All Party Parliamentary Group for Theatre takes evidence today

Today the All Party Parliamentary Group for Theatre was taking evidence on “How Local Authorities and Theatres can help each other recover from Covid-19”.

MPs and Peers were joined by Speakers from The RSC, HOME Manchester.Islington Council and the Local Government Association.

The background to the session reads as follows:

“Councils have played an important role in supporting the theatre sector. During the COVID 19 pandemic and theatres have worked to support their local communities in a variety of ways. It has been a year of incredible challenges, and would have been even bleaker were it not for national Government support schemes, including the Cultural Recovery Fund, JRS, and SEISS, and support by local authorities for their theatre venues.

This session aims to look at what is needed next for theatres to succeed locally, and for local areas to flourish. As a result, this session forms one part of many conversations across the UK, about how local government can work with the theatre sector to deliver a sustainable, national and local recovery.

Theatre can play a vital role in recovery from supporting high street renewal and the night-time and visitor economies to delivering against social outcomes including mental wellbeing, educational achievement, and social cohesion. But theatres cannot do it without strong local partnerships.

The theatre industry understand the extraordinary pressures on local government finances, and the difficult decisions that they will face in the coming years, however, this is a critical moment, to ensure that local cultural provision is protected as once lost, it is difficult to recover.”

My friend Dr Maria Barrett, who is a valued contributor to these events, noted that Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Leader of Portsmouth City Council began by pointing out what is often overlooked – local authorities are incredibly important in supporting local theatres – they represent £1bn of funding (2x the Arts Council’s budget), they run 116 theatres directly, and own over 500. Hugely important points to remember.

More information and video of the presentations will be available shortly on the APPG Theatre page of the UK Theatre website which you can find here

VIEWS: “So great to be back!” – West End theatres first audiences report…

If there’s anyone reading this who is feeling a little unsure about returning to theatre, let me assure you that you are not alone. Many people have contacted me over the last few weeks asking about how it’s all going, are the protocols in place working, how do people feel, etc. So this seemed like a good time to take a survey some of those who have already made their way into our West End theatres. So I did. And here are the major takeaways from what they all said. Respondents visited a sample of all the West End theatre groups which are currently open and showing work, and the feedback is intended to give you a general overview, as opposed to a theatre-by-theatre approach.

Did you have instructions when to arrive on your tickets? All respondents said that their confirmation email containing their e-tickets outlined when doors would open, where to enter, and what time they needed to be seated by.

What were your feelings of anticipation of returning to the theatre? The general response was that they were really looking forward to returning, particularly supporting the industry and enjoying a night out after so many months away from live theatre.

What were your feelings upon arrival at the theatre? One respondent responded they felt a little cautious, but the rest said they felt absolutely fine, and were eagerly anticipating their show.

Were there temperature checks/bag searches/any other entry processes? If so, were they conducted well? Anything they could improve upon? All respondents reported that Front of House processes were very well managed, and that there were separate queues, depending on where in the theatre one was sitting. There was unanimous praise for the helpful staff on hand to guide patrons to the correct queue. At all venues surveyed, our respondents were asked to scan the NHS Covid check-in QR code, but there were few temperature checks reported. All of the surveyed theatres were operating bag searches before entering the theatre, and hand sanitisers were noted as being widely available throughout all the theatres surveyed. Audiences were specifically instructed to keep masks on at all times when not drinking, and staff were reported as wandering the aisles throughout to ensure compliance. Some were reported as carrying signs to remind people about wearing masks.

Did you have any ticket issues? One respondent mentioned having trouble accessing her ticket PDF on her phone, and so she was redirected to the Box Office where paper tickets were made available. Respondent noted that the staff were very helpful and unflustered by this.

Re scanning the NHS QR code, did you each have to scan or could one person do it for your party? Each person had to scan separately. Patrons who didn’t have the app were asked to manually complete a form which were readily available on entry to the theatre.

How were the staff? Were there more than you expected or less of them? Staff were very friendly and helpful and clearly delighted to be back – but also very vigilant with ensuring mask compliance throughout. It was noted that staff were doing a great job, being firm but friendly and helpful. It was also noted that there were significantly more Front of House staff than previously seen around venues.

Any issues around queuing? One respondent had to queue to buy a programme, but was not fazed by this.

How was navigating your way around the building? Very easy, with clear signage. One respondent noted that “Pre-pandemic there was always a sense of rushing in the foyers, but this was all well-ordered and good-humoured”

Any problems? None reported

Any issues with your seats or surroundings? No issues, with appropriate seats blocked off to ensure social distancing at all venues surveyed.

How full was the theatre? Very mixed reactions to this one. The lowest was from a respondent who reported around 35% of socially-distanced capacity for their performance, albeit in the first week of reopening, on Friday. Several more mentioned varying percentages, up to 100% of socially-distanced capacity for a Saturday matinee in week two of reopening.

What was “the buzz” like? Several people noted the reduced numbers affected the “buzz” in the auditorium, but for several that was compensated by the excitement of those who were there. Very few reported any feelings of nervousness or anxiety, perhaps a sign that the Front of House teams are succeeding in helping people feel comfortable, by being so vigilant and friendly. All respondents described a level of “comeback high” at the end of their performance, a step towards normality that all were grateful for.

Did your show have an interval? Was it well-managed by the staff? Several shows had an interval and overall it was reported that they were well managed, with staff and patrons being mindful and kind.

Any issues around loos/queuing/bars/etc ? No major issues, with all mentioning that patrons were bring sensible and considerate, especially in queuing for the loos, still sadly an issue for the ladies. One respondent noted an issue at the bar – “restrictions meant only one person in each party could buy drinks from the bar to prevent crowding. A gentleman went to the bar to buy 3 mini bottles of wine/bubbly and was told he couldn’t take glass back into the theatre, and had to pour these into glasses before returning, however the glasses themselves weren’t big enough to hold the volume of liquid in each bottle, and he struggled to physically carry these back”.

Another respondent noted the strict queuing system for the bars at her show’s interval. “It was just like going to the bank!” she said, “personally, I think this is a brilliant idea that should be kept.”

Were there any issues with leaving the theatre? None reported.

What was your overall impression of the theatre’s handling of the safety processes and procedures. Overall we would say staff had been very well briefed and protocols were good

Would you recommend a theatre trip to others? “Yes, absolutely!” was the unanimous response from all those surveyed. One respondent mentioned “Although the theatre was relatively empty we more than made up for it in encouragement and appreciation of the performers, and it was such a lovely evening.”

Any tips on what to look out for? Issues to avoid? Nothing specific was noted by any of the respondents.

Conclusions My thanks to all the respondents for giving me their views and sharing them with all of us. It certainly appears that West End theatres are doing a splendid job of welcoming audiences back, taking sensible measures and enforcing them with a professionalism and warmth that the West End is famous for. I hope that these responses will help you make up your own mind about when and how you return to the West End – it has certainly helped me to feel much more confident about getting back to theatre, and Seeing It Safely!

Theatres Trust funding supports new approaches to recovery for theatres at risk

The Theatres Trust has announced the four theatres who will receive support funding in the third year of their Capacity Building Programme.

The programme is designed to support theatres on our Theatres at Risk Register to commission expert advice and acquire the skills and knowledge to push forward capital projects to help save their theatres. Alongside the grant, each theatre will receive support from the Theatres Trust’s advice team.

The four theatres receiving a share of the £45,000 fund are:

Brighton Hippodrome, £8,000
Grade II* listed Brighton Hippodrome is the UK’s most architecturally significant circus theatre – the finest surviving example of its type in the country. It has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2006 when the list began, and is also on the Historic England Heritage at Risk Register. Brighton Hippodrome CIC will receive a grant for fundraising scoping and testing, forming part of a wider fundraising strategy for the Hippodrome to enable the group to make a strong case for its future as a theatre.

Doncaster Grand, £11,500
An ornate Grade II listed Victorian theatre with strong community support, Doncaster Grand has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since the list started in 2006. Doncaster Council has been awarded a Theatres at Risk Capacity Building grant to part-fund a viability study for the theatre. The study will be led by the local authority with involvement from the Friends of Doncaster Grand Theatre and the building owner, Frenchgate Limited Partnership.

King’s Theatre Kirkcaldy, £7,000
Originally opened as the King’s Theatre in 1904, it later became a cinema, remaining Kirkcaldy’s main picture house until its closure in 2000. The building remained empty, suffering from a lack of maintenance, leading to it being added to the Theatres at Risk Register in 2016. It was then bought by King’s Theatre Kirkcaldy in 2016, who plan to restore the building to create Fife’s largest performing arts venue. The Theatre at Risk Capacity Building Programme will support King’s Theatre Kirkcaldy Limited to commission a community feasibility study for the theatre. This will provide a comprehensive understanding of the audience and market demand based on detailed market analysis and feedback from the local community.

Ramsbottom Co-op Hall, £19,000
This was only added to the Theatres at Risk Register in 2021 and recently awarded Grade II listed status following a Theatres Trust submission, Ramsbottom Co-op Hall is a rare early surviving example of a Cooperative Hall. It was originally used for variety entertainment of the kind commonly associated with music halls as well as community meetings. The recently formed Ramsbottom Co-op Hall Heritage Trust Ltd will receive funding and support to commission a market appraisal and a building valuation survey, vital first steps in the project to return the building to community performance use.

Claire Appleby, Architecture Adviser at Theatres Trust, said “We believe every theatre on our Theatres at Risk list has the potential to be returned for use by their communities, providing performance venues of types currently lacking in their local areas and bringing much needed footfall to beleaguered high streets. We are pleased to support these theatres as we know from experience that these early stages can make a crucial difference to the progress of theatre revitalisation projects.”

Theatres Trust have expressed their gratitude to The Pilgrim Trust and Swire Charitable Trust for funding the Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme.

I am sure we all wish these buildings every success with their road back to performance.

UK theatres save the NHS over £100million every year!

During Creativity and Wellbeing Week* last week, UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) released useful and surprising statistics showing that theatres generate an annual cost saving to the NHS of £102,234,585, by helping benefit the physical and mental health of those in their surrounding communities.

What more significant way could there be to highlight the importance of theatre and the arts in improving physical and mental wellbeing – something that is being increasingly recognised worldwide, including by the World Health Organisation and the UK Department of Health & Social Care.

Further evidence comes from an ongoing audience survey by The Old Vic, in which 93% of respondents so far have agreed -or strongly agreed- that theatre benefits their mental health and wellbeing.

Although theatre spaces have been closed throughout the pandemic, they have remained essential community hubs, providing online educational resources, interactive family events, digital productions, creative workshops and even programmes to help rehabilitate Covid sufferers – alongside the countless venues offering space, supplies and skilled volunteers to help the NHS. Further, the creative minds at work in these organisations have undergone numerous reinventions of their organisations to stay relevant and useful to their local communities- yet another example of the huge benefits of creativity to find solutions to community issues- whether practical or emotional.

Now, as lockdown eases and theatres begin the long road back, welcoming back in-person, socially distanced audiences, substantial evidence of the enormous power of theatre to enrich people’s lives physically and mentally – as well as culturally – will be a vital tool to help the government to understand that the UK’s world-leading theatre sector must be given the support it needs to survive.

The report says: “UK Theatre and SOLT calculated the figure using a 2015 report by DCMS and Simetrica, which quantifies the health benefits enjoyed by people attending a cultural or sporting activity. The report found that the NHS saves a yearly total of £11.91 for every person partaking in such an activity, from a reduction in GP visits and use of psychotherapy services.

This data was combined with UK Theatre and SOLT’s 2018 audience attendance figures (collected from nearly 300 venues nationwide), which show that over 34m people attended the theatre that year. Taking into account repeat attendance and attendance of other cultural or sporting events – and applying the DCMS and Simetrica benchmarking – the figure of £102,234,585 was reached.

This is a method previously used on a smaller scale by the leaders of HOME in Manchester, who last year calculated the theatre’s £26m economic impact on its local city from 2019 to 2020, including a £1m saving to NHS services.

Jon Gilchrist, Executive Director of HOME, said:

‘These findings show the difference the arts can make when working with their communities to support people’s health and wellbeing – highlighted by our own 2019/20 economic impact assessment, which measured the role of HOME in reducing GP visits and the use of mental health services to the effect of an incredible £1m cost saving to the NHS. Across the industry, the potential impact of this is huge, especially when theatres and cultural organisations forge partnerships to provide a range of opportunities to engage with arts and culture.’

Victoria Hume, Executive Director of the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance, said:

‘We know from a significant and growing body of international research that the arts, creativity and culture are critically important to sustaining our health, to tackling major social problems like loneliness and isolation, and to building our communities.

‘This startling statistic is yet another important piece in the puzzle, and drives home the message that we cannot dismiss the arts and culture as nice-to-haves. We know that our resilience is dramatically impacted by our ability to access our creativity and build the culture that surrounds us. This has kept many of us going through lockdown, although research also shows inequalities in cultural participation have been reinforced by Covid.

‘It will be essential to our safe recovery as a country that we invest to ensure greater equity and support the kind of forward-looking, partnership-based work this report describes.’ “

*Creativity & Wellbeing Week is an annual festival led by London Arts and Health and the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance and featuring cultural organisations and freelancers all around the UK, to celebrate the impact creativity has on our health and wellbeing.

VIEWS: Theatres under the microscope

Gary Donaldson, founder of Unrestricted Theatre, shares his hopes and concerns about theatre’s ultimate comeback.

So May 17th is the date from which theatres can reopen at 50% capacity.

I’m sure some trepidation is being felt in arts venues across the country right now. The venues may have all the pieces of the Front of House plan, but we will only know how they work when we see them in action. Staggered arrival times, multiple entry points, hands-free bag searches, mask protocol inside the building, temperature checks are all designed for audiences to feel reassured that they can “See It Safely” as the slogan goes, but how they might feel throughout the process is yet to be tested.

Undoubtedly a lot was learned by those venues who were able to open in the run up to last Christmas, but this will be an ongoing exercise now and it will be very interesting to see how audiences react, and how venues respond to the many demands that will undoubtedly be placed upon their long-suffering front line – their Front of House staff.

It’s all very well for theatre staff to seat an audience. How they control things after the show has begun is another matter entirely. The dynamic of an audience is an ever-shifting thing, and I am intrigued to see how Covid has affected audiences’ behaviour – which it undoubtedly will have.

Part of the key of a good night out is that audiences can relax and are “taken out of themselves” for a couple of hours. Will they be able to do that – or will they be looking over their shoulder at that person who coughed?

Often at this time of year in a normal theatre cycle there is some kind of promotion following on from Get Into London Theatre in January and preceding Kidsweek in August. It is certainly good to see that the newly re-elected Mayor, Sadiq Khan has announced a major domestic tourism campaign called LET’S DO LONDON which features London’s arts and cultural activities at its heart, although discounting appears to be missing from this raft of proposals, which have been needed even in pre-pandemic times.

The actual number of shows opening on May 17th are relatively small. One reason for this is the financials. Most theatres running at 50% capacity will be running at a loss. Most shows need to run around 70  per cent capacity simply to break even, and commercial theatre is a hard world even in normal times. A lot of the big shows have hedged their bets and have announced they will reopen in June, July, August – but they are all banking on the hope that they can run at full capacity from late June, which is by no means a given as yet. It’s never easy being a producer, but right now might be the hardest it ever gets.

How audiences will feel about this rapid change in circumstances- from 50% to potential 100% occupancy- will depend on many external factors which are out of the theatres’ hands.

Will audiences be put off by having to produce a Covid Certificate to state they they have had their jabs or that they have tested positive very recently. Personally, I doubt this will come into play as it’s way too complex a task to manage in the very limited timeframe to do it.

There are those people who will rush to see almost anything, for the experience of being in a live theatre situation again. There will be many more who are looking forward to going who will have anxieties about how long they remain in the same environment with a large number of people, some of whom will undoubtedly take their masks off – and the Front of House staff will never be able to manage that.

Research proves that social anxiety has rocketed during the pandemic, and simply “going back to normal” is not going to assuage that for a lot of people. Therefore Front of House staff will need to be incredibly kind, caring and diplomatic in the way they handle audience members who may feel agitated or overwhelmed by any aspect of the theatregoing experience. It’s going to be a more demanding job than ever- and I am sure our wonderful theatre staffs will do their utmost. But we also need to remember that those capable and talented Front of House staff have all been through their own experience of Covid, unique to them in their experience and response to it- and so audiences should ideally try to treat them with mutual respect and kindness. There are a lot of unknowns in this new equation.

Announced ticket initiatives too, with free exchanges up to 24 hours before the performance, will help audiences build back confidence in booking shows. But I wonder how much of this can theatres do? The running costs of a show in a West End theatre are huge, and whether the ticket sales can support all of this flexible activity remains to be seen.

Regarding the shows themselves, it’s notable that smaller shows will be leading the way back in the West End. Nimax co-owner and producer Nica Burns has taken the opportunity to promote a smart business idea in providing platforms for over a dozen young emerging producers to make their mark in the West End with small-scale, short runs of new shows which otherwise would not receive such a high-profile exposure. The turnover and small scale may help to reduce the risks involved for the producers and the theatre. If something were to cause a show to be pulled, then the loss would not be as great as pulling a larger show in a longer run. The difficulty is that the government has still not provided an insurance support scheme for theatres and productions affected negatively by Covid, scandalous considering they jumped to create and make available just such a scheme to film and TV organisations one full year ago.

Whether the audiences will turn out for these smaller-scale comeback shows will be very interesting to see, but Ms Burns has undoubtedly sown a lot of seeds of goodwill with the initiative which will also test out the audience management systems and provide useful intelligence as to how to move forward when the traditional, larger-scale, longer running shows resume later in the year, to larger capacities (assuming all continues well).

In practical terms the science has shown that surface contamination and deep-cleaning of auditoria are secondary concerns to the need for good ventilation. Thankfully, most theatres have good air-con systems which will no doubt be turned up full. As a knock-on effect, this may make your next theatre visit feel a little chillier than you might have anticipated – so take a woolly!

Whatever happens will be watched very closely by everyone with an interest in the live arts. Let us wish everyone well and a successful experiment. Because right now, we don’t know if it will work. All we can do is hope – but theatres’ futures depend on it.