Theatres, music and performance venues can reopen with social distancing in August

Man walking past theatre poster saying “We’ll be back soon” outside the Sondheim Theatre in London

Indoor performances with socially distanced audiences can take place in England from the start of August, the prime minister has said.

The government is working with the sector on pilots of performances with socially distanced audiences in theatres and music venues.

Boris Johnson said the findings would feed into final guidance for venues in the run-up to them reopening.

But the head of Theatres Trust said the move “will not be economically viable”.

Dame Judi Dench was among many theatre figures to voice concerns for her industry

Dame Judi Dench was among many theatre figures to voice concerns for her industry

Although Jon Morgan, director of Theatres Trust welcomed the news as “a step in the right direction”, but he said that “for most theatres it will not be economically viable to reopen with 30-40% audience required under social distancing”.

“We now need to progress as quickly as possible to an announcement on the all-important stage five [in the government’s roadmap for the return of professional performing art], allowing theatres to reopen fully with the appropriate safety measures.

“Without this most theatres cannot reopen viably and we need the go-ahead for Christmas shows, on which the survival of many theatres depends, in the next few weeks at the very latest.”

The government stressed that as part of its announcement that social distancing would be key, saying: “Audiences, performers and venues will be expected to maintain social distancing at all times.”

It added: “This guidance will be for organisations in England. Organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should adhere to the advice of the devolved administrations at all times.”

Venues have been shut since March as part of the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport added it was now working with venues including the London Symphony Orchestra with a variety of further events in the coming weeks.

However it added that singing and the playing of brass and wind instruments in groups or in front of an audience is “still currently limited to professionals only”.

Analysis by Arts Editor Will Gompertz

The announcement is likely to be welcomed by theatre owners and producers, but a sense of frustration with the government is likely to remain.

It makes no financial sense for many venues to open with social distancing rules in place; theatre budgets tend to be based on a breakeven of around 70% capacity.

If social distancing measures mean a theatre can only run at 20-25% capacity, the producer cannot afford to put the show on.

What the industry says it desperately needs from the government is some clear guidance on when stage five (fuller audiences indoors) of the phased return will be possible.

The call is for the government to announce a “not before” date, which would allow producers and theatre owners to make a plan of action for the coming months, be that preparing a show or reducing overheads.

Earlier this month, the government announced a £1.57bn support package, following several weeks of lobbying from theatres, music venues, art galleries and other cultural institutions, many of which had said they were on the brink of collapse.

The government has also now outlined measures to “support the safe return of audiences”, including:

  • Reduced venue capacity and limited ticket sales to ensure social distancing can be maintained
  • Tickets should be bought online and venues encouraged to use e-tickets to reduce contact and help with track and trace
  • Venues should have clearly communicated social distancing marking in place in areas where queues form and adopt a limited entry approach
  • Increased deep cleaning of auditoriums
  • Performances should be scheduled to allow sufficient time to undertake deep cleaning before the next audience arrives
  • Performers, conductors and musicians must observe social distancing wherever possible

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “The UK’s performing arts sector is renowned across the world and I am pleased that we are making real progress in getting its doors reopened to the public with social distancing.”

He added it is a “welcome step in the path to a return to normal”.

This latest announcement will now see venues move to stage four of the government’s “five-stage roadmap for the return of professional performing arts”.

The roadmap was recently outlined by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden as follows:

  • 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)

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Angelia S. Rico

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