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Theatre Royal Stratford East. (Photo credit: Peter Dazeley)

The road to reopening theatres

By Kitty Underwood & Hira Desai First Published 17 August 2020, Last Updated 24 August 2020

It’s been so long since performances have been able to take place in front of a live audience that we are so excited that this month sees the opening of so many exciting and innovative outdoor performances.

Comedy, staged concerts, monologues and socially distanced stagings are getting ready to go ahead outside all over the country to fill the live theatre gap that’s been so missing in our lives!

Regents Park Open Air Theatre have been able to get an incredible staged concert of Jesus Christ Superstar ready in record time. For the team at Regents Park Open Air Theatre, much of their triumph has been the opportunity to create work for those in the creative industries who have been struggling, employing over 140 people including 70 performers and freelancers.

William Village, Executive Director said: “With social distancing, seating capacity has been dramatically reduced to 390 seats (down from 1,256). This makes producing any large-scale show economically extremely challenging, particularly as we are an unfunded organisation. Nevertheless, both for us as a venue, and the industry as a whole, we believe it is incumbent upon us to do everything possible to re-open this year”.

Last week, the government gave the green light for socially distanced indoor theatre (Stage 4 of the Governments reopening roadmap) performances to go ahead as of 15 August.

In response to the latest announcement, Julian Bird, Chief Executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre said: “We are delighted that the government has announced that stage 4 of the roadmap can proceed and allow the opening of indoor performances with social distancing – this is a step further to full reopening and will help those theatres who have already made innovative plans to open.  Theatre wants to take its place alongside restaurants, galleries, museums and cinemas in being a major contributor to the economic and social recovery of the nation, as well as entertaining our audiences and supporting our local communities.”

A number of productions have already announced that they’ll be reopening with socially distanced audiences including Sleepless: A Musical Romance at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, Alan Bennett’s Talking Head monologues at the Bridge Theatre and The Death Of England sequel playing at the National Theatre in late October.

While these venues prepare to welcome their audiences, most theatres will still struggle to open with a socially distanced audience as it makes it impossible to cover the cost of staging a production.

Even those shows which have planned to open with socially distanced audiences haven’t planned to open until Autumn 2020.

Adam Spiegel, producer of Mousetrap, was interviewed on the BBC and explained that they were very lucky not only to have an economic model which made social distancing financially possible, but to have eight actors who could remain socially distanced throughout the production. As he said, this is “very unusual in theatre”!

Unfortunately, for theatres the future of returning to performing to full capacity audiences is a long way off. On 31 July the Government announced that the industry will have to wait until November at the earliest before a date for reopening is even given

This news has been a huge blow for theatres across the UK, for which Christmas is often the biggest season of the year. Theatres will often start planning and selling tickets for next year’s Christmas Pantomime the minute this year’s has ended! It takes months to build sets, make costumes, cast actors and promote productions, let alone rehearse to the level of perfection you see on stage!

We’ve already seen many productions postponed to 2021, and theatres are beginning to announce the postponement of their pantomimes. Salisbury Playhouse has been one of the first to announce, with Tim Crarer, Chair of Wiltshire Creative saying:

“The trustees have explored all options but have now concluded that this is the only way to give the organisation the best chance of survival. We are all devastated, but this is an inevitable result of the crisis. Our primary focus now is a duty of care to all our loyal, skilled and committed staff at what is a very difficult time. The sad reality is that most arts organisations are in similar positions.”

Over the last few months, we have sadly seen theatres beginning redundancy processes, with a handful closing their doors for good. More and more theatres are facing the same problems. Our early surveys of theatres across the UK found that 70% of them would run out of cash by the end of the year, and with no re-opening date before November, and the end of the furlough scheme, that theoretical is fast becoming a reality.

For now, we encourage our theatre fans to enjoy outdoor theatre and book tickets for socially distanced performances, sign up to our newsletters to get all the latest updates on what is reopening when. Please continue to support the industry by buying Theatre Tokens so you can show your commitment to theatre now and have something to look forward to when your favourite show reopens. If you are able to, please consider donating to your local theatre or the Theatre Artists Fund, which gives vital support to those freelancers who have not had any government help and are in desperate need.

Every little helps and we thank you for ongoing support because without our audiences, theatre is nothing.


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