Social distancing puts national and local theatre at risk

by Beatrice Steele |

With the advent of a new era for Britain characterised by social distancing and the looming spectre of a grave economic recession, we also have to face a stark new reality for Britain’s theatre industry. Some of the theatres currently threatening permanent closure include Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre, and many West End venues. 

The effects of the nationwide lockdown have been catastrophic for those working in the theatre industry, and the job losses are not localised to London. There is a great risk that smaller venues and community theatres will be put out of business by the measures which will remain in place for the foreseeable future. An irreplaceable part of our shared culture could be lost, and community projects will disappear with much less noise than the larger city theatres. If suitable venues and funding cannot be procured in towns killed by joblessness, dead high streets and the fallout from the coming recession, community theatre faces extinction in parts of the country that may rely on it most. 

Minack Theatre | Carnon Downs Drama Group

Cornwall has a strong theatre scene. Falmouth University’s Nick Darke Award encourages playwrights from across the UK and Europe to submit significant numbers of their original plays, and that’s not to mention the dozens of plays and music performances being staged at AMATA or The Poly. The theatre group Kneehigh are a local success story, having begun with “…a farmer, the sign writer from Tesco, several students, a thrash guitarist from a local band, an electrician. …nobody who had been trained”. It began in 1980, when a village schoolteacher chose to run his own theatre workshops. Kneehigh gained a reputation for being innovative, exciting, and unconventional. Despite their nationwide renown, they remain unalterably Cornish: “Cornwall is our physical and spiritual home. We draw inspiration from the landscapes, history, people and culture.” As a result, these groups ensure that the capital does not have a theatrical monopoly.  

Most of our 2020 season has now been cancelled

In addition, Cornwall’s iconic Minack Theatre attracts performances from Shakespeare’s Globe on Tour and The British Theatre Academy among other local groups. I contacted Zoë Curnow, Executive Director of the Minack Theatre, for a comment. She had the following to say: 

The Minack is somewhat different to other theatre venues in that 2/3 of our visitors (300,000 in 2019) come as visitors to explore the site rather than watching a performance. We are also 100% reliant on our visitors and audience for income. We have no grants to fall back on. 

We have been closed since Fri 20th March which was almost exactly the point our visitor numbers would have started to increase as the weather improved and Easter came closer. 60/69 staff have been furloughed and a further 12 seasonal staff who would not have started until later in the summer will not be getting any work. 

Most of our 2020 season has now been cancelled, although some of our late August/September shows are still waiting to see what the social distancing requirements will be going forward. We are expecting to ‘reawaken’ the Minack during June to pre-booked visitors and will introduce some daytime storytelling performances during July and possibly some solo or duo music events. 

The financial impact on this is significant, although the Job Retention Scheme (furlough) is helping. We will make a financial loss this year – how much this is depends on when and how we are able to reopen. Thankfully we have enough cash reserves that the future of the Minack is not at risk, but we will be reassessing how we operate going forward in order to make back the 2020 loss. 

“…if the venues are obliged by government guidelines maintain distancing for auditoria then they could only sell one seat in six”| Karen Zhao/Unsplash

David Ivall, Chairman of Carnon Downs Drama Group, elaborated on how local theatre groups are coping: 

Yes, the effect on amateur groups this year has been massive. 

Carnon Downs Drama Group just got its 50th anniversary dinner dance in before lockdown in March, though we were already not shaking hands. Our production of Ayckbourn’s ‘Sisterly Feelings’ at the Minack Theatre was obviously cancelled (should have been on this week!); the Minack’s current plan is to transfer the whole of the 2020 programme to 2021, but that is only provisional. Fortunately it was a low cost production (modern dress, no set, no music) so there wasn’t too much of a financial hit and the rights holders have allowed us to carry the licence forward. 

A major concern, looking forward, is social distancing. A cast may be prepared to rehearse together, but if the venues are obliged by government guidelines maintain distancing for auditoria then they could only sell one seat in six, and what production would be viable in those circumstances? CDDG has reserves, we don’t need to make a profit on every production, but we cannot afford big losses. Another financial issue is that we pay rent for our principal rehearsal and storage venue, but are currently unable to make any use of it. 

However, we haven’t shut up shop! We have organised regular Zoom quizzes and play readings for the benefit of our membership, and the one act play competition is proceeding. We will be in good shape to come out of the crisis, in the fullness of time. 

“…we cannot afford big losses” | Hailey Kean/Unsplash

The Office for National Statistics reported a 69% rise in benefit claims in April, and also reported that unemployment rose from 50,000 to 1.35 million in the three months to March as the worldwide effects of corona virus began to be felt keenly in Britain (source). Nevertheless, as bad as the situation threatens to be, there is no doubt that theatre in Cornwall will pull through, in one form or another. We can all have faith in this. The future is still an uncertain place though, and theatre groups will need all the help they can get to remain viable financially when social distancing measures are still keenly influencing society.