There was a blow to any producers planning socially distanced indoor performances from 1 August 2020 when prime minister Boris Johnson announced that the easing of restrictions on theatre and music venues, amongst others, had been delayed to 15 August.
Johnson explained the government had made the decision following a rise in Coronavirus cases across the country including a number of specific locations where lockdown measures had been enforced.
The prime minister said: “The prevalence of the virus in the community, in England, is likely to be rising for the first time since May,” adding there was a need to “squeeze the brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control”.
The news was disappointing for those venues that had been trialling pilot indoor performances or had socially distanced indoor productions ready to go. Any more changes in the lockdown measures on 15 August are also likely to be conditional on evidence that the spread of the virus has slowed down again.
While the number of venues planning indoor performances was limited, the decision still came as a shock for some creatives. Ken Wright, managing director of the Phoenix Arts Club in London’s West End, commented:
“Whilst we of course accept that measures should be taken to reduce new Coronavirus cases, we urge the government to take into consideration the vast amount of work that goes into preparing a live show and we request that the next set of dates are not committed to unless there is confidence that these will be definite.
“Today’s decision has left us uneasy about preparing for a reopening until the Government can guarantee – rather than ‘consider’ a firm opening date.”
The decision came at the end of another difficult week for the theatre industry with culture secretary Oliver Dowden saying on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the government would only give guidance to resume performances without social distancing when it was safe to do so and the prime minister “had indicated that will be November at the earliest”.
In response to Dowden’s comments, Theatres Trust director Jon Morgan said: “We appreciate the difficulty and the need for caution, but this means the vast majority of theatres will have no choice but to cancel their pantomime or Christmas show that generates the income to sustain them through the rest of the year, as November will not be sufficient notice to prepare productions and sell tickets.
“This means that more theatres will need to be supported through the government’s £1.57 billion rescue package. We are pleased to see that Arts Council England’s criteria for its £500 million share of the £880 million grants element is broad enough to include most theatres, but we are concerned that this will not be enough to save all theatres.
“We urge funding bodies to consider and prioritise the circumstances of theatres that rely on pantomime for a significant proportion of their turnover (as much as 40% in some cases). If the funds do not reach enough of these theatres, particularly with the furlough scheme ending in October, we will see more theatres closing their doors permanently.”
As indicated by Dowden above, the first round of funding as part of the £1.57 billion emergency arts package will see £622 million distributed, with the Arts Council in charge of handing over £500 million to theatres, museums, galleries and music and comedy venues.
In the meantime, the lack of clarity on any timescale in relation to stage five of Dowden’s ‘roadmap’ (allowing indoor performances to take place with a fuller audience) and the end of the government job retention scheme in October will result in theatres feeling under further pressure.
Only last week the Ambassador Theatre Group look set to lay off more than 1,200 casual workers and the Bristol Old Vic embarked on a consultation process with staff, anticipating that over 20 roles from its full-time workforce of 60 could be at risk. There were also protests against job cuts at the Southbank Centre and the National Theatre.