Producers and theatres have cautiously welcomed plans to allow theatres to reopen for indoor performances from August 1, hailing it as a “big step forward” for the industry’s recovery. However, the government has been urged to provide greater clarity on dates when venues can become fully operational.
Prime minister Boris Johnson announced today (July 17, 2020) that venues can restart indoor performances in front of a live audience next month, with a limited, distanced audience, subject to the success of pilots.
He added: "All of these measures, for August 1, should be done in a Covid-secure way."
The news has been welcomed across the sector, with producers and theatre owners hailing it as a significant step to begin the industry’s recovery following months of closure.
However, they are urging greater clarity on when step five of the government’s roadmap - allowing indoor performances with larger audiences - will be able to go ahead, warning that operating with reduced capacity will not be viable.
Nicholas Allott from Cameron Mackintosh Ltd said it was “a big step forward for the industry on the road to recovery” but warned: “The ongoing regulations both in terms of audience separation and the performance protocols backstage, particularly concerning singers and orchestras, will restrict performances over the summer and autumn to very specific types of theatre.”
He added: “It seems that traditional theatre operators and in particular producers of musicals and large plays, who need full houses to be viable, will continue to wait for advice on the next and fifth step, which we are told today is likely to be given in November at the earliest.”
Curve chief executive Chris Stafford welcomed the news, but said socially distanced performances would not work for his theatre financially, as it would need to average 75% capacity to break even.
He called it “a positive step forward in building back audiences and getting the sector closer to that all-important stage five of the roadmap”, but added: “We now urgently need a ‘no sooner’ than date for stage five so we can plan accordingly.”
Birmingham Hippodrome chief executive and artistic director Fiona Allan also called it a positive step, but warned that it would benefit only a small minority of theatres.
“For unsubsidised and commercial operations, it just isn’t financially viable to survive this way – Birmingham Hippodrome would eat through even more of its reserves if we reopened under this guidance,” she said.
’For unsubsidised and commercial operations, it just isn’t financially viable to survive this way’ – Fiona Allan
Producer Mark Goucher, who is also chief executive of the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham, said the news was encouraging.
“For theatres in the regions, like my own Cheltenham Everyman, we will have lost most of our touring product this autumn but we will look at other events that we can stage,” he said, adding: “We will also try to rescue our pantomime.”
However, as a commercial producer, he said he was concerned the social distancing rules would not allow his big touring shows, such as Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Hairspray, to be financially viable.
“I hope that the emergency funding will help the Everyman remain open, but I would lobby hard for some of the £1.57 billion to be made available to producers who supply so much of the touring product the length and breath of the UK,” he said.
David Hutchinson, chief executive of theatre company Selladoor, described the news as positive.
“Our production department had to make the difficult decision in May to postpone all shows to 2021 with the exception of panto, as the lead time of pre-production planning – taking between six to 12 months – means today’s announcement doesn’t affect our outgoing work. However, for our theatres, which have a social responsibility in the communities we serve in North Devon and Peterborough to connect with patrons and provide a safe environment to connect communities and artists, the news today is important, as it allows us to explore ways to bring some level of activity back into our buildings,” he said.
While acknowledging that he could not run “a sustainable commercial model until social distancing is no longer required in auditoriums”, he said he would “innovate in this interim period and work with resourceful creative theatremakers to find ways to build a bridging programme”.
He added he remained optimistic that the company could work towards producing panto this Christmas.
Fellow producer Michael Harrison also welcomed the news.
“Every step forward is a positive one. As I wander around the West End, it is very clear to me that this city, like many others across the UK, will only thrive when theatres are open at full capacity. Walk into any restaurant or cafe and the staff will tell you they need the theatres back. They are not alone,” he said.
Producer Eleanor Lloyd said any “clarity and certainty is good news and allows producers to plan and make commitments”.
“I am delighted it will allow audiences to start to come back and enjoy live theatre. However, the social distancing restrictions under stage four make my current shows economically and practically impossible, so they must sadly wait for stage five,” she added.
For Louis Hartshorn, from Hartshorn-Hook Enterprises, which is behind an immersive production of The Great Gatsby, the news offered the “official sanction” the company needed to “start welcoming back our amazing audiences in two months’ time”.
“However, most of the theatre industry (including the rest of Hartshorn-Hook Productions’ shows) need to sell at a higher capacity to break even, and would therefore lose more money by opening than staying shut. It takes months to prepare to reopen a show, and if the government thinks it can give two weeks’ notice for the industry to reopen, it must think again. By failing to allow producers to plan, it is suffocating the industry and preventing tens of thousands of jobs from being created,” he added.
Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, said he was “delighted that indoor performances can resume with socially distanced audiences from August 1”.
’The industry still needs to know which organisations will be getting the money and how much they will get’ – Philippa Childs
“With the restrictions of social distancing in place, it will not be practical or economically viable for many shows to open and it takes time for shows to rehearse and prepare and to build up an audience. However, this is another welcome step on the roadmap towards opening with full audiences very soon,” he added.
William Whelton and Joseph Houston from the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester also welcomed the news.
“We are so heartened to receive the news today from the government that we are one step closer to allowing indoor live performances. We have remained positive throughout this time, even when it’s been difficult to do so and we feel that this news gives us more hope that later this year we will be able to open our doors once more and safely welcome back audiences, cast and staff alike for our revival of Rent,” they said.
BECTU head Philippa Childs said the announcement brought into sharp focus the need “for urgent answers to the pressing questions that we have been asking since the arts recovery package was announced nearly two weeks ago”.
“The industry still needs to know which organisations will be getting the money, how much they will get and [whether it will] be in the form of a loan or a grant. This information is crucial to help save the livelihoods of those working in the sector and to halt redundancy consultations,” she added.
Meanwhile, Theatres Trust director Jon Morgan said the industry needed dates on when it could reopen fully.
“Without this, most theatres cannot reopen viably and we need the go-ahead for Christmas shows, on which the survival of many theatres depends, in the next few weeks at the very latest,” he added.