‘It’s not sustainable’: theatres may not survive if extended lockdown prevents full reopening on 21 June

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Theatres across the UK are currently operating on reduced capacity due to social distancing restrictions

A delay to lifting lockdown restrictions in England on 21 June could be devastating to the theatre industry, as they struggle to operate on reduced capacity.

While theatres reopened their doors to audiences in mid-May after months of restrictions, social distancing rules have meant venues still cannot operate as normal.

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The pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on the industry, with many venues remaining closed despite the easing of restrictions as it is not financially viable for them to open with reduced numbers.

Theatres are currenty operating on reduced capacity (Photo: Getty Images)Theatres are currenty operating on reduced capacity (Photo: Getty Images)
Theatres are currenty operating on reduced capacity (Photo: Getty Images)

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Impresario Andrew Lloyd-Webber has hit out at the possibility of a delayed end to lockdown, stating he is prepared to risk arrest to fully reopen his theatres on 21 June.

The composer has said he may be forced to sell his six West End venues if the Government does not relax its restrictions as planned, adding that he has already had to remortgage his London home.

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‘It’s not sustainable’

Leeds Grand Theatre has been entertaining audiences for 143 years (Photo: Getty Images)Leeds Grand Theatre has been entertaining audiences for 143 years (Photo: Getty Images)
Leeds Grand Theatre has been entertaining audiences for 143 years (Photo: Getty Images)

The bleak picture is one that is shared by theatres across the country, which have struggled to stay afloat over the course of the pandemic.

And with social distancing measures now expected to be extended beyond 21 June, it could be the final nail in the coffin for some theatres.

Leeds Grand Theatre, part of the Leeds Heritage Theatres group, has been entertaining audiences in the North of England since 1878 and is just one of many venues which has felt the strain of the pandemic over the past year.

Amy Sanderson, head of communications at the theatre, explained to NationalWorld: “The lockdown has had a huge impact on finances for Leeds Heritage Theatres.

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“When we closed on 16 March 2020, we lost 98 per cent of our income.

“It’s only through using up our reserves, furloughing 96 per cent of our staff under the Job Retention Scheme and receiving grants from National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Culture Recovery Fund that we have managed to survive so far.”

Ms Sanderson said that the reopening of theatres on 17 May at reduced capacity hasn’t had a huge impact on the theatre’s ability to remain financially viable, but warned it is not sustainable to keep social distancing in place long term.

At the moment, the theatre is making plans to continue its programme with social distancing measures in place in an effort to ensure all staff and audiences are kept safe, but it is hoped such measures will not need to stay over a long period.

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Ms Sanderson warned that if restrictions continue much longer, it could force theatres to have to change their modes of performance, and possibly switch to an online model just to survive.

She said: “It won’t be sustainable long term for theatre as we know it to continue operating with socially distanced seating.

“At Leeds Grand Theatre, we usually need to play to audiences of around 65-70 per cent capacity for both the production company and us to break even. Social distancing takes us to 50 per cent, so whilst, at the moment, some income is better than none, it’s not a long-term solution.

“Whilst some theatres and companies have already looked to alternative models of performance - including both live and online - it might be that all have to do that if the industry is to survive.

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“But hopefully it won’t come to that and we can get back to entertaining audiences in full houses by the planned date of June 21.”

‘Come hell or high water’

Lord Lloyd-Webbe has said he is going to open his theatres “come hell or high water” as he is currently preparing for a production of Cinderella, which is due to open for previews on 25 June.

He told The Telegraph the Government can “come to theatre and arrest us” in the event the venues open against restrictions if the lockdown end date is extended, adding that this is an opportunity for ministers to show they “really do care about the musicians and the actors and all who work in live events”.

The 73-year-old theatre boss also said he may take legal action if his theatres are not allowed to welcome back audiences at full capacity later this month.

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Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chairman Julian Knight sympathised with Lord Lloyd-Webber, saying: “It is very frustrating for the live events industry as we can see from Lord Lloyd-Webber’s comments, though clearly I wouldn’t support anyone breaking the law.

“With the June 21 reopening on a knife-edge, the Government needs to be absolutely upfront about the results of its pilot events and how they feed in to decision-making.”

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick also said he “completely” understands the frustrations of the industry, but warned “we all have to abide by the rules”.

Speaking on Sky News, Mr Jenrick said: “We want to get them open, we are doing pilots, we want to get those theatres open so great new productions like Cinderella can open.

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“I know that people are desperate to go to them, tickets are selling fast for all those productions because people have been away too long.

“But you have just got a few more days to wait until the judgment that the Prime Minister is going to make on the basis of the data.”

The UK government is due to make its final assessment on whether the lifting of lockdown may need to be delayed on Monday (14 June), a week before all restrictions on social contact are due to end.

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