Suffolk theatres plan their own roadmaps out of lockdown

The New Wolsey Theatre is looking to welcoming back audiences again
Picture by Lucy Taylor Photog

The New Wolsey Theatre is looking to welcoming back audiences again Picture by Lucy Taylor Photography. - Credit: Archant

Suffolk’s theatres are hoping to reopen to audiences soon but need financial support to keep staff on the payroll and a time scale to enable them to plan. Here’s what they need to keep the lights burning

Eastern Angles director Ivan Cutting is hoping that there is light at the end of the lockdown tunnel

Eastern Angles director Ivan Cutting is hoping that there is light at the end of the lockdown tunnel and they will be able to reopen for Christmas Photo: Sarah Lucy Brown - Credit: Archant

At the end of last week, the government published a roadmap to get the arts working again – it was a five step plan which laid out what had to happen and in what order to get theatre and concert hall doors open again.

Unfortunately, what it didn’t lay was exactly how this recovery was going to happen, how it was going to be managed, what the time scale was going to be, or where the money was going to come from to make sure some of the most treasured theatres and arts companies survived this unprecedented health crisis.

It’s not just a question of making sure we have live performances to entertain us as lockdown eases, the arts are a hugely important part of our economy, providing jobs and boosting tax revenue. A report published last year discovered that in 2018-19, the arts in the UK was worth £10.8bn and contributed more to the British economy than agriculture.

This is why the arts sector was rather puzzled by the lack of detail in the so-called roadmap that would rescue the arts. So, we decided to ask some of the leading figures in the Suffolk arts scene what they would be looking for in a ‘rescue roadmap’.

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Ivan Cutting, co-founder and artistic director of Eastern Angles:

“Without wanting to sound flippant, what we need is for people to get better and go to the theatre again. In the meantime, what we need is an insurance package, I think. We can change the capacity of our theatre and we can bring people in different entrances, we address the layout to construct a socially distanced theatre. We can do that but my biggest fear at the moment is track and trace because once we decide to spend money we are locked into a scenario we can’t get out of. If, for example, we go ahead with the Christmas show, with reduced capacity, with the cabaret style layout we have been looking at – and we have had responses from audience surveys that indicate people are more likely to book with us than they are to take the train to London and see a show there – but we still don’t clear our biggest hurdle.

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“We have an audience, we rehearse a company for three weeks, socially distanced if necessary, but, theoretically, on the day before we open one of our cast says: ‘Oh, I’ve just been rung by the track and trace people and apparently I stood too close to somebody in Sainsburys who has contracted the virus. What happens then? Either we have to find a replacement very quickly or do we halt the whole thing because they clearly have been working with other members of the company. In that scenario we could lose £60 grand very, very quickly. That’s the bit that makes me very worried.

Snape Maltings Concert Hall. Britten Pears Arts are still hoping that they can hold an openair, soci

Snape Maltings Concert Hall. Britten Pears Arts are still hoping that they can hold an openair, socially distanced concert this summer Photo: Philip Vile - Credit: Archant

“What I need from the government is some kind of insurance package we says if this happens then you’re covered. If people feel nervous about giving more money to organisations maybe the insurance could be directly applied to the actors and other freelance professionals we employ. We also need the furlough arrangements extended until, at least, the end of the year. I think the end of the year is going to be a psychological turning point. I think with the New Year looming, people will feel safer about booking theatre tickets again. I don’t think many people will be booking tickets before Christmas. I think for the arts 2020 is the year that never happened.”

Brendan Keaney, artistic director of DanceEast:

“As a roadmap I think the government’s statement last week was shockingly empty. It didn’t tell us anything that we hadn’t worked out for ourselves. I think what we were expecting was some dates when life could start returning to normal and some sort of announcement about money to try and make this happen. It has been made clear to the government that the performing arts are finding it very tough and it’s going to be a long haul before we are anywhere near back to ‘normal’. It is clear that it is unlikely that there will be any real performance activity for the rest of the year because the supply chain has broken down. New work is not being made, companies are not rehearsing, tours aren’t happening, no-one is in a position to commission anything or to make anything this side of Christmas and possibly not until Easter next year. So, I believe that there should be some way of keeping organisations afloat because we all rely on earned income and that clearly cannot happen at the present time.

“So, all the arts organisations in Ipswich and across Suffolk are in something of a pickle but I do also think that there is a future, a bright future, but at the moment it is some way off and we are going to have to survive until we can start performing again. So in terms of a roadmap, I have to say, we were hoping for a bit more.

“We are looking to change how we do things, how we connect with audiences. If anything the lockdown has taught us is that there is an appetite for digital content and we had already started putting classes online before lockdown happened but now we are looking to explore more of that and when we come back we shall be looking at how we can harness the digital world and reach out to new audiences, perhaps rural audiences, who can’t easily get into Ipswich at night but that, as I say, is something to be explored when we are back up and running. I think it is safe to say that we have strong digital aspirations and I think that the artists themselves will be looking for new ways to showcase their work.

“As for the rest of this year, I can’t really say, because there is such a lack of information at the moment. We have plans for what we are calling ‘digital interventions’ around the town, maybe staging something on the Waterfront, just to keep things ticking over, it won’t be a proper programme but it will remind people that we are still here and will offer something special. We have scheduled a spring season, it is there, it is ready to go, but we can’t do anything until we’re told it’s safe. We have lots of things we want to do but they are contingent on factors we have no control over. It’s really frustrating because we really want to share this with everyone.”

Sarah Holmes with the team at New Wolsey Theatre. They hope to be back with their annual rock'n'roll

Sarah Holmes with the team at New Wolsey Theatre. They hope to be back with their annual rock'n'roll panto Photo Mike Kwasniak - Credit: Archant

Roger Wright, chief executive of Britten-Pears Arts:

“Recovery is going to be an enormous task and I hope that there will be a sum of money set aside to help arts organisations find their feet during this recovery process and hats off to the Arts Council for providing support thus far but the need in recovery is going to be even greater.

“Until we are clear we can get to stage three, four and five in the recovery process – and when that can be – we are pretty much in the dark. It’s a best guess scenario. I think everyone engaged in the arts feels an obligation to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. We want to offer something to our communities because we are employing creative people to stimulate, entertain and console us as part of our everyday lives.

“We are very anxious to get to a situation where we can provide live performances again to a socially distanced audience. We haven’t yet given up on staging something during the late summer. We are in touch with artists, we are exploring technical options. There is the possibility of streaming a performance from the Britten Studio into an audience in the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, if we can get the technology right, or perhaps because of the size of the concert hall and the depth of the stage we can do a socially distanced classical concert in the concert hall itself – perhaps a couple of 45 minute performances a day

“I would love to do an open air concert in the paddock behind the concert hall, something that we would do as part of the Snape Proms – some jazz or folk music – being outside would make it easier to have a larger, socially distanced audience. I would be reluctant to do anything on the bandstand on Aldeburgh beach because looking at the beach scenes on the south coast I wouldn’t want to do anything that would encourage large crowds into Aldeburgh and put people at risk. At Snape you can manage numbers through ticket sales and set out areas for audiences. You would want it to be as safe as you could possibly make it. I am anxious to discover what the time scale of this is likely to be. We are eager to start employing musicians again, really keen to start selling tickets again, ready to make music again but until we get some sort of timescale we are just in limbo.

“The arts are a huge driver in the economy as well as doing us good spiritually and mentally. Getting us up and running again makes fine financial sense and it is an investment in the future of our youngsters, the stars of tomorrow, who need our support, who need the opportunities and experience that we can provide. We are not doing this on a whim, there are important financial reasons, sustainable reasons for the local economy here in Suffolk and across the UK, for the arts to be helped back onto its feet.

“We just want to open again. We wouldn’t be reckless. The Snape Maltings is a place because of its size, because of its location, it’s really easy to do physical distancing. We just want to give it a go.”

Owen Calvert-Lyons; artistic director of Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds:

“The roadmap was very disappointing. What I think we need more than anything else is clarity and detail and they were the two things missing from that document. We need dates. We need a guide to when any of these five phases they were talking about might take place – without that we can’t plan.

“Theatre needs a lot of planning. We desperately need to open in time for Christmas because the Christmas productions are just so valuable because they are the shows which keep the doors open for the rest of the year. It’s not good enough to take a decision a month before hand. Panto takes a lot of planning we need to know that by the end of July at the latest. Norwich have all ready cancelled their panto this year because they don’t know what the situation is and they can’t take the financial risk. Lots of other theatres will be weighing up the situation and we all need to know what the timeline for reopening is going to be.

“We have a month long window in which to put together a rescue package and we will need some sort of insurance package to underwrite the costs if we are forced to cancel if cast or crew members become infected. If just one person becomes infected then chances are we will probably have to close the show. We need an assurance that we wouldn’t be left footing the bill. We need our theatres to reopen, we want to offer the invitation to our communities to come into the building once again and share the joy and laughter of panto but we can’t do that if it is going to cripple us financially if something happens because of Covid. The government needs to put some serious thought into a proper roadmap with an insurance element – which nine times out of ten theatres won’t need to call on – but for those who do, it will be a life-saving safety net.”

Sarah Holmes, chief executive of New Wolsey Theatre:

“As a board member of UK Theatres, I know that detailed discussions have been taking place between the industry and the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sport) and everyone is working hard to solve this conundrum. I’m reasonably confident that the gaps in the current roadmap will be filled in the next few weeks, as the understanding of the particular challenges faced by theatres and live performances increases.

“What the industry really needs, as well as specific financial support, are dates around which we can plan. We do understand that scientific advice is moving forwards rapidly, and we’ll comply with the advice given to us by Government to ensure everyone remains safe. But of course, we want to open as soon as possible and the sooner we have an indication of dates the better.

“There are discussions about insurances to cover the possibility of outbreaks during rehearsals etc, but what they would look like and how much they would cost isn’t known yet. An extension of the furlough scheme for specific industries that are not able – or allowed – to open would be incredibly helpful, as would direct financial support. If these things were announced in the next few weeks, it would really help us to plan for a future re-opening.”

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