Yorkshire venues facing skills shortage after year-long shutdown forced employees to find new careers

Arts and music venues in the Yorkshire region are facing a chronic skills shortage after the year-long shutdown has forced thousands of workers, many of whom failed to qualify for government support, to forge new careers.

According to UK Theatre, which represents performers and those who work behind the scenes, a quarter of the 200,000 freelancers who were employed in the arts at the start of 2020 have left the industry and are unlikely to return even when venues are allowed to reopen.

The organisation’s president, Fiona Allan, told The Yorkshire Post: “All of these people, from set builders to lighting technicians, are highly skilled with years of experience and that can’t easily be replaced.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“Only time will tell the real scale of this talent drain, which I suspect may be even greater than our initial estimates, but it will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on the arts for years to come.

Leeds Playhouse

“While many venues have benefitted from the £1.57bn Cultural Recovery Fund, there is still a sense of uncertainty about how the next 12 months will play out.

“The finances of many theatres rely on being able to host large-scale touring shows, but the producers of those shows got bitten before and are understandably nervous about going back on the road too soon.

“It takes a huge amount of capital to mount a tour and these shows take weeks to restage. I really hope that as part of the third round of the Government’s funding scheme we can find a way to support these producers because there is no point reopening theatres if there is nothing for people to watch.

“These touring productions not only provide vital work for freelancers, but are also provide guaranteed income for many theatres which then allow them to take risks on new work which may not generate the same kind of ticket sales.”

The box office reopens today for York Theatre Royal’s post-Covid programme which launches on May 17 with Love Bites, a series of commissions by freelance artists in the city.

Executive director Tom Bird said: “We have been really conscious just how many of the people we traditionally work with have struggled and we wanted to find a way to support them.

“As a result, we have commissioned 10 artists to produce a five-minute love letter to theatre and have been able to pay them £1,000 each - it’s not going to make up for their losses over the last year, but it is our way of helping them to get going again.

“I think we are all feeling a little wary about what will happen going forward, but as the vaccination roll out continues everyone from artistic directors to actors and touring producers needs to hold hands and take the leap back to doing what we do so well because we really are all in this together.”

The arts, which had already weathered significant funding cuts, has been one of the industries hardest hit by successive lockdowns. According to last year’s Arts Index, which provides an annual snapshot of the sector, public investment in arts per head of the population has fallen by 35 per cent in the past decade.

However, earned income by arts organisations from among other sources such as box office ticket sales increased by 47 per cent and with the curtain having come down on all but a handful of performances, the pandemic has also forced venues to find new ways to reach audiences.

Leeds Playhouse’s executive director, Robin Hawkes, said: “The last year has made us think more digitally. Streaming productions definitely gives us the opportunity to reach a wider and more diverse demographic, and some of the lessons we have learnt over the last year will become part of our programming forever.

“However, a theatre is about people, and there is nothing that can replace the live experience. Knowing that we weren’t going to be able to stage any productions in our studio space, we offered it out to local creatives a week at a time along with technical support.

“We honestly weren’t sure whether there would be any interest, but we had 85 applications for 16 slots. That shows that there are still people wanting to make work. Our role as a major regional theatre has to be about supporting new talent and developing work which tells the story of this city. It is what we did before, and it is what we will continue to do.”