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Theatres and venues claim August 1 reopening plan ‘not viable’

The plan to reopen theatres and venues in England to socially distanced audiences in August has been criticised by some in the industry as not being financially viable.

The announcement marks the move to stage four of the government’s five-stage roadmap for the return of professional performing arts. However, many in the sector say that until stage five begins, when performances are allowed indoors and outdoors with “fuller audiences”, theatres and music venues would not be able to survive financially.

Jon Morgan, director of the Theatres Trust, a national advisory public body for theatres, said: “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. 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 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said it is working with the sector on pilots of performances with socially distanced audiences that will inform final guidance for venues in the run up to August 1. These include the London Symphony Orchestra at St Luke’s, London with a variety of further events in the coming weeks.

Music Venue Trust, among other live entertainment organisations, has been in talks with the government with regards to pilot events being held.

It said it has not received confirmation that any of these events have been authorised to take place in Grassroots Music Venues and has therefore questioned whether August 1 is a “realistic” date for those pilot events to have taken place and to have informed the final guidance for venues.

MVT said in a statement following today’s news: “It should be noted that we have already provided evidence to the government that staging live events with any level of social distancing measures would not be financially viable for the majority of Grassroots Music Venues.

“If such socially distanced events are to be part of the progress towards normality within the sector from 1 August, significant subsidies will be required if this measure is to have any noticeable impact upon the number of shows actually taking place.

“We would also note that events at Grassroots Music Venue level typically take between 6 weeks and 6 months to arrange, and that a notice period of two weeks is another enormous challenge to the objective of bringing back live music safely.”

In addition, the Live Comedy Association (LCA) said the August 1 plan was not financially viable. Owen Donovan, vice-chair of LCA and managing director of comedy production company Berk’s Nest, said venues needed clear guidance and fair access to the government’s £1.57bn cultural rescue package.

He said: “Our members desperately want to get back to work, and to do so safely. While we therefore welcome this announcement, we have real concerns that most shows from August will not be financially viable for venues, promoters, or comics.”

Meanwhile, the Royal Opera House in London has cut its entire team of casual staff due to COVID-19 pressures. The venue did not confirm the number of employees that have lost their jobs, but said a voluntary redundancy process was also under way and that all casual contracts had been terminated.

ROH tweeted: “It is with huge sadness that we have begun a restructure process. The scale of financial pressure on ROH alongside continued restrictions on our ability to perform to live audiences, has resulted in this very difficult decision.”

Image: David Joyce