Planning a weekend in a coronavirus world often poses the question: what can we actually do? There are lots of ways the pandemic has disastrously impacted our society, but the removal of culture from bustling, vibrant cities has seen them become a shell of the places we knew.
So, when culture secretary Oliver Dowden voiced his aim to open theatres in the capital by Christmas in a piece for the Mail on Sunday on 5 September, there was a glimmer of hope that Theatreland could be back open for business sooner than we thought.
Now, Nimax Theatres has announced it will be opening all six of its theatres, the Apollo, Duchess, Garrick, Lyric, Palace and Vaudeville, for limited runs throughout October, November and December.
This Is Going To Hurt, written and performed by ex-NHS doctor Adam Kay, will open on 22 October and will be the first show in this special season of performances. The first night will be free of charge and solely for NHS staff, who can register on Nimax’s website to enter a ballot to get their seat.
Nimax’s chief executive Nica Burns said in a statement that details of the other shows opening will be released over the next fortnight and that the company is concentrating on bringing back much-loved shows such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Magic Goes Wrong and The Play That Goes Wrong and eventually Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, dependent on social distancing measures.
For this special season of shows Nimax’s theatres will open with social distancing plus robust risk mitigation to comply with current government Covid-19 Secure guidelines. Nimax has also revealed that although the company is excited for this wave of openings, reduced capacities will mean it’s not actually possible to make a profit, only a contribution to the costs of putting on these shows, meaning they will be operating at a loss.
But with the furlough support scheme ending on 31 October and a lot of concern in the industry about the lack of support from the government for those who work in theatre, particularly freelancers, Nimax hopes to be able to offer some small support to their “highly skilled, experienced workforce and give work to some of the talented tapestry of freelancers onstage and backstage.”
Speaking on this, Adam Kay said in a statement: “It’s extremely heartening that Theatreland is starting to gear up again. The people you see on stage are the very tip of the theatre iceberg – behind the scenes are hundreds of hard-working staff – from electricians to stage managers to lighting techs to box office to carpenters – huge numbers of whom fell between the gaps of government support.”
This lack of support is something that’s made sceptics of some industry professionals when it comes to Dowden’s claims he will bring theatre back for Christmas.
Dowden’s article has been criticised by industry publications such as The Stage, which points out that Dowden’s article gives “no mention of how the government is going to help address the huge stumbling block of insurance, or what it is going to do to encourage people back on to public transport – something that is going to be absolutely crucial to getting the West End back on its feet. And, of course, there is still no help for the huge number of freelancers in theatre who currently find themselves without work.”
Speaking to Stylist.co.uk Milly Summer, a production executive who has worked on shows such as Les Misérables, School of Rock and Heathers in London and New York, explains why this kind-of-announcement is frustrating for those who work, and are struggling to hold on to their jobs, in theatre.
“Thousands of people working in theatre have been unemployed since March – the lights along Shaftesbury Avenue might still be on, but for us, the feeling overall is still very dark. Dowden has called his project ‘Operation Sleeping Beauty’ which says it all for me. This name is not only inane, it’s frankly offensive; this industry isn’t sleeping, it’s battling for survival – and with very little help from the government,” she says.
She continues to explain that the government’s idea of restoring the magic of Christmas won’t work if the industry doesn’t get the financial aid it needs which, as Summer says, “there will be no theatre if we don’t get support.”
She explains: “The government doesn’t know how the theatre industry works and yet they are trying to tell us how to run it. For the companies that supply equipment, the highly skilled freelancers, the producers in the head office and the actors on the stage, this is a hugely complex problem that needs urgent attention.
“As the world starts to move on, the entire arts sector has been left behind; and the psychological and financial burden of this is something that has directly affected hundreds of thousands of people, and will never be forgotten or forgiven. If anything is going to be salvaged from the wreckage of 2020, the government needs to wake up soon.”
Summer also challenges the logistics of Dowden’s idea. How will hygiene checks be funded? Where will theatres get the money to reopen? And what about the months of preparation needed for many of the most popular shows that guests will be keen to see?
Emma Gaynor founded supportive feminist arts network FreeBird in lockdown, after years of experiencing and witnessing discrimination in the theatre industry.
She says there’s a lot of disappointment around the lack of help from the government surrounding these issues as well, and that it’s worrying how weak leadership from the government has been in the pandemic.
“We need action, support and realistic and achievable next steps. The arts, live events and theatre industries need reliable governmental leadership. I founded FreeBird during a turbulent time, my friends and former colleagues needed hope. I needed faith.
“FreeBird demands business best practice in the arts and creative industries through insightful content creation. The Theatre industry which is currently dark, cannot resume. It can’t pick up where it left off. The sexism, racism, imbalance in good practice, lack of fair pay and lack of security for self-employed are just a few topics that require spotlighting.
“We need new ways of working; better ways. Personally, I think, open up the venues and make masks compulsory, before there’s nothing left. Once we’re open, let’s talk further.”
These new developments could mean that a Christmas of jazz hands and high kicks could be on the cards, but it seems there’s still a lot to do in order to rebuild this industry which has been struggling significantly through lockdown.
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