A Story of Survival
September 2019: Play to the Crowd has just celebrated an exciting new rebrand, a fabulous foyer refurbishment and brand new Cafe Bar and the charity is thriving. Our team is working hard in preparation for another cracking Hat Fair and the official launch event for Playmakers, our community engagement and creative learning strand.
16 March 2020: Theatre Royal Winchester is forced to close due to government advice and we effectively lose all of our ticket and bar income overnight - around 80% of our charity’s turnover.
Two weeks later we announce the cancellation of Hat Fair 2020.
Within four weeks 90% of our team is furloughed (and some remain so even now).
It didn’t take long after the initial ‘sprint’ to manage the immediate crisis to realise this was going to be a marathon, racing towards an unknown finish line. As social distancing came into force, our vital work became impossible. The theatre could not open. The festival could not happen. Playmakers could not bring our community together. Coronavirus had the potential to financially devastate our sector - although no one could have imagined then all that would unfold over the coming months.
As a prompt return to normality became less likely, we as a charity took a moment to pause and reflect. We began to consult with our stakeholders and audiences, checking in with them and having very open, beneficial conversations about how we could continue to best serve our community both in the immediate future and in a post-Covid world.
We were heartened by the messages of support from our community, telling us how important Play to the Crowd was to them. Over 75% of those we consulted said what they missed most was ‘the buzz of the live experience’. We knew then that whatever we did, however tough it was, we had to be there on the other side. After all, our charity exists to delight and unite everyone through the power of live performance - in an increasingly virtual world, our mission was more important than ever.
However, by June, the harsh reality of potential insolvency meant there needed to be decisive action by September. We had already made the heartbreaking decision to enter redundancy consultations with our staff and if we did not find vital investment urgently, we risked going out of business entirely. We had to do everything in our power to avoid this outcome and so again we turned to our brilliant community.
On Friday 3 July, what would have been the opening day of our cancelled Hat Fair 2020, we launched our Survival Appeal to raise £225,000 by September to survive the crisis. Looking at every avenue to secure these funds, our hope was an online crowdfunder would help raise at least £60,000 from our community by September.
It raised this amount in just 4 days.
By the end of September almost 2,000 people had raised over £130,000 through our crowdfunder alone - and this amount continues to climb even now.
Many famous faces lent their support to the appeal, including Dame Judi Dench, actress Sarah Parish, and comedians Marcus Brigstocke and Mark Watson.
With additional support from fantastic local organisations, businesses, charitable foundations and our brilliant trustees, we succeeded in raising over £300,000 in total - far exceeding our target.
It was incredibly humbling and exhilarating to see just how much people valued our charity. You agreed that it was unthinkable for Winchester to lose such an important aspect of community life as well as such a valuable contributor to the local economy and to people’s mental health and well-being.
Alongside our appeal’s success, the summer also saw the UK Government announce the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which supported our Cafe Bar’s successful reopening, and the long-awaited £1.57bn arts rescue package. This was a vital lifeline after we had to make the devastating decision to postpone our annual own-produced pantomime, Aladdin, from Winter 2020/21 to Winter 2021/22. The impact of this loss meant we would need further financial support to mitigate any ongoing risks and uncertainties over the coming months.
Happily, in the first week of October, we heard that our Culture Recovery Fund application to Arts Council England had been successful - Play to the Crowd’s immediate future was secured. Around this time we were also delighted to hear that we had successfully secured vital grants from both Theatres Trust and Hampshire and IOW Community Foundation towards the necessary costs of providing a Covid secure environment within the theatre
With this support in place, the team confidently set about preparing for our full reopening. Our Youth Theatre returned socially distanced and we began planning future performances, taking out rows of auditorium seats and upgrading our air filtration systems to ensure safety for audiences.
Finally in December, despite the disruption of another national lockdown in November, we presented a special, fun filled and socially distanced Christmas show, Four Dames in Search of a Panto. Produced by the same creative team behind our pantomimes, the show proved hugely popular and ensured our local community could still enjoy the festive period in a Covid secure environment. It was a significant and emotional achievement for the whole Play to the Crowd team. In addition to the in-person experience in our auditorium we produced our first ever livestream - for those audience members shielding at home, too far away or not yet confident to return.
However, our excitement was short-lived and 20 days and 35 shows later, Winchester entered Tier 4 on Boxing Day, followed by a further national lockdown from 5 January.
Those winter months were difficult for many individuals, businesses and charities alike. However, now there is a distinct light at the end of the tunnel, and with the continued success of the vaccine rollout and the government’s defined road map, we continue to plan ahead with confidence, thanks to our brilliant community.
None of this vital work would be possible now without the success of our initial Survival Appeal last year and the incredibly generous support received from the people of Winchester and our wider audiences. You saved us - and we cannot wait to welcome you back as soon as possible!