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Britain Unveils Aid Package For Cultural Venues Like Theaters


London without theater is like New York without Broadway. But that is exactly what the pandemic has wrought. Since March, more than a thousand theaters in London and across the U.K. have been closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Now the British government says it will spend nearly $2 billion to rescue the nation's theaters, museums and arts sector.

For more, we've got NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt with us. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Obviously, this money must be very critical to save the entire arts sector. Where's it going to go?

LANGFITT: Well, I think it's going to be a mix of grants and loans. And it's going to go to pay salaries and maintenance of some of these very old theaters in places like London. It's important remember these theaters haven't had income for three months.

And I think they're going to focus on some of the jewels in the crown, places like the Royal Albert Hall. The Old Vic - I don't know if it'll get it, but I would expect it would. That's a 200-year-old theater which is the home of - this is where the English National Opera started; the ballet started. This morning, I gave a woman named Kate Varah a call. She runs the Old Vic, and this is how she responded to the news.

KATE VARAH: We're just extremely thankful. So what this settlement package does is it provides a bridge to reopening and ensures that organizations like the Old Vic - but others around the country, too - may not fail.

MARTIN: But Frank, aren't things starting to reopen there? I mean, over the weekend...

LANGFITT: They are.

MARTIN: ...Pubs, restaurants, movie theaters were allowed to reopen. How come live theaters can't?

LANGFITT: I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that if you go to the West End in London, you have all these really old Victorian theaters. And they are - the seats are packed in so tight. When I go, I mean, it's very, very cramped. And so they would not be a good place because of the pandemic.

Other thing is that places like the Old Vic are charities. They don't get government subsidies, and they operate on very tight profit margins that really rely on ticket sales. So for instance, talking to Kate Varah, she said with the Old Vic, if you did social distancing, they would only be able to seat 30% of the audience. And she needs about 70% for the theater to break even.

MARTIN: So in addition to government support, I understand Netflix is also kicking in some money. We have to note that they are a funder of NPR. But what can you tell us about that Netflix...

LANGFITT: That's really - yeah, this is a really interesting element of the story. It's not a lot of money. It's about $600,000. It would go to help out freelancers with, like, what would be a 1,000-pound maybe 1,200-buck money for them. What's interesting about this is this was spearheaded by Sam Mendes, the famous Hollywood but really London theater director. And his argument was this. He made this really interesting argument in the Financial Times a few weeks ago.

He says places like Netflix, they've been making what he calls lockdown millions. While everybody's at home, they're watching all of this, but they really benefit from the ecosystem that comes out of London theater. So think about Phoebe Waller-Bridge and her Emmy-winning "Fleabag." Right? That started off as a one-woman show in Soho, then it took off at the Edinburgh Fringe. And his argument is these entertainment companies make a lot of money and they need to invest back in the ecosystem in places like London that generates this talent.

MARTIN: So the U.K. - notably, the government there has spent huge amounts of money just paying workers across industries, paying their salaries during the pandemic. So when you think about now this bailout money for the arts sector - I mean, who's going to pay for all this, right?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I think that things are really, really mounting. And what you're going to find is this is going to end up probably on the shoulders of the taxpayer. And what's really striking is the argument that the theater sector and others are making is if you don't save these sectors now, they won't be able to generate income in the future. And the government really does needs to step in. But I think it's going to be a big, big tax bill in the next years and decades maybe.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from London. We appreciate it, Frank. Thank you.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.