Theatre companies in tier 3 areas describe 'shock and heartbreak'

Lanre Bakare
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: David Baird/PA</span>
Photograph: David Baird/PA

Theatres and touring companies in tier 3 areas have described their “shock and heartbreak” at being prevented from opening despite months of preparation and investment in Covid-19 safety measures.

While businesses such as gyms and hairdressers are able to open in areas with the highest coronavirus rates, theatres are not, leaving many unable to make money in the usually busy Christmas period.

Stephanie Sirr, the chief executive of Nottingham Playhouse, said the new stricter version of tier 3, which requires theatres to remain closed, means that the venue’s Cinderella pantomime and Jack and the Beanstalk family show will now only be available to stream online.

Sirr said the Playhouse had spent about £80,000 on Covid-19 measures, including temperature checkers, hand sanitiser and disinfection of surfaces, in anticipation of a socially-distanced Christmas season going ahead. In a normal year, Sirr estimated the Playhouse would expect to take about £900,000, but forecast it would take less than £100,000 for an online-only Christmas.

“It’s really baffling,” she said. “We’ve literally bent over backwards to create something that works brilliantly in this setting and then they say: ‘We’ve changed our mind for no apparent reason about theatres.’”

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“You can wander into a shop in just a mask but to get into the Nottingham Playhouse you have to temperature check, you have to have a hand sanitiser, you have to wear a mask and you have to be 2 metres away from someone.”

For theatres in cities including Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham and Leicester, which are also in tier 3, online versions of productions could be the only option, while London venues, including the West End, will be allowed to open for socially-distanced performances.

Theatre companies in tier 3 can still rehearse performances but will have to wait until 16 December to find out if they are coming out of the strictest restrictions and can put on socially-distanced Christmas shows.

The National Theatre launched an on-demand theatre viewing platform this week, at a cost of £9.98 a month, with its executive director and joint chief executive Lisa Burger saying it is “something that can deliver an income stream right now and into the foreseeable future”, as audiences move online because of the pandemic.

Tobias Cornwell, the director of the Get Out of My Space theatre company, said the difference between him being able to put on a performance was the matter of a few hundred metres.

The Beacon venue in Tunbridge Wells, which was due to host his production of A Cratchits’ Christmas Carol is about 800 metres from East Sussex, which is in tier 2. “The road we’re on starts in tier 3 and it ends in tier 2 – that’s how close it is. I could literally walk across a field and I would be in tier 2,” he said.

That decision could cost Cornwell about £20,000 in lost revenue, and he has written to Boris Johnson describing the decisions to tighten restrictions for theatres – but not other businesses such as gyms and hairdressers – and to move Kent from tier 1 to tier 3, as a cause “for shock and heartbreak”.

Rod Dixon, the artistic director of the Red Ladder theatre company in West Yorkshire, said his productions had been “clobbered” by the tier 3 restrictions, which came as they were setting out on a tour.

Dixon would have been taking a brand new play, My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored, to Doncaster, Horbury, and Holbeck WMC in Leeds during December, but the dates had to be pulled.

Although the change was difficult, he accepts some audiences would have stayed away. “I really want audiences to be able to comfortably come into the theatre,” he said. “It’s an indoor space and it doesn’t feel a safe place for a lot of people.”

Dixon described his company as “leaner” and “more responsive” than bricks and mortar theatres that needed months to prepare for a new show or reopening, a he said he was optimistic that once restrictions lifted the tour could be rearranged quickly.

“We feel we’re in a relatively good position as far as that’s concerned, but if an area is deemed tier 3 I wouldn’t want to argue that it should come down; we’ve got to be safe,” he said.