One of the media questions at yesterday’s press briefing spoke of this week as a turning point. Announcements of minor relaxations of lockdown restrictions, confirmation that some schoolchildren could go back to school and a roadmap to reopen some businesses in the coming weeks were all made.
The Chancellor also backed this up with confirmation on the plans for the remainder of the Furlough scheme on Friday, with a telling remark that confirmed that the scheme in its current form would end in October.
But for the arts sector there still appears to be absolutely no clear path out of the pandemic, or a clear sense from other countries further down the restriction easing path, of how we might seek to get venues re-open, artists and freelancers back making art or audiences back enjoying live art in our arts centres, theatres and galleries.
There has been a wide range of media coverage of the issue. Playwright James Graham appeared on Question Time on the 21 May and spoke eloquently on the need for significant additional government investment to support our sector through this. On Thursday Front Row on Radio Four concentrated their programme on how and when venues might re-open. It also discussed some of the ways organisations are looking to offer art in alternative ways during the continued closure of theatre and arts spaces. It’s really worth a listen.
For a venue looking at how and when to reopen there has been one crucial issue at the heart of discussions. This has been raised by everyone from Nica Burns and Rufus Norris running large scale venues right down to the owner of The Boiler Room in the Front Row piece. Social distancing will realistically mean losing around 80% of the capacity of most auditorium spaces. And that immediately makes most venues economically unviable. But the reality of the picture for most venues isn’t simply about just social distancing. There are so many pieces to our jigsaw.
Ensuring the venue is Covid secure will be important. The experience of going to the theatre isn’t all about just sitting and watching the show. The welcome, the bar, the toilets, the atmosphere are all key parts of our enjoyment of that experience. And that experience will have to be massively regimented to be done safely. You must arrive in a very narrow window to take your seat. It’s likely you’ll be unable to go to the toilet once seated. You’ll have to wait to be told exactly when you can get up and leave. Can a venue risk having its bar open? Will the experience in the new normal actually be any good? Can you realistically run multiple shows on a day and be able to carry out the necessary cleaning of an auditorium between each show? These are just a few of the questions we’re considering.
And artists will also have to adapt too. Much smaller cast sizes for theatre or numbers of musicians in bands will all have to be regulated. Playing to tiny audiences will have an affect on the way a performance is conceived and delivered. What is the future for youth theatres, traditionally comprising multiple casts with large numbers of children? No doubt artists will adapt to create work that can fit the parameters of the new normal. Smaller lighter shows that could be performed multiple times a day to smaller audiences perhaps? But this is another pressure on the sector to maintain ‘experience’.
All of us running venues have another real challenge to ponder. And that is the timing of re-opening. The Southbank Centre recently announced it was likely to have to remain closed until at least April 2021. Curve in Leicester has already announced cancellation of all productions until the end of October. Selladoor has announced postponement of all tours until next year and that the theatres they run in Peterborough and Devon won’t reopen at least until the Christmas season. So how do we play this?
Even if, in the remotest of likelihoods the Government announces that theatres can re-open in July (when they hope to move to step 3 of easing restrictions) with no Social Distancing – something that no-one believes will happen – it isn’t as if everything will snap back on overnight. Those producing work will need at least 12 weeks we’re told to get shows back up and running. Will audience confidence be there? No-one in reality I think expects audiences to immediately return to pre-Covid 19 levels quickly. Audiences need confidence in the venues having new and safe protocols in place, as well as confidence in their Government and peers that people will behave in a safe and rational manner.
An article in last week’s Sunday Times Culture section raised a key point. There will be a moment in the next couple of months where huge financial commitments to Christmas shows – usually the lifeblood for most theatres – will need to be made. No-one though will realistically be able to ask those producers to take such large financial risks with no certainty that sufficient audiences can attend, if the show can go on at all. There’s a link to the article here, but remember, they have a paywall.
For any venue reliant on predominantly one night performances made by others, any such announcement on re-opening might come too late for much of our autumn programme. Some promoters of comedians, bands, speakers and theatre companies are already approaching us about rearranging for 2021. I can foresee a moment when re-opening becomes legally possible but not practically possible as the next six months of programme has already been reduced to a level that makes re-opening impossible.
The arts sector is completely interconnected. The biggest and most commercially focused venues are linked to the most radical and small scale arts spaces. Independent and freelance artists are the lifeblood of communities up and down the country, leading innovation and socially engaged art creation, feeding arts centres and theatres regionally. We cannot survive without them. We are all essential to create this ecology that is the envy of the world. Producer and theatre maker Linda Bloomfield wrote this recently which encapsulates it brilliantly. And we haven’t even touched on the financial contribution that the sector makes to the economy.
So this is something that the Cultural Taskforce needs to address really quickly. Taking into account all parts of the jigsaw and with the Chancellor’s conviction that Furlough will end in October, how do we save our sector – and I mean all of our sector – if the reality is that it’ll be 2021 before shows can start properly and longer for the sector to engage audiences in sufficient numbers?
Everyone involved as artist, organisation, audience member needs to speak loud, speak proud and not let up in the coming weeks and months.