profit. That used to happen in the UK, but now it’s usually box-office split.

“So, we could have a show like Footloose, which we’re planning to open in Zurich in September, and we could offset the riskier UK dates with the profit from European performances. This isn’t about the EU versus the UK. It all needs to work together to benefit everyone.”