There is a domino effect at play across the sector at the moment, with the number of closures since last year reaching double figures. No doubt there are more to come, but Emily Williams thinks it can be done humanely.
I am two months on from my last day as CEO of Theatre Bristol, and four months on from the public announcement of our intention to close. With a little distance from the intensity of that time, I want to reflect on our industry today, where everything and everyone feels fragile.
When the possibility of closure was first mooted and we began tentatively to imagine what that process might look like, I knew there was a small window of opportunity where we could own the narrative of the ‘why’ and ‘how’, be intentional in our decision and deliver a thoughtful, considered closure.
Care was at the heart of Theatre Bristol and it was important this was reflected in the way we closed. There wasn’t a roadmap and there weren’t many examples of what a good closure might look like, so we set about designing a delivery plan for closure that gave us the time, space and resources to ensure a legacy - not just for the sake of the organisation but for the employees, for the community and for the city we had inhabited for 18 years.
Debilitating sense of failure
The sense of failure about closure is debilitating, not only for those going through it but for the entire sector. If the climate we’re in continues and closure becomes more common, we will have to find processes that deal with it in a way that fully supports the individuals and the legacies involved. We need to change the narrative of closure equals failure, by investing in training and sharing best practice.
My desire to talk publicly about closure and find better endings isn’t about succumbing to funding cuts or being passive. It’s about being active and acknowledging that if closure is going to be more frequent, we need to prepare for it to ensure the best possible endings.
Our funding system, with its scarcity, competition and survival off the fittest ethos, means any closure or significant negative change in resource feels like a slap in the face – a rejection. It is unsurprising - and forgivable - that closure is cast with shame, failure, regret and anger. After all, we work relentlessly to keep going, against all the odds.
A choice not a reaction
Imagine closing an organisation was a choice rather than the only option, with leaders and boards empowered and supported to make that decision rather than having to react to a financial or political context imposed on them. Office for National Statistics data show that in the first quarter of 2023 more UK-based companies closed than opened, more than double the number of closures in the same period in 2022.
If closure is inevitable, can we go about it with the best intentions to give surrounding communities time to process and time to grieve? How can we ensure an organisation’s legacy is protected and accessible for others to learn from in the future?
At the same time, we must think about where and how organisations can think and talk openly about closure from the beginning. Where might we be able to control the lifespan of an idea or company? How might that inform success - rather than funding bodies owning our futures? Isn’t it time to move on from an organisation’s age being a key measure of its quality?
Proud of how we closed
I can deny that for nearly a year since the NPO outcomes, alongside other funding delays and rejections, there have been feelings of shame, anger, regret and sadness. But I left Theatre Bristol at the end of September feeling proud. Proud of how we closed. We hadn’t run at the wall and run out of money. We made good decisions, and with time on our side, we were able to consider all possibilities.
ACE’s transition fund played a part in this, as did our reserves. But it was the leadership - from the team and board - that made it so successful. The work we did to be clear in our communications; to create an archive; to find where we could pass the baton on; where we could share resources with freelancers and artist-led organisations; to offer the best support to staff throughout the process by means of coaching, exit interviews, professional development and enhanced redundancy.
One year on, I honestly believe that by ending well, it will lead to good beginnings.