On behalf of everyone here at the Mercury we do hope that you, your family and your friends are managing to stay safe and well in these very strange and challenging times.
In the last few weeks and months all of our worlds have been turned upside down with the impact of COVID-19. Like many of you, we are all trying to work at home from dining room tables, kitchens, spare bedrooms – even sheds!
A year ago this week we had held our final performance in our old building and were packing up the final boxes and equipment to go into storage to allow our contractors to start work on the theatre. We were all nervous but excited about what the future held. After more than 5 years of design work, planning and fundraising our dreams were finally becoming a reality. The bulldozers were literally arriving on site as we handed over the keys.
Little did we realise what a year it would be…
We were all looking forward to returning to the theatre at the end of August and re-opening in mid-September with a town wide weekend carnival and community parade. This was going to be followed by the regional UK premiere of a new home grown production, a new expanded workshop programme and the launch of our new studio, dedicated to profiling local artists. It was all going so well until overnight we saw all our plans disappear.
We honestly have no idea about when or how we will be able to re-open. We await guidance from the Government about safety measures for you, our audiences. Keeping you and our staff safe will always be our main priority. At the same time, whilst building work has continued over the last few weeks, our contractors have had to work in a new socially distanced manner and at a much reduced capacity. Added to this has been the challenge of getting materials from suppliers and manufacturers (most of whom were initially shut).
Even just a few weeks ago we had no idea or concept about how perilous our future might become. In the early stages it felt like it would all blow over in a matter of days. We’re not too proud to admit there have been tears and feelings of grief from us all at some stage or another. But we’ve kept each other going.
Lots of you will have heard us praise our staff on many occasions, but for once Tracey and I are lost for words about their dedication, commitment and sense of pride for all that they do on stage, behind the scenes and through our education and community work. Against all the odds they have all kept going over the last few weeks – not only doing their own jobs, but also volunteering to help vulnerable local people.
Days and weeks have passed by so quickly as we have all poured over budgets, cashflows. If only we had a crystal ball. As a charity, and we hope well run organisation, we pride ourselves on having some reserves put by for a rainy day. Well – the rainy day has arrived and those limited funds are needed, along with support from the government job retention scheme to keep us going for the next few months until late summer.
You will have seen reports in the national press and on TV about the challenges that theatres are facing. We are not immune or unique. Over the last few years with your support we have worked to ensure that we have as diverse a range of income as possible and are not a burden on public funding. 74% of our income each year (£2.9 million) comes from your support – box office, fundraising, bars, catering, merchandise and donations. 26% is made up of grants from Colchester Borough Council and Arts Council England (£997,000). We had carefully planned our budgets to account for our not being open for the early part of this financial year, we certainly hadn’t planned in all disappearing!
Since the UK was advised to stay indoors, you might have seen our #MercuryOnline programme go live. The team have done an amazing job over night of organizing this programme of activities. There’s sing-a-longs, storytelling, quiz nights, monologue competitions, masterclasses with industry professionals, youth theatre sessions – you name it. There really has been something for everyone. Over 61,000 households across the UK and internationally watched last year’s panto online in just over one week (approx. 230,000 people – that’s 100,000 more than come to the Mercury in person in a normal year!) and we were extremely grateful for the £1,800 worth of donations that brought in.
But, whilst we’re doing our best to harness the wonders of digital technology, you can’t beat the power of live performance. Lots of people have been asking us when we’ll be back open and if there will be panto this year. We wish we knew. We all miss you!
We have had amazing support from Arts Council England, Colchester Borough Council and all of you. We have all invested so much time and energy in trying to create a world class theatre for Colchester – we are so near and yet so far!
It’s horrible to have to wait but we want to ensure the highest standards of safety for our audiences, our staff and our artists and participants. We promise to let you all know as soon as we can. When the day comes, you’ll probably see us shouting and screaming ecstatically down the High Street.
We are determined that the Mercury will be open for business again as soon as is reasonably possible. As the saying goes, ‘we’ll be back’! Just think of us as having a long interval – Act 2 will begin as soon as we are able.
We look forward to welcoming you back for one hell of a housewarming party!