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COVID-19 Shutdown Threatens the Future of Shakespeare’s Globe

The London theater—a replica of the original 16th-century venue—relies on proceeds from live events now on hold due to the pandemic

Shakespeare's Globe is a meticulous replica of the Elizabethan theater where the Bard's plays were once performed. (Diego Delso via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0)
smithsonianmag.com

Since 1997, crowds have gathered at Shakespeare’s Globe to experience the Bard’s plays as they were originally staged. Actors perform without microphones or sets, and half of the theater’s 1,500 audience members stand in “the pit,” where they can interact directly with those onstage.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Globe—a reconstruction of the original Elizabethan theater, which burned down in 1613—has been shuttered since March. This week, reports William Booth for the Washington Post, its owners warned the British Parliament that without financial assistance, the London cultural institution may remain closed indefinitely.

“A little bit like every freelancer, it’s very hand to mouth,” Michelle Terry, artistic director of the globe, tells BBC Sounds. “So when that income stops, we have the few reserves we’ve got in the bank. It’s sort of like whatever savings you’ve got, that’s how long you’ll last.”

Shakespeare’s Globe is a nonprofit organization funded by ticket sales, weddings, catering and revenue from other in-person events on hold amid the United Kingdom’s pandemic lockdown. Without a cash influx of at least $7 million, the theater says it will not survive the year, according to the Post.

Because the Globe does not receive financial support from Arts Council England (ACE), it failed to qualify for any of the nearly $200 million earmarked by the government agency as emergency funding, reports Lynsey Jeffery for NPR. Per BBC News, the theater’s application for a portion of the $60 million fund set aside for organizations outside of ACE’s purview was also rejected.

“In a crisis such as this one, ACE has been unable to support an organization of our size and scale,” said the Globe in evidence presented to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee. “As an organization that contributes so much to the UK's cultural life, that delivers public benefit, and that stewards one of the most important, recognized and well-loved buildings in the country, we would hope that we have earned the right to be supported in return through this crisis.”

Addressing the committee, the theater deemed the pandemic the “greatest threat” to its future since its (re)opening 23 years ago.

The original Globe Theatre famously burned down in 1613, when fiery debris from a theatrical cannon shot landed on the arena’s roof during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Within an hour, the Globe had been reduced to ash. It took more than 300 years for a replica of the whitewashed, 20-sided structure—built with the same Elizabethan techniques, half-timber walls and thatched roof—to rise again.

In the years since its revival, Shakespeare’s Globe has hosted performances by the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, Christopher Plummer, Dame Judi Dench, Jude Law, Ralph Fiennes and David Tennant. More recently, the theater has released free, filmed productions of its shows on YouTube, reaching an audience of 1.9 million, according to a statement.

“The public [has] shown a huge appetite for culture in their lives at a time of national crisis,” says the theater’s CEO, Neil Constable, in the statement. “But our sector cannot replace income by streaming films online and donations.”

The Post notes that other independent British cultural institutions—including the Old Vic, the Royal Academy and Royal Albert Hall—face similarly uncertain futures in the aftermath of COVID-19. Given the time required to prepare shows, as well as the challenges of ensuring six feet of space between audience members, the London Theatre Consortium recently told Parliament that reopening the capital’s performance venues could take months.

Parliament and the DCMS committee specifically have taken note of the threat COVID-19 poses to Great Britain’s theaters. Addressing culture secretary Oliver Dowden, committee chairman Julian Knight reportedly wrote, “Shakespeare’s Globe is a world-renowned institution and not only part of our national identity, but a leading example of the major contribution the arts make to our economy.”

He added, “For this national treasure to succumb to COVID-19 would be a tragedy.”

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