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Coronavirus: Refusing the refund can throw a lifeline to arts companies devastated by closures and cancellations

PUBLISHED: 18:07 23 March 2020 | UPDATED: 09:51 28 March 2020

The exterior of the New Wolsey Theatre  Photo Carl Lamb

The exterior of the New Wolsey Theatre Photo Carl Lamb

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As the effects of social distancing begin to bite, here is a simple but effective way audiences can make sure that their favourite theatres or arts venues will still be around when this current health crisis is over. By refusing a ticket refund, people can throw a much needed lifeline to a beleaguered arts community

Laurie Coldwell as George Orwell, Freya Evans as Sonia Orwell, Sally Ann Burnett as Evgenia Ransome and Philip Gill as Arthur Ransome  in rehearsal for Eastern Angles spring play Red Skies Photo: Mike KwasniakLaurie Coldwell as George Orwell, Freya Evans as Sonia Orwell, Sally Ann Burnett as Evgenia Ransome and Philip Gill as Arthur Ransome in rehearsal for Eastern Angles spring play Red Skies Photo: Mike Kwasniak

The effects of the Coronavirus have been swift and devastating for everyone but particularly for the theatre and the arts industries. Although there is a popular image of millionaire Hollywood actors or highly successful artists and musicians the harsh truth is that the vast majority of actors survive as part of the gig economy. It’s feast or famine and for many the feast is not always that bountiful.

Also, arts companies like the people they employ, largely survive on people coming through the door and buying tickets. Even regional institutions like the New Wolsey, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, and DanceEast rely on ticket sales to keep the wolf from the door.

Which is why everyone who has a love for the arts and regional culture should think about the Refuse the Refund initiative. This has been an on-going campaign designed to help beleaguered theatres, performers and arts institutions since the widespread cancellation of performances came into force at the end of last week.

Refuse the Refund provides the arts lover with a practical way to preserve the theatre or cultural institution they love. Theatres and independent cinemas, concert promoters, events organisers of all sorts are currently contacting people who have bought tickets to forthcoming shows and quite properly offering them refunds as these events are no longer going ahead.

Sarah Holmes, chief executive of the New Wolsey Theatre  Photo: Mike KwasniakSarah Holmes, chief executive of the New Wolsey Theatre Photo: Mike Kwasniak

But, the sad truth of the matter is that these venues and small businesses are not in a position to really afford to do this. Without money coming in through the box office, many of them face an uncertain future.

So, if you can afford it, Refuse the Refund. Tell the box office to keep the ticket money and use it to keep the venue afloat and keep the actors, musicians, back stage personnel fed and paid. It’s a simple and practical way to support a vibrant and life-enhancing industry but one, by its very nature, is not only very people heavy (it needs people to perform and create live) but financially is always very fragile and vulnerable to changes in the economic climate.

Suffolk has a wealth of hugely influential and important arts companies based within its borders – eight Arts Council designated National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) regional companies deemed to be creating work of national importance. It would be all too easy to lose them if we were not careful.

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No-one is insisting that you hand over your ticket money as a donation but, if you can afford it, it would be a great way to make sure theatres, promoters and companies were in position to put on new work (and re-schedule spring 2020) when the all-clear finally comes.

Let’s face it, if we have bought tickets, the money has already gone. It no longer figures in our budget and unless we have a sudden and overwhelming cash crisis then, it should be a relatively painless, but very important, gesture to say to the venue: “You keep the ticket money.”

From a selfish point of view, you are making sure that a venue or company you love, a place that you have supported in the past will be there in the future.

In the past five days, the theatrical shut-down has gone from a temporary fortnight’s closure to a month and now, for many venues, they look like remaining dark until the autumn.

Sarah Holmes, chief executive of the New Wolsey, issued this statement today: “Sadly, the current circumstances have led us to make the decision that all shows at the New Wolsey Theatre will be cancelled until September this year. With everyone’s safety in mind, we felt that this would be the best decision to ensure that we come back happy and healthy in the autumn. The current social restrictions mean that theatre companies won’t have time to rehearse their shows in time for Summer.

“We encourage that you think of this merely as an interval in the New Wolsey’s show, with the promise of a magnificent second act that will be worth the wait. It’s at times like these where we really see community spirit shine at its brightest and we have already been overwhelmed by the generous support shown by the people and organisations around us. Any donations for cancelled shows will be divided between the theatre and the visiting company. Performers and small theatre companies are particularly vulnerable at this time and we will do all we can to support them.”

This was echoed by the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds: “Following Government advice last week, we closed the theatre to the public and cancelled all shows until the end of April. As the disease spreads it is now clear that it is unlikely that we will be able to present any shows that we had planned in this programme so have now cancelled all programmed shows, outreach projects, education and youth workshops and theatre tours in the Spring 2020 season. This does NOT include our annual pantomime which is scheduled to open on Friday November 27.

For Eastern Angles, the arrival of the virus could not have come at a worse time, the opening night of its spring tour Red Skies, the story of when George Orwell met Arthur Ransome at Southwold on the eve of World War II. Eastern Angles are hoping that the majority of ticket holders will donate the cost of their tickets to keep the company going. “Whilst we have business-interruption insurance, it is unlikely that this will pay out in these circumstances. Our actors are contracted to the end of May. As a charity full refunds to all customers could be financially very damaging to the company and therefore we hope – if you can afford to - that audience, venues and others will help us bear the brunt of this extraordinary time through donation, moving dates or postponement.”

More details of how to donate to our arts companies are available on the web pages of the individual companies.

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