If necessity is the mother of invention then the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed the unthinkable to become reality for the National Theatre.
Chris Murphy, Director of Development, tells us how, in a few short weeks, the National Theatre implemented programs that would have been laughable in ‘normal’ circumstances and, as a result, has gained a new global audience and donors. Chris spoke with Deann Stevens from Richmond Associates.
Q. Chris, this is the second time you’ve worked at the National Theatre (NT) – the last was between 2009 and 2012. What made you want to go back?
A. It’s a really remarkable institution to work in. It’s a magical place and it left an impression on me first time around. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that it feels like the beating heart of the nation’s creativity – and certainly has done over recent months. You’re surrounded by some of the very best people in the country at what they do which, in turn, helps keep you at the top of your game.
Q. What role does the National Theatre play in terms of its contribution to British society?
A. The two most recent tangible examples would be our offerings during lockdown. With over 14 million views of NT at Home plays on YouTube, it has proved a lifeline to audiences wanting to watch plays. And we’ve also had several thousand schools sign up for the NT Collection so that their pupils can watch curriculum-relevant plays at home and access supporting learning materials too.
Our commitment at the NT is to make world-class theatre that is entertaining, challenging and inspiring – and to make it for everyone. The age-range and locations of those who watch our shows and take part in our Learning programmes show that there is genuine breadth to our offering. Of course, as has been played out in the press recently, there is a compelling financial case for the performing arts sector in terms of the income it generates for the economy, alongside the fact that we are nurturing the talent that will serve our creative industries nationally and internationally for years to come.
Q. Globally, the arts sector has been hit hard by COVID-19. What impact has the pandemic had on National Theatre?
A. It has thrown our world and the sector upside down, financially and emotionally. Our largest source of income annually is usually from our box office and we haven’t sold a ticket this financial year. So, suddenly, that enormous chunk of money has disappeared, and our only two income streams now are our Arts Council grant, which is typically only 16% of our overall turnover, and our fundraising income.
Along with our box office income, our commercial revenue through food, drinks, and merchandise in our book shop, has disappeared. So, financially it’s enormous. There have been significant consequences. We’re having to reshape everything that we do and challenge every aspect of where we spend money – from staff costs to what we spend staging productions. Almost every aspect of our business model is being reconsidered.
Obviously, it’s also had an enormous impact on theatres up and down the country with some theatres very sadly going into administration, and job losses right across the sector. As the National Theatre we have a responsibility to advocate for the industry to ensure that the entire sector is effectively represented. The recent government announcement suggests that was achieved with some success.
Q. What has the National Theatre done in recent months that might have been seen as unthinkable in the past?
A. Twelve months ago, if you’d said we want to broadcast our plays into people’s living rooms, the response would have been that it’s too complicated and we’ll never be able to do so in practical terms. Therefore, the way in which we have pivoted and made it happen at such speed is quite remarkable. The hours that I’ve seen people put in to make the NT at Home streaming work is incredible. And the fact that 14 million people have now watched these plays, and it’s rising by the day, is brilliant. So that was an enormous effort in overcoming challenges and being versatile.
From a learning and education perspective, the idea that 2,300 new schools would sign up to the NT Collection since the start of lockdown was unthinkable. It means hundreds of thousands of pupils are watching shows and seeing and doing work that’s facilitated by the NT. Both projects are opening us up to new audiences, inspiring a younger generation and have taught us that things we previously thought were inconceivable, are possible.
Q. Despite the widespread disruption and closures caused by COVID-19, as you mentioned, technology is allowing NT to reach new audiences in their homes. What does that mean from a fundraising perspective?
A. It’s definitely opening us up to new audiences and we must now consider what we do differently to make the most of these new relationships. Alongside the incredible viewing figures, we’ve had the most amazing response to donations through social media channels such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, which we didn’t use before. Text giving has also taken off for us. Audience appeals were a relatively modest part of our development operation and our annual budget, but they have quickly become very important. We’re in the process of mapping that forward, based on the recent success.
Q. The NT has been very direct in terms of asking this new audience, as well as existing donors, for support. Were you reluctant to do this given how difficult things are economically?
A. Donors are human beings and they will have faced all sorts of individual challenges over the last few months. As well as the personal impact, it’s a complex time financially. Certainly, those with their wealth tied up in the stock market will have had worrying moments at various points in 2020. But we certainly haven’t been reticent to ask for support as it feels like there’s never been more of a need for the National Theatre than right now, given the tens of millions of pounds of income we’ve lost this year. And I’ve actually been very struck by the number of donors that have made really significant gifts in the last few months.
The important thing in these times is to be talking to your donors, whether they are individuals, corporates or foundations, and have honest conversations. Some might not be in a position right now to make commitments, but some are. It’s important that you listen and hear where they are at and what their circumstances are. We’ve done a lot of that, particularly with corporates and foundations, and we’re certainly prepared to flex around their timings and their strategies. Our corporate team is incredibly busy at the moment, working hard to retain existing partners and also from a new business point of view, because the profile of NT at Home has made us an even more attractive proposition due to the volume of people we are reaching.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – l-r Gwendoline Christie (Titania), David Moorst (Puck), Ryan Bawa, Oliver Chris (Oberon) and Hammed Animashaun (Bottom) – Photo credit: Perou
Q. How do you think the fundraising profession will need to adapt to be successful post COVID?
A. I think most organisations are not going to wake up from this in the same way that they fell asleep. One of the short-term challenges will be persuading donors to give large, unrestricted gifts so that organisations have the flexibility to spend the money where they need to. That means as organisations, we need to demonstrate we are helping ourselves. Is our business model right? Are we focusing our attention in the right areas?
As fundraisers, we need to become exceptional at talking about the impact of our work. All Development departments should be reflecting on how adept we are, or aren’t, at measuring and talking about our effect on society. Qualitatively, we can do that quite easily. But I would argue that in quantitative terms, many of us are not as good as we need to be at evidencing the difference that our projects, or our organisations, are making on society. Donors will expect to see more of this, and those organisations who do it well will be the most successful in raising funds.
Q. What have you learned about yourself, professionally and/or personally, as a result of COVID-19 restrictions?
A. It turns out that I can live without live sport on TV! I’ve learnt to appreciate the importance of setting modest, achievable goals. Whether that be doing some exercise each morning before work (in my case it’s been a lap of the park or a Joe Wicks’ workout), or a realistic number of donor interactions across a particular week. Despite the financial need, I have deliberately not put too much pressure on myself – nor hopefully the department – with unrealistic targets, and arguably we have been more successful as a result.
It also turns out that I can work from home, which is something I never thought I’d enjoy. I’ve been working from my one-year-old daughter’s bedroom and have had to adapt to having conversations with donors about six- and seven-figure gifts whilst wearing my slippers and surrounded by rainbows, butterflies and unicorns. I’m not actually sure we’ll get back to five days a week in the office in the same way we were. I think there will be massive consequences to how we work and many of them, like increased flexibility, will be very positive.
The highlight of lockdown has been teaching my four-year-old to ride his bike, which he mastered very quickly and with limited grazed knees.
Q. What are you most looking forward to once our freedoms are restored?
A. The barber reopening was a big moment! Of course I’m really looking forward to seeing family and friends and colleagues, alongside the obvious things like having a pint in the pub and a meal that we haven’t cooked for ourselves.
- National Theatre aims to reach the widest possible audience by staging a broad range of productions in London and touring extensively across the UK and internationally, putting some of the nation’s leading artists and productions on the world stage.
- Around 4,000 people worked at the National Theatre in 2017-18 – from actors, to ushers, to scenic artists. Technically it is one of the largest factories in central London, with hundreds of skilled craftspeople, practitioners and artists working together to produce world-class theatre.
- We extend our reach through digital programmes including National Theatre Live, which broadcasts some of the best of British theatre to over 2,500 venues in 65 countries. The National Theatre Collection makes recordings of shows available to UK schools and the global education sector.