Rural touring could be the key to restarting the theatre industry, but it will need investment and support to do so, its membership body has argued.
The National Rural Touring Forum said the combination of hyper-local audiences, smaller budgets and flexible settings mean shows in village halls, pubs and libraries could help rebuild audience confidence ahead of larger venues reopening.
However, it is appealing for financial support and commitment to developing methods to help the sector start performances once more, with "careful thought" needed over the added risks and complications of staging shows in a Covid-19 safe and socially distanced way.
The NRTF’s members include rural touring schemes – which programme touring shows across the country – as well as artists, venues, promoters and producers.
Holly Lombardo, the NRTF’s director, said the ability of rural touring to be "fleet of foot" meant that shows may be able to restart while social distancing is still a requirement, a move which could help encourage audiences back into public spaces after lockdown.
"We’ve all adapted very quickly to this new normal of not touching and not being near one another, so it is going to take some work to get to the feeling that it’s ok to sit shoulder to shoulder, and that is where we might be an integral part of the larger picture," she said.
Rural touring’s audience is often "hyper-local", Lombardo said, meaning the schemes operate "in the heart of communities who know each other so well".
Flexible venue set-ups also mean audiences could be sat within social distancing guidelines, or on tables with their households, while the financial structures of rural touring mean producers and promoters are working with smaller costs and within established networks.
Reopening venues for shows as soon as is safely possible will also be crucial to the small-scale touring sector’s survival, with more than 1,000 performances already cancelled this year and companies warning their futures are at stake.
However, in order for the rural touring sector to pave the way for a wider industry reopening, Lombardo said there are a number of considerations that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and other cultural leaders must make.
Social distancing will result in a "significant loss" in ticket revenue, meaning additional subsidy may be required to weather this as well as help pay for additional cleaning before and after shows, which would extend hire times on some venues, she said.
Other complications include the large number of older audience members and promoters, as well as a need for infrastructure improvements in some areas, such as for venues that do not have a broadband connection to take card payments and manage online ticketing systems. Restrictions may also mean artists are required to use hotels for accommodation rather than stay in local digs, stretching budgets.
Lombardo said "it is not just as simple as opening the doors " and these financial and safety implications must be considered before shows can resume.
"Having said all that, I do think it is less complicated for rural touring than it is for larger institutions that need more staff and infrastructure," she said, adding that assisting the wider industry’s recovery could be "a very happy side effect of us opening first".