With shops, restaurants and pubs reopening and children allowed to return to school, at the time of writing things slowly but surely seem to be getting back to normal. But there is still much that needs to be done, and we remain obliged to stick to the Government’s rules and social distance – but small progress is better than none at all.
I wish, though, that this reversion to familiarity also applied to the arts industry in Wales. As of Sat 15 Aug, theatres in England have been given the thumbs up from the Government to reopen, albeit with social distancing requirements meaning heavily reduced capacities which have led many not to bother for now.
As theatres become accessible again, customers will have to follow strict social distancing guidelines, as proposed by the Government. As well as a majority of seats being placed out of bounds to allow the two-metre radius between each patron, intervals during performances will be extended to 45 minutes, to allow for bars taking longer to serve. Thermal imaging cameras and hygienic door handles are other suggested measures for customers’ safety.
Wales, meanwhile, has had no word on when its theatres could be back in action. The arts industry seriously needs our help and support. Theatres of all sizes across Wales are in trouble and if we – the public – don’t act now, we could lose them forever.
Lisa Aston, Theatre Manager at the Dolman Theatre in Newport, told me: “We have had to cancel and postpone many musicals, plays and dance shows.
“We are run by volunteers, except for myself and the caretaker, and rely solely on Newport Playgoer Society members’ fees and income from hiring societies. We have had no hiring income since March. We are extremely grateful to those members who have continued to pay their monthly membership fees.
“As we are only a 400-seater, venue productions would not be financially viable if we can only open with socially distancing rules.”
A statement from Cardiff’s New Theatre [pictured above, lit up in red as part of a recent UK-wide campaign to highlight venues’ plight], one of Wales’ most prestigious stages, says: “We have been regularly updating our website, staying in contact with our audiences during this time and have been working with our incoming production companies to reschedule our programme into 2021. When we are given permission to reopen by the Welsh Government, we have a full programme of entertainment to welcome back our audiences.”
While Alan Dear, head of Theatre, Arts and Culture at the Riverfront Theatre in Newport, reports thus: “Currently The Riverfront is closed; however, we are working on other opportunities to entertain our customers and support artists. Following a successful application to the Arts Council Of Wales’ Stabilisation Fund for Organisations, we will be launching a programme of online classes, workshops and educational materials developed from the theatre’s current programme including dance, music, drama and arts-based fitness classes.”
Each of the three theatres above can – in a regular year – boast a programme ranging from drama to musical theatre, West End and Broadway productions, standup comedy, concerts and even pantomimes. We need to make sure that when theatres finally reopen in Wales, we visit them. The arts industry is one we all use and, for the most part, take for granted. Without the arts where would we be? Imagine the national meltdown that would be induced by a day without TV, films, music, theatre or radio, then imagine it in perpetuity.
On Sun 5 July, the UK Government announced a £1.57 billion support package for theatres and the arts industry to help them through the coronavirus pandemic. “This funding,” its adjoining statement said, “will prioritise institutions of national and international significance and those that are crucial to the valuable cultural fabric to places and communities and down the country [and] will support organisations through to the spring of 2021.”
It’s about time we, too, helped and supported them – a return on the pleasure the arts industry has given us over the years. Of course, it’s not only the theatre that’s in trouble – places such as cinemas (now permitted to reopen in Wales, although not all have by any means) and music venues (a limited number of smaller ones are awakening from their slumber, though regular gig schedules are still some way down the line) are also struggling.
We would be absolutely nowhere without the arts, especially during lockdown. According to Ofcom, viewing figures for video streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ have risen 71% on 2019 – no prizes for suggesting why, but it’s nevertheless evident that they have brought so much happiness into our lives during these tough times.
When lockdown is finally over for good, it seems sadly inevitable that many theatres will not have survived due to loss of income and support. Maybe inevitable, but not insurmountable: do your bit, sign petitions and – if you can – donate to your local theatres. Enough collective people power could be the difference between some theatres surviving, or going under.
Some may ask, “why should I pay to keep theatres alive?” Ultimately, it’s a question of pragmatism: while we argue the toss over whether the support package offered amounts to enough of a financial balm, many smaller theatres – places the size of Newport’s Dolman Theatre and with that kind of self-sufficient approach – are highly likely to fall through the cracks. A combination of social distancing adaption, successful funding applications and a savvy PR department, may allow larger theatres to stay afloat, but this leaves a broadly unsung bedrock, places where actors and directors hone their skills.
It would be a massive shame to see theatres close (and when one does, it will in all likelihood be permanent) – not only for those passionate about the arts, but for the local communities and economies these theatres support. It’s a common saying in the arts that “the show must go on”. Let’s make sure that it still can in Wales!
words TONICHA LUFFMAN