Some of Britain’s most successful theatre markers have warned that the industry will make a stuttered return after lockdown ends.
Boris Johnson’s roadmap struck a rare note of hope for the arts, which has been crippled by 11 months of closures and social distancing rules, with a full return expected by 21 June.
Nica Burns, who co-owns six West End theatres, plans to reopen under social distancing rules in mid-May. The shows will not make a profit, but she says the losses are less with the doors open than closed.
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“The upside of opening is two fold: we’re better off open than closed, and also we have the absolute joy of being open and all the people who make it happen,” she tells i.
“The reason we can open is because my theatres on the whole are quite small.
“The very big shows can’t open with social distancing yet – all the shows like Hamilton and Mary Poppins and my Harry Potter can’t reopen with social distancing. They have to wait until its lifted.”
The Apollo Theatre, one of her largest venues, has only been able to return due to help from the government’s cultural recovery fund.
She explains: “You have to have time to sell, to get an advance back in, and plan, so I think there’ll be shows that won’t be able to open for a while yet. At the Palace we’re going to be doing an interim programme – putting on concerts and other activities.”
Ministers are hopeful of packing out stadia and live venues later this year – including Wembley for the European Championship football final on 11 July – by using an app to prove attendees have been jabbed or tested negative for Covid.
Michael Gove is holding a review into vaccine passports that will investigate whether businesses such as pubs and theatres could be prohibited from making access conditional on vaccination alone.
Burns, who is “optimistic” about return of theatre, believes the system makes sense. “If the majority can be beeped in on their phone won’t have to test too many.”
“All those who haven’t been vaccinated because they couldn’t for underlying reasons, or chose not to for whatever reason, they can be tested, and that sounds very practical, and the less people you have to rapidly test, the quicker you can get everyone into the auditorium, so it makes perfect sense.”
But just because the law is changed doensn’t mean the lights will be on. A bleak combination of uncertain investors, a depleted workforce and the length of time shows take to put together could see many of Britain’s stage curtains remain down through 2021.
Chloe Savage, who embroidered the wedding dresses of two royal brides, saw her work for theatres, museums and films collapse overnight.
She was ineligible for either furlough or Universal Credit and was forced to close her studio in Bristol and lay off four young apprentices.
“It’s been devastating,” she tells i. “Neither the Duchess of Cambridge or Sussex reached out, nothing. The only help I’ve had is from a lovely woman who set up a crowdfunder so we could make it through Christmas.”
She adds: “We’re having to chase smaller theatre companies for payments, but I don’t know if they’re even going to be able to pay because they’ve lost all of their income.”
Savage expects that most shows will have such tight budgets that freelancers won’t gain work from the return as they seek to re-use existing props and costumes to meet lazer thin budgets.
Many have simply closed shop and found work elsewhere – she had to advise her apprentices to drive vans for Tesco to make ends meet.
“Several people I know have just packed up shop. The Embroiders Guild work has collapsed. Actually, it has taken the joy out of what we’re doing as well. Being artistic… you have to enjoy it.
“Unfortunately Brexit and Covid have had that massive effect on a lot of us.”
But there is hope. When Craig Hassall, CEO of the Royal Albert Hall, spoke to i last spring, he revealed that the historic venue was on course to be bankrupt by Thursday.
“I was genuinely concerned that we would be insolvent,” he says. “We’ve laid off nine or 10 people out of a staff of around 500 and I feared we would have made a lot more.”
This week the venue received a £20.74m loan from the government which secures its immediate future.
“We can plan the Proms now, we can plan performances in July, so it’s welcome,” Hassall says. “The diary is full – assuming everything’s going to happen – we’ve just had to push it all back.”-
— to inews.co.uk