‘Theatres Fully Open by Christmas’ – Will Actors Really Be Back on Stage?

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Photo Source: Theo Bosanquet

In postive news for actors and the entire live entertainment industry, UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden has revealed plans to use mass testing and “emerging technologies” to enable theatres to reopen by Christmas.

Dowden christened the plan Operation Sleeping Beauty, and said: “There are people waiting in the wings to get full performances back on during the crucial Christmas period – and I want to support them.”

The government minister claims plans would incorporate new saliva tests for coronavirus to deliver results quickly, as well as technology trialled by Andrew Lloyd Webber at the London Palladium to improve ventilation. Dowden hopes theatres and other indoor venues will be able to significantly increase their capacity – currently around 25% – although he stopped short of indicating what the new limits might be.

“Innovation is key,” he wrote in The Mail on Sunday. “It has the ability to rewrite the entire script, and I’m keen to take some of the best experimental ideas for getting people into our theatres safely and put them into practice.”

According to The Sunday Times, a task force made up of those behind the recent Eat Out to Help Out scheme to boost restaurant attendances is looking at similar initiatives to encourage audiences – dubbed “Seat Out to Help Out.”

Dowden’s intervention has been welcomed by many in the UK theatre industry. Nica Burns, producer and co-owner of the Nimax group that includes the Palace, Lyric and Garrick theatres, told The Stage: “Collectively, as an industry, we will do everything we can to get up and ready and open, and wouldn’t it be great if we could save as many Christmases as possible around the UK.”

However, some have sounded caution over the announcement, which comes in the wake of Dowden’s controversial “road map” unveiled back in June.

Phil Willmott, director of an outdoor production of Hamlet in Rotherhithe which incorporates social distancing guidelines, says the plan needs to be backed up by a commitment to invest in jobs. “For so long, it’s felt like the government doesn’t notice or care about theatre, so this would be a small step forward,” he tells Backstage. “But only, of course, if it’s combined with a credible job retention scheme and a shift in regulations regarding social distancing in venues. Otherwise, where are people supposed to sit, and who will be left for them to watch?” 

In July, Dowden announced a £1.57 billion rescue package to help the arts weather the crisis brought about by the pandemic. But his latest announcement has not come with any promises of additional investment. And there are also fears over whether audience trust can be sufficiently restored, even if guidelines are updated to allow greater capacity.

Paul Miller, artistic director of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, tells Backstage: “Audiences, producers, artists, and workers in theatre are all desperate for one thing – confidence. Confidence that they will be safe – safe to work together, safe to gather together. Both seem a way off yet.”

Dowden says he is monitoring studies in Germany, where three large music events were recently held on an experimental basis: “I won’t allow the UK to be a laggard in the race to return live theatre. If we cherish the hustle and bustle of our cities and our vibrant urban economy, then we need to show our cultural organisations and businesses support now.”

If it comes to fruition, that support would certainly be welcomed by hard-hit UK theatremakers eager to start producing work again.

As Miller says, “When that confidence starts to emerge, a boost from the government, whether that be for audiences through a “Seat Out” scheme, or for producers through theatre tax-relief, will be vital. Anything the government can do to inspire confidence would be welcome.”

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