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How is Brexit affecting London theatres?

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

In 2016, the British public voted to leave the European Union in a historic referendum which split the country into two: "remainers" and "Brexiteers." It's been the topic of thousands of news stories and has even been dramatised. David Cameron and Nigel Farage were parodised in Brexit the Musical, while two staunch Brexit supporters wrote People Like Us, which premiered at the Union Theatre in 2018. 

Brexit is no longer just a point of hypothetical conversation. On 31 December 2020, the United Kingdom left the European Union and we're now living in a post-Brexit world. Affecting every part of society, Brexit has changed elements of the theatre industry forevermore. With Brexit repercussions being announced often, we take a look at how Brexit is affecting London theatres, as well as a nationwide outlook.

What did initial Brexit research say about the United Kingdom and Europe?

Extensive research and discoveries were being made a long time before Brexit actually happened. According to this 2017 Arts Council research, Brexit is unlikely to affect people choosing to attend a West End show, even if creative bodies were unreceptive to the change. Although, "there is a strong feeling that Brexit could have a negative impact on the UK's international reputation in the arts and culture sector."

Written three years before the UK left the EU, it was hard to gauge the true potential of what Brexit could mean to society. Throw a global pandemic into the mix and rules have been doubly changed to accommodate both Brexit and Coronavirus. 

How did UK and European Union cultural institutions work together before Brexit?

Prior to the UK leaving the European Union, creative programmes were a lifeline for English theatre. According to research, over 1,300 projects related to the arts, museums, and the creative industries in general in England received £345 million in EU funding from 2007 - 2016. In fact, without EU funding, productions across England and the rest of the United Kingdom may not have happened. 

Have plans for London theatre touring productions changed?

Brexit has changed visa laws and working rights for millions, and this has had a knock on effect on upcoming plans, including touring productions. Reported by the BBC, the National Theatre will no longer take their shows to Europe due to visa constraints and additional obstacles which has made it tricker to stage productions internationally. A spokesperson for the National Theatre said they cannot "confirm any touring commitments in Europe as a result of Brexit legislation".

Previously, the National Theatre has toured their shows internationally, including The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and War Horse. It's important to note that this is just the National Theatre's decision. Other companies are working towards international tours of British productions.

If international productions do wish to tour in London and across the United Kingdom, this will still be possible. However, continuing visa restrictions will still apply.

Do arts workers want to find work in EU countries?

A recent Equity survey released in February 2021 suggests that a proportion of arts workers are nervous about their creative futures. As reported in The Stage, 40 percent of Equity members are less confident about finding work in a post-Brexit world. In fact, members feel discriminated against, with 31 percent of respondents finding job adverts stating that only EU passport holders can apply.

As a result of Brexit, rules surrounding visa permits have changed significantly, now with additional costs. But, with advertisements specifically asking for EU passport holders, this can directly block chances of UK actors finding more work.

What visa changes are taking place?

A number of Equity members including Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart have signed an open letter calling for new visa terms for artists. Reported by The Guardian, the letter suggests that Brexit is a greater challenge to face than the coronavirus pandemic due its to additional rules.

The letter states that: "For a sector that is deeply embedded in the international community - from touring theatre and dance to film, television, and commercials - which must work fast, flexibly and to demand, this is a disastrous blow and will hit those already struggling and marginalised groups the hardest." Others that have signed the letter include & Juliet's Melanie La Barrie, The Doctor's Juliet Stevenson, and Miriam Margolyes.

Visa changes for those working in the creative industries are unlikely to happen immediately. However, with continual pressure on the UK government, visa laws may change, but we can't put a date on when this may happen. According to Equity's general secretary, Paul Fleming, art and entertainment are worth more to our economy than banking but government officials are likely to turn a blind eye and theatre and other creative outlets.

Which EU countries can tour the United Kingdom?

According to reports in August 2021, 19 EU countries will be able to tour the UK on a short-term basis without need for a visa. The member states from the European Union include: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Sweden. Touring performers and support staff will be able to visit the United Kingdom for up to three months without a visa. 

Can the United Kingdom stay in artistic programmes?

It's not just the front-end of British theatre that is affected by Brexit. The political agreement has also impacted creative programmes and initiatives designed to encourage more into the arts. Previously, the UK was a member of Creative Europe, a multi-billion euro programme that assisted work in the cultural and creative sectors. As a Brexit consequence, the UK is no longer a member.

Speaking to the Evening Standard, Dr Charlotte Faucher believes our ability to work positively with EU member states could be impacted. She said: "I don't doubt there will be more partnerships done with EU organisations, but they will each be reinvented - and that takes time and money." So could UK theatre be downtrodden for good? Given the global nature and reach of West End shows, it's unlikely. Millions of people visit the United Kingdom each year in the hopes of seeing a West End production during their stay. However, losing out on funding may impact the wider communities and projects that were reliant on external help. 

What does the Department of Culture, Media and Sports have to say about Brexit?

In efforts to protect the future of British theatre, the Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) have spoken. As reported in The Guardian, DCMS minister Caroline Dinenage believes her department is now an afterthought, low on the list of economic priorities. Dinenage was backed up by committee chair Julian Knight who said: "As a department you're almost an afterthought [even though culture] is a world-leading part of the UK economy has basically been left to endure no-deal Brexit." 

Although decisions surrounding future deals are still in process, it's clear that DCMS are looking to push back against current restrictions. 

Does the government care about the arts after Brexit? 

Obviously, we don't know what each individual thinks about theatre and the arts. But, during the coronavirus pandemic, the government has financially supported the sector. In the Spring 2021 Budget given on 3 March by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, over £408 million of additional help is dedicated to theatres, museums and galleries when they reopen. Further detaills on the amount that each theatre gets is to be announced. Previously, the Culture Recovery Fund has given over £1.5 billion to theatre trusts nationwide. 

Can the West End still open as normal when theatres reopen?

Yes! The Brexit deal will not affect the opening dates of West End theatres as that's entirely down to Coronavirus restrictions. Many West End shows are reopening in 2021, and you can find out more here.

Photo credit: EU and UK Flags

Article Updated: 4 August 2021

Originally published on

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