Some of the UK’s biggest theatres have ruled out reopening in July – despite being given the green light to do so – claiming the move would be economically damaging to their businesses.
Venues including Curve in Leicester, Birmingham Hippodrome, the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House have all said they will remain closed.
However, others – including the Royal Shakespeare Company - have said they are exploring ways to reopen.
Earlier this week, the government announced further easing of lockdown restrictions, including allowing theatres to reopen from July 4. However, they will not be allowed to stage live performances.
Theatres and concert halls are on the list of approved businesses that are allowed to reopen on July 4, but guidance issued states: “At this stage, it is not yet safe for live performances, including dramatic, musical or comedy performances, to take place in front of a live audience. This is because of the increased risk of transmission associated with these types of activities or as a result of patrons needing to raise their voices to be heard over background music.”
It adds: “There may be an additional risk of infection in environments where you or others are singing, chanting, shouting or conversing loudly.”
It says some venues may repurpose themselves to show screenings of previous shows, while cinemas have also been told they can reopen, alongside cafes, bars and restaurants. Social distancing will also be reduced to one metre.
Many theatres have looked at whether they could reopen their cafes and restaurants, but have decided the cost of doing so would be prohibitive.
Curve chief executive Chris Stafford told The Stage the venue’s hospitality offerings account for about 7% of its turnover, based on the 330,000 people who come to the venue each year, and that most people who use them are seeing a show.
“Take away that footfall and I don’t think we stand a chance of even making half a percent,” he said, adding: “With us not knowing when we can reopen for performances, even with social distancing, opening a bar and cafe which is is likely to run at a loss feels counterproductive to the situation we are in.”
He said he was ”desperate to get this theatre open” and had looked at the possibility of cabarets in its foyer spaces.
“These buildings are not meant to be dark, they are meant to be animated, but fundamentally a bar and cafe for Curve is not going to be the answer. If anything, it puts us at greater risk as we stand a chance of losing money,” he said, highlighting how the building’s overheads, before payroll, run at tens of thousands of pounds a month.
Birmingham Hippodrome’s chief executive and artistic director Fiona Allan agreed, and told The Stage: “The running costs of opening up and staffing a large theatre building - even at minimal levels - are too great to warrant reopening just to run a cafe or bar, however much we would like to.”
She added: “A venue like Birmingham Hippodrome would be bleeding money every day if we attempted to do this. I’m sure it is an arrangement that can work for some theatres, especially those with public subsidy, but for us it would just be depleting our reserves even further. The only way we can reopen is when social distancing measures have been relaxed and we can sell to full capacity. Or with substantial government support to offset our losses. Like all in the theatre sector, we call on government to issue a roadmap to reopening, which we desperately need.”
A spokeswoman for the National Theatre said the venue would not be reopening its hospitality spaces.
She said: “Due to the nature of our building, we are not yet able to open our cafes or bars without substantial additional building support from a number of departments and, unfortunately, due to our precarious financial position, we are not in a position to do that at the moment.”
A spokeswoman for the Royal Opera House confirmed the building would remain closed, as all staff remain working from home.
However, other venues, which include cinemas and art galleries alongside theatres, are planning reopenings.
The Barbican in London said it would be announcing its reopening plans soon, while Home in Manchester said it would reopen from September.
Initially it will open its cinemas, bars and restaurant – with “theatre, gallery and other activity returning gradually in the weeks that follow”.
Executive director Jon Gilchrist said: “We’re lucky that our design and architecture make it possible to open with social distancing in place – for example our large open space on entry, wide central staircase and toilets on every level. Alongside our catering operator, we’ll be working tirelessly to introduce new measures to make Home safe and welcoming.”
The Royal Shakespeare Company has also said it is looking at ways it might reopen elements of its catering and commercial services to audiences “as well as other initiatives to encourage confidence in returning to our buildings”.
Executive director Catherine Mallyon said: “Active discussions include turning the RST into a cinema for a short film season of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Live from Stratford-upon-Avon’ cinema broadcast series. This would allow audiences to try coming back, seeing how comfortable they feel in our buildings. These are live discussions across the organisation but there is a lot of work to be done before we can greenlight this as a project.”
The theatre company previously indicated it hoped to reopen Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the autumn.
Storyhouse in Chester has already signalled its intention to reopen, while the Southbank Centre said it was “working closely with its restaurant tenants to explore ways in which they can be helped to reopen safely”.
“This includes extending outside seating areas where possible as well as trying to find ways to make the wider site animated in order to encourage visitors to return,” a spokeswoman said.