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“Two pigeons in the foyer, a baby seagull falling off the roof and the lager kegs exploding in the heat”: Elspeth McBain tells why she was tempted to just get a straw and forget about her venue’s problems for a while…

Poole's Lighthouse venue floodlit at night
Lighthouse lit – memories of better times

As venues and arts organisations we are facing the unimaginable – an invisible but indisputable threat to our very existence. Lighthouse’s Covid-19 journey has probably been similar to most: it feels like we are in a maelstrom that we naïvely, ludicrously, imagined we would be out of by Easter.

The perfect storm

Based in the small seaside town of Poole in Dorset, Lighthouse is a large multi-venue receiving house across all art forms, which receives funding as an Arts Council NPO and from a local authority – itself facing fathomless debt – and needs to earn 81 per cent of its income. Open or closed, large buildings cost a great deal of money and cash reserves are restricted against advanced ticket sales. Most venues have reserves that will provide for a couple of months of lost trading, but none for the six months or more we are all now facing. The global pandemic has created a perfect storm – ferocious enough for me to wonder seriously if we can sail through intact and not be left dead in the water.

When I talked to my team on 16 March and advised that we had to prepare for a short closure, little did I think that a mere 24 hours later we would literally be battening down the hatches. Nor did I imagine we would cancel or postpone all 721 events planned before the end of September. Getting sick with a heavy dose of Covid symptoms two days later wasn’t ideal either (I’m an early adopter…).

Over the following two weeks my team got on with the practical elements while I recovered, unable to interfere too much – to their relief I’m sure. Fortunately we had been able to road-test several elements of crisis management before. The catastrophic flood we experienced on our theatre stage the previous summer was, as I told everyone, the best practice they could ever have had to approach this period confidently and calmly, as we were now experts!

Navigating through the fog

We knew there’d be money troubles of course, but the actual physical act of reopening our cultural spaces and reuniting with our audiences is presenting a chain of challenges that feels like we are steering a course through debilitating thick fog. Without clear markers for the sector, both in terms of time frame and the requirements we will need to ensure our staff, artists and audiences are kept safe, we have been developing our own plans in the knowledge that they will probably be ripped up as and when the Government decides what venues can and can’t do.

As the easing of lockdown continues we are keeping a close eye on what other venues are doing and learning from esteemed colleagues who surely know way more than we. Except the stark reality is no one really knows what we will need to do – and that is the frustration.

Staying afloat

While our own situation is frighteningly precarious, we have put in place all we can to ensure we are able to continue to provide the vitally important cultural programme that our community wants, needs, and absolutely should have. We have pared down expenditure to the absolute minimum – only three staff still working with the other 108 furloughed. Our weekly company Zoom meeting is a light-hearted, direct channel of communication and crucially, it is keeping us connected as a team.

I’m finally allowed to be key holder of the empty building so I scan the post and deal with unexpected issues – two pigeons in the foyer, a baby seagull falling off the roof and the lager kegs exploding in the heat. I admit it was tempting to just get a straw and forget about our problems for a while!

I am so glad we have maintained commitment to the artists and freelancers we work closely with and commissioned small pieces of work that have had a huge impact on our engagement with audiences We have contributed towards the Dorset Artists’ Emergency Fund - please donate - and have honoured fees for cancelled performances by smaller scale independent artists whose livelihoods depend on venues like ours booking their gigs.

We would like to do more but believe our own survival in the long term is the immediate priority. Besides, the marketing team is furloughed… and how do I upload digital content anyway?

Calmer waters?

Our loyal community has kept us afloat through donations, taking credit against rescheduled performances and sending messages of encouragement and love.

The job retention scheme, the early, no-quibbles advance of Arts Council NPO funding and the swift creation of the Emergency Response Fund (fingers crossed we will be supported), have kept us from keeling over. What next though? There’s no shortage of creative thinking but what holds us back is the sheer scope of the unknown. Will audiences return, will promoters have shows on tour? Do we open in September, or January, or even April? It all keeps me awake every night, trying to think of innovative, engaging and enchanting ways of being ‘socially safe’, and reaching calmer financial waters.

Arts organisations are talking and we await a national voice that speaks as clearly for regional concerns as those of the West End. Until the emergence of a consensus view, and the answers to some of the questions, we hold hard and fast, and look forward to a time when we can be together again with our audiences, artists, performers and friends.

And the beer will be replenished for the Lighthouse ‘Three Sheets to the Wind’ Party!

Elspeth McBain is Chief Executive of Lighthouse, Poole’s centre for the arts

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Elspeth McBain