The Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden published a five-stage “phased return” plan for live performances on June 25th 2020.
Stage One – Rehearsal and training (no audiences and adhering to social distancing guidelines)
Stage Two – Performances for broadcast and recording purposes (adhering to social distancing guidelines)
Stage Three – Performances outdoors with an audience plus pilots for indoor performances with a limited distance audience
Stage Four – Performances allowed indoors/outdoors (but with a limited distanced audience indoors)
Stage Five – Performances allowed indoors/outdoors (with a fuller audience indoors)
Jon Morgan, director of The Theatres Trust, a national advisory public body for theatres has commented:
“The Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s announcement of a five-step roadmap for reopening of theatres is a move in the right direction, but critically it does not offer any timescales for stages 3 to 5, the stages when audiences will be admitted to performances. Without this detail, theatres will still be unable to plan effectively for their reopening. The impact of this uncertainty is devastating for the theatre industry. Each day there is news of another theatre-making large-scale redundancy and, for every day of delay, there is the grave danger of more theatres closing permanently. The government must urgently confirm ‘no earlier than’ dates for stages 3 to 5 and respond to the sector’s calls for a financial rescue package to protect our world-class theatre. Without this critical support, we face a cultural catastrophe.”
As a supporter of Off West Theatre’s and in the role of a reviewer and Offies Assessor I question how much thought Dowden has put into how the smaller capacity theatres will be in a position to accommodate these measures. For example, a smaller boxed Theatre seating a maximum audience of 60 on a full house will be restricted to around 25 people per performance. Possibly Leaving Artistic Directors and creatives questioning whether it is going to be viable to open?
Stage 1 and 2 are already in discussion and platforms such as Scenesaver that have been running throughout lockdown showing some new work filmed via zoom and offering Theatre companies who have at some point filmed their Productions the opportunity to show them on there. Up until the end of May 2020, there had also been the opportunity to watch performances on the Off Fringe Festival. Stage 3 and 4 almost overlap. Stage 5 suggests that Theatres could perform outside. However, in the smaller London based venues, this seems to be unfeasible due to the lack of outside space.
The fact that the culture secretary is addressing the fast-growing concerns of losing so many theatres is reassuring. Although I have to question just how much of the five-step phase would have thought through with Fringe and Pub Theatre’s specifically taken into consideration. After all without the vast array of these venues, many up and coming creatives would not have had an opportunity to perform and in many instances showcase their debut work. I decided to ask two Artistic directors on how they were planning on reopening their Theatre’s in accordance with Government guidelines.
David Brady has been artistic director at The Lion and Unicorn Pub Theatre in Kentish Town for just over a year. “Like most fringe theatres we’re anxiously waiting on information from the government as to when we can reopen safely and welcome people back. The challenge of coronavirus is it affected all of us in the industry from our regular programming to the cancellation of Camden Fringe to the massive Edinburgh Fringe Festival which is on hiatus for this year. It’s really important that where possible and like so many other Industries we’re given clear guidance and support to be able to manage the challenge of social distancing performances, and I am currently asking the government to do what they can to support the theatre and creative industries who are under huge pressure at this time to survive during this period of uncertainty”.
Brady goes on to tell me that “At The Lion and Unicorn we’ve been very lucky to have had the support of Young’s our landlord and are working closely with the theatre companies who are either due to having work staged here or their performance was cancelled earlier this year in order to bring their work back. We are currently looking at a number of possibilities which include live streaming. The brilliant thing about fringe theatre is that it has the ability to continually react to the world around us.”
Mark Lyminster has been the AD for the Hen and Chickens in Islington for the last twenty years and in all those years experience this situation requires a new approach. I asked him what the theatre has put in place in light of thinking about reopening its doors. He told me “we are looking to open the side door from the street to allow theatregoers into the theatre” which is an extremely sensible idea and I would expect other theatres might open up using alternative entrances where possible. He goes on to explain how drinks will be served for each performance “we are thinking of asking a member of staff to take drink orders in the theatre and then bring their orders up into the theatre” which will definitely reduce traffic inside the bar which at this venue can be limited during busy periods.
The Hen and Chickens Theatre usually seats around 54 people in their auditorium on a full night. “At the present time, we are looking at about half those numbers and possibly between about 15 and 20 people at any one time” Lyminster explained and “we are working very closely with the brewery to enable us to open at any time and get the theatre back up and running.”
Yet as you can see from the answers given by 2 of London’s Artistic Directors they are taking a slightly different approach but with the same aim in mind and as David Brady quite rightly says Fringe Theatre will always adapt. Despite what is being published and the Doom and Gloom stories about Theatre’s not surviving just from this article you can see that the creatives are ready to get straight back to work and are already starting to be creative and work outside the box although I do fear that we could lose some of the Off-West End venues as a result of the lockdown, all we can do is watch this space and support them once the lights go back on.
On the surface, the Five Stage Plan in helping the Theatre return to the stage looks promising yet the absence of clarity as to exactly how and without any key dates mentioned many are left without clear direction. It’s time that the culture secretary helped the Industry properly by putting a dated timeline in place for everyone to work towards.
If you are still uncertain when venues open about how the measures could affect your Theatre visit to the chosen venue please do not hesitate to contact them or check out their websites for details. I am sure all venues will have clearly marked out areas and put the new guidelines in place to keep everyone as safe as possible.
I strongly urge anyone who has never seen a production in a Pub/ Fringe Theatre to go along and support them once these precious spaces can once open and do what they do best, which which is create fantastic productions. If you would like to find out more about either of these venues please check out the links at the bottom.