Yorkshire theatres keeping shows on the road despite lockdown delay - but fear for future if social distancing continues

Yorkshire’s acclaimed theatre industry is facing fresh challenges and further uncertainty after the ending of lockdown restrictions was delayed. Chris Burn reports.

Non-socially distanced crowds were trialled at the World Snooker Championships at the Crucible in Sheffield in May - but that theatre and others remain restricted on audience numbers until July 19 (Photo by Zac Goodwin - Pool/Getty Images)

While London impresarios may have memorably likened the Government’s approach to continued tough audience restrictions on theatres to a West End farce this week, the ongoing challenges to the arts have also inadvertently led to countless tales of Yorkshire grit in this corner of the world.

Although there is no hiding the seriousness of the situation and the nerves surrounding the major financial implications of continuing social distancing requirements following this week’s announcement that the ending of Covid restrictions will be delayed by four weeks, speaking separately to a host of people involved in the region’s theatre industry reveals a common thread – an absolute determination to come through the other side of the pandemic.

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John Godber has become well-known for his prolific output ever since his first play Bouncers came out in 1977 and is one of Yorkshire and England’s best-known playwrights. He says despite the many challenges and uncertainties of the present moment, he has great faith in the endurance of Yorkshire’s theatre industry.

John Godber at East Riding Theatre, Beverley in 2016. Picture: James Hardisty

“You have to have grit and be stoical to go into this in the first place. No matter what your reputation and how many awards you have, when you put on a new play you are starting again. It is like playing football – it doesn’t matter if you have won the Champions League, it is about what you do next season.”

His family-run company recently staged a socially-distanced outdoor production of Moby Dick in a Hull amphitheatre in which audience numbers were limited to a maximum of 92 in the 350-seat venue.

The production was made possible with the help of around £29,000 from the Government’s Culture Recovery Grant fund as well as financial support from Hull company Wykeland.

To help make it work in as Covid-safe a way as possible, the actors lived together for five weeks in a rented property.

Dan Bates, chief executive of Sheffield Theatres. Picture: Chris Etchells.

Godber says despite the financial support, the cost-effective production and strong support from the theatre going public, putting on the show highlighted how it is almost impossible to make money from socially-distanced productions.

“The production was great and managed to employ 20 people for a month. But there was no profit at the end of it. The Arts Council assumed when the Culture Recovery Fund came, things would be back to normal.

“Theatre is a very simple equation – you need to match how many are on stage with how many are in the audience. If you are running big venues and putting on large spectacular shows, you really need bums on seats to get to a zero balance.

“Part of the money from the CRF went into Covid security, putting all the actors into one Airbnb where they lived together for five weeks. It is really difficult to do that if you are Andrew Lloyd-Webber and you are making Cinderella.”

Executive director of Leeds Playhouse Robin Hawkes. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Having a Spanish language version of one of his plays performed in front a packed house at Antonio Banderas’ theatre in Malaga would not normally be cause for complaint for Godber, but seeing the film star share a video clip of its actors receiving rapturous applause earlier this week was a bittersweet moment.

Banderas sharing a clip of the adaptation of skiing comedy On The Piste to his three million Instagram followers came on the same day that Boris Johnson was announcing the ending of coronavirus restrictions in England was to be delayed for four weeks - putting further pressure on the nation’s beleaguered theatre industry which will have to continue operating at much-reduced capacities while hoping for no further delays.

Godber says the scene from Spain was a stark contrast to the situation in England. “It is frustrating and you question why. But we know what the answer is,” says Godber, explaining he is referring to the failure to take faster action on border closures which has contributed to the spread of the Delta variant that originated in India in the UK.

“It just struck me that we have been playing to 92 people in an amphitheatre and they have got hundreds in Malaga. That is incredibly frustrating.”

Amy Sanderson at Leeds Grand. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

But he says that in addition to a hunger from audiences to return, there is also plenty of innovation taking place to make it happen – revealing he has recently been approached by a company who hope to stage a production of Bouncers in a series of pub gardens.

“When we did Moby Dick even though we only had 90 seats, we sold nearly all of them in a dock in Hull in a breezy location with a story where nobody survives at the end. The people of Hull came in their nineties every night! The worry is where are the next generation of actors and directors going to cut their teeth? However, if you want to write a play you will write it and find a way to put it on.”

The lockdown easing delay also came as a blow – but little surprise – to Dan Bates, chief executive of Sheffield Theatres, which includes the neighbouring Lyceum and Crucible theatres, as well as the Studio inside the Crucible building.

The Crucible is still able to press on with staging a new production of Victoria Wood’s Talent from June 30 to July 24. It was already planned that the vast majority of its shows would be performed at a maximum one-third capacity, limiting audience numbers to 330 per performance.

It had been hoped to put on five non-socially distanced performances from mid-July with the Crucible two-thirds full but two of these on July 15 and 17 have now been downgraded to the smaller capacity because of the change to the Government’s road map.

Bates says: “We have opened and shut three times now so this time we have taken a more cautious approach. We are doing everything we can to make sure audiences are safe and can feel confident about coming back.”

Sheffield Theatres received £3m from the Government’s £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund programme and Bates says the money has been vital.

“I don’t want to get dramatic but that money has allowed us to put on some performances online, it has enabled to mothball the buildings as they need money and time to maintain them, it has meant we haven’t needed to lose more staff. The Government’s furlough scheme has also really benefited our staff.”

But he adds that if social distancing in theatres continues beyond July 19, future productions are in serious doubt.

The 1,000-seat Sheffield Lyceum is currently due to reopen its doors in mid-August for a production of Hairspray but Bates says that will not be able to take place if theatres are not allowed to operate at full capacity.

“The Lyceum could only reopen if social distancing wasn’t in place,” Mr Bates said. “It is scheduled to open in August with Hairspray. It is only really viable if social distancing is not in place.”

Bates says while the Crucible has “more flexibility” than the Lyceum to continue socially distanced performances, this would not be sustainable for long.

His comments come after actors’ union Equity called for a Government-backed insurance scheme for the theatre industry. Bates says such a move would be a “gamechanger” providing much greater certainty for touring productions.

“It is a big commitment to tour a production around the UK. You have 25 to 30 people on stage and you might have 25 to 30 in the entourage to set it up, travelling each week across the country. The risks are much higher. As a production you could have a great time in Sheffield and then the next city on the tour might be in local lockdown.”

Earlier this year, the Crucible played a key part in the Government’s Events Research Programme to pilot the lifting of restrictions as it held the World Snooker Championships with increasingly larger crowds throughout the tournament and finished in front of a full house. While the official findings of the programme have not yet been published, in May Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said just four cases of Covid had been recorded across the entire 17 days of the Championship.

Bates says: “Around 12,500 people came to see the snooker earlier this year which was a fantastic result and the tournament got fuller as confidence built. No staff got Covid during the snooker tournament and I think it helped demonstrate to our audience we can keep people safe.”

Last weekend the Crucible was used as a drop-in vaccination centre for over-18s, with 700 young people getting jabbed and many others being turned away because demand was so high.

Bates, who has also been volunteering as a vaccination steward in Sheffield in recent months after he and his staff cut their working week to four days to cut costs, says it was a reminder that brighter times are hopefully on the horizon.

“It was wonderful so many young people wanted to have the vaccine and I felt really proud we could assist that. Saturday felt like a step forward and Monday’s announcement was a bit more of a pause.

“I have learnt so much in 15 months about things I hoped never to learn about. This isn’t a sob story because the whole world has suffered with Covid. It did feel like our world was crumbling on March 23 last year but we have been able to pick ourselves up. It has been gruelling with planning and then unplanning things if that is the right word.

“The joy of the roadmap was that it gave us a bit of a planning break and although personally I always thought June 21 was a bit questionable, from the middle of last week the anxiety and uncertainty came back. Personally it has been tough but for a lot of people it has been tougher.

“I urge people to give socially-distanced theatre a go while it is happening. Talent is a fantastic production and a good laugh which is absolutely needed at the moment.”

Leeds Playhouse took a similarly cautious approach to its summer programme, with shows for June, July and August sold on the basis that they would have to be socially distanced but with the hope audience numbers could be increased if possible.

The Playhouse also received £3m from the Culture Recovery Fund and executive director Robin Hawkes says the money was crucial in being able to reopen again - albeit partially.

“The things we are doing through the summer would have made a loss in their own right but we have had this additional funding. The shows are loss leaders to get people back through the doors again,” he says.

While the Playhouse’s autumn season is yet to be finalised, it has announced its Christmas production of Wendy & Peter Pan, which Hawkes says will only be able to go ahead if full venues are allowed again.

“If social distancing continues through the autumn we are not going to be able to create a programme that is affordable.

“The thing about theatre productions is they take not weeks but months of planning. Some of the really last minute announcements have been very difficult to deal with.”

He says he agrees that a Government-backed insurance scheme for Covid-related delays is “vital” to ensure the future of touring productions and adds he believes thought needs to be given to ensure actors can receive rapid Covid testing so they don’t have to isolate if they test negative.

“We are preparing to put on A Little Night Music with Opera North and it is probably one of the largest productions in the whole country at the moment involving about 40 people,” he says.

“Currently if you have been in contact with somebody who has had a positive test you have to self-isolate for 10 days. That is really difficult for theatres to deal with. We have had four or five individuals off for self-isolating and it is quite difficult.

"The worst case scenario is if somebody in the production was to get a positive test themselves. For theatres to operate sustainably, we need access to PCR tests that can rule somebody out of having the virus and means they don’t have to self-isolate.”

Hawkes says for the time being, the theatre industry needs public support.

“We are open, we are delighted to be open, we have a really safe environment and really good opportunities for people to experience theatre during this period even with social distancing in place.”

One company to recently stage a production at the Playhouse is Red Ladder Theatre, whose stage show of The Damned United based on David Peace’s book about Brian Clough’s ill-fated time as Leeds manager is also visiting York Theatre Royal, Sale, Durham and Manchester next month.

Artistic director Rod Dixon says the shows have been sold on a socially-distanced basis.

“The way it was organised at the Playhouse was brilliant – it was safer for the audience than going to the supermarket. The front row was empty, people had a time to come into the auditorium and were wearing masks. The Damned United is quite a safe bet but the threat for a lot of companies is if you haven’t got a title like that there will be worries about getting people to see it.”

He says while he prefers a cautious approach to reopening at the moment, the company does hope to play to a full house later this year when it is due to perform Homebaked: The Musical in Liverpool.

Monday’s announcement has proved more complex for Leeds Grand and the City Varieties, which are part of the Leeds Heritage Theatres organisation.

It had been selling shows on the basis of being at full capacity after June 21 but is now in the process of rearranging them to be socially-distanced or rescheduling dates.

Head of communications Amy Sanderson says: “We always knew there would be the potential for this to happen but there comes a point where you have to be optimistic. It has been a really tricky balance to get right.”

She says that continuing with social distancing after July 19 will be highly problematic.

“For four weeks we can do it. After that it becomes really difficult. For our shows we need to be at 60 to 70 per cent capacity to break even. If it has to keep continuing, you are going to have to have another recovery fund or some kind of insurance scheme.”

But Sanderson adds there is little doubt that recent ticket sales show the public demand to return to the theatre is very strong. “People are really wanting to come back. A lot of people still want to come this year and see a show.”

'More support on its way', says Government

Theatres will reopen fully “as soon as it is safe to do so”, the Government has pledged.

A spokesperson said: “Our unprecedented Culture Recovery Fund is the largest one-off investment in UK culture. It has so far supported over 650 theatres with £250 million funding, including support for 43 theatres across Yorkshire and the Humbers to date - and recipients include Harrogate Theatre, Theatre Royal Wakefield and Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House. Further support is on the way following a £300 million extension at Budget.

“We have also piloted a theatre setting through the world-leading Events Research Programme, with the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield hosting the World Snooker Championships.

“We will ensure theatres can operate at full capacity as soon as it is safe to do so.”

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