When will our theatres reopen?
PUBLISHED: 05:39 11 June 2020
© Mike Kwasniak Photography 2014
This is the longest shutdown in the history of showbusiness. Not even during the Second World War were theatres closed for so long. They were recognised very quickly as being extremely important for morale and an integral part of the society we were seeking to protect.
Now, in the midst of a different type of battle, in the third month of lockdown, how are theatres coping? When will we see them re-open? How will theatre change after lockdown? These are the answers we were seeking to answer from some of our leading cultural institutions.
We spoke to the New Wolsey Theatre, Eastern Angles, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, the Mercury Theatre, Colchester as well as the Ipswich Regent and Corn Exchange. Before lockdown three venues were in the midst of exciting, regenerative building projects and happily those projects, all ready funded, are still moving forward.
Clearly, finances are tight with no money coming through the doors but all the theatres we spoke to remained optimistic – stating that although everything appeared to be dark from the outside a lot of creativity was going on behind the scenes. They were looking to stay in contact with audiences and were preparing for the day when they could re-open and trying to foresee what sort of world they would be apart of.
They were certain that the theatre world would be different but they would continue to engage with audiences, offer thoughtful, quality entertainment and would provide an offer that people would want to be part of and would feel safe attending.
This is what they had to say:
Sue Lawther Brown; New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich: “It’s incredibly difficult to know what the future holds. We are still planning to open for panto. As for the autumn season we are not sure about yet. The season hasn’t been officially cancelled yet but we know that some of the shows will not go ahead because the visiting companies have not had the opportunity to rehearse. So, it would be true to say that we are being led by external circumstances. Things have been really tough for the smaller companies. It’s been disastrous.
“Panto has always been a joyous occasion, so we are hoping that we can use panto as a way of putting the virus behind us. We are constantly looking at ways we can use the auditorium to make experience of theatre-going post Covid not only physically safe but reassuringly safe. People should feel comfortable going back into the theatre. We also exploring ideas about possibly streaming this year’s panto in addition to having physical performances in front of an audience – but nothing has been decided yet.
“The building work both at the gold-roofed pavilion and in the foyer and bar areas is still moving ahead. The pavilion which will be called NW2 will probably be the first building on site re-opened and may be used to host some performances in the public space, though again nothing has been finalised.”
Aly Tipping; Eastern Angles, Ipswich: “We are not planning to have anything at the Sir John Mills Theatre until Christmas. We are looking at ways that we can make the Christmas production viable with social distancing. We are not looking to make any formal announcement about our Christmas plans until the end of August when hopefully everything will be a bit clearer. At the moment we don’t have a clear idea about what may or may not be possible because guidance keeps changing as things develop.
“We want to make sure everything is completely safe for audiences and staff and performers. We are lucky that we have a highly adaptable space which can be changed around to suit our needs and Ivan (Cutting, artistic director) is currently looking at safe ways of staging a cost-effective show. One possibility is - and nothing has been decided yet – is removing all the seating and staging a show cabaret style with family groups clustered around socially distanced tables.
“The other piece of positive news is that the Suffolk Record Office move to The Hold is going ahead and we will be taking over the whole site before Christmas and we are investigating ways of creating an alternative entrance or a one-way system of travel within the building to eliminate the bottleneck that builds up around the box office and bar area. Again, nothing has been finalised but we are looking into it. So, not only will it be safe, it will be seen to be safe.”
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Steve Mannix and Tracey Childs, Mercury Theatre, Colchester: “A year ago this week we had held our final performance in our old building and were ready to allow our contractors to start work rebuilding the theatre. We were all nervous but excited about what the future held.
“We were all looking forward to returning to the theatre at the end of August and re-opening in mid-September. This was going to include the regional UK premiere of a new home grown production, a new expanded workshop programme and the launch of our new studio, dedicated to profiling local artists. It was all going so well until lockdown saw all our plans disappear.
“We honestly have no idea about when or how we will be able to re-open. Even just a few weeks ago we had no idea or concept about how perilous our future might become. Days and weeks have passed by so quickly as we have all poured over budgets, cashflows. We pride ourselves on having some reserves put by for a rainy day. Well – the rainy day has arrived and those limited funds are needed, along with support from the government job retention scheme to keep us going for the next few months.
“However, we remain creative. Since the UK was advised to stay indoors, the MercuryOnline programme has gone live. There’s sing-a-longs, storytelling, quiz nights, monologue competitions, masterclasses with industry professionals, youth theatre sessions - you name it. There really has been something for everyone. Over 61,000 households across the UK and internationally watched last year’s panto online in just over one week and we were extremely grateful for the £1,800 worth of donations that brought in.
“We are determined that the Mercury will be open for business again as soon as is reasonably possible. As the saying goes, ‘we’ll be back’! Just think of us as having a long interval – Act 2 will begin as soon as we are able.”
Adrian Grady, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds: “We were heartbroken to close our theatre and there are many challenging times ahead but Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds has stood strong for 200 years and we will continue to do so. We’re determined to welcome our audiences back and we’re asking for help from the community of Bury St Edmunds, this brilliant town, to help us to do this so that the show can go on.
“Reopening a theatre is not straightforward – they need time and money to programme and promote the season; for their own shows they need to cast and rehearse, shows - their income will not simply leap back to what is what before the crisis. Our campaign target is to raise £50, 000 to allow them to begin preparations to re-open Bury St Edmunds’ beloved playhouse.
“For 200 years Theatre Royal has brought significant economic benefit into our local economy. This Theatre brings joy to the town of Bury St Edmunds by bringing you the best live theatre, telling stories that inspire and welcoming big names in the world of theatre, television and film to our stage – we have gained the support of Armando Iannucci, who filmed The Personal History of David Copperfield, here, Dame Judi Dench, Gyles Brandreth, Sir Derek Jacobi, Robert Glenister and Libby Purvis.
“Through our outreach programme the theatre aims to inspire young people, to give local people a voice, to serve our community and to engage marginalised groups for whom theatre and the arts may otherwise be inaccessible. The return to normality is likely to be a long journey – please support this campaign to ensure that our much-loved Theatre will be in a position to come out of this long dark period as strong as ever.”
Ipswich Borough Council: Ipswich Regent and Corn Exchange: “There are no immediate plans to re-open the two theatres. “We are keeping a close eye on developments and paying attention to government guidance, as well as staying in contact with promoters. Tickets for panto are now on sale and other shows go on sale this month including School of Rock and Chicago in 2021.
“Any decision to re-open our theatres and other venues will be only taken once the government guidance allows it and if we have shows programmed in. Risk Assessments will be undertaken before opening and any necessary measures will be implemented in line with the relevant guidance available at that time.”
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