While many areas of our life are being increasingly relaxed including shops, bars, restaurants and even cinemas, and this week gyms, beauty salons and swimming pools – the one thing conspicuous by its absence has been a detailed road map for re opening performance venues.
Many of the bigger venues such as The National, Birmingham Rep and The Theatre Royal, Norwich have already started to announce redundancies –and many theatres including those in the West End and Shakespeare’s Globe are not looking to open now until 2021. But its touch and go for all venues – big or small – and many performance companies who rely on them to tour their work.
In this area, Two Sisters Arts Centre is planning to re open in September as long as the government allows, The Spa Pavillion has shows planned from the end of August, The New Wolsey & Eastern Angles in Ipswich are looking to at least be able to stage Christmas Shows/Pantos. All this of course is reliant of getting some definite information from the government on timings – something that has been severely lacking.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has already unveiled a five-step system to help reopen theatres but with no fixed dates.
Stage One – Rehearsal and training, though with no audiences and all adhering to social distancing guidelines
Stage Two – Performances for broadcast and recording purposes (adhering to social distancing guidelines)
Stage Three – Performances outdoors with an audience plus pilots for indoor performances with a limited distance audience
Stage Four – Performances allowed indoors / outdoors (but with a limited distanced audience indoors)
Stage Five – Performances allowed indoors / outdoors (with a fuller audience indoors)
Stage one and two had already been given the green light and outdoor performances can re start from this weekend with social distancing (stage three).
Now the government’s culture minister Caroline Dinenage has elaborated on the plans .
Speaking on Sky News, she said : “We very shortly want to be able to announce theatres indoors but with social distancing and we’re working on a few pilots which we announced yesterday which will hopefully enable us to do that.”
“Obviously the silver bullet for the theatres will be being able to open without any form of social distancing but we just need to wait until the scientific guidance assures us that that is safe.”
She added: “We’ve always taken a slow a very slow and methodical, an iterative approach. We always look at the scientific data, we know that the infection rate is coming down and the test and trace system is working really well.
“But activities are more risky than others and we need to balance that risk, against the risk to public health and the economy of keeping things shut, and that’s why we’re taking this very slow and steady approach, opening things bit by bit as and when the data suggests that it safe to do so.”
A week ago the UK government unveiled a £1.5 billion to prop up the arts sector during the pandemic, though how, when and to whom this money will become available is still not known.
Dowden said: “We know the challenges – theatres must be full to make money, and performers need to be safe on stage as they sing, dance and play instruments – but I am determined to ensure the performing arts do not stay closed longer than is absolutely necessary to protect public health.
“Right now, we are supporting musicians, dancers and actors to safely resume training, rehearsals and recorded performances without an audience where organisations wish to. We have progressed to outdoor performances with an audience . Alongside this we’ll do some pilots on indoor performances to identify the best mitigations to take. Eventually, and only when it is safe to do so, we’ll reintroduce indoor performances with audiences.”
Each stage will depend, according to Dowden, on where the country is in terms of the pandemic and rate of infection.
Significant problems still remain for venues – many of whom are facing financial peril and will not feasibly be able to reopen until stage five of the process. There is also the challenge of getting audiences back – especially the many who are older and have been isolating.
In the meantime a new comprehensive guide to staging performances during the pandemic has been released by the UK government.
While indoor performances are currently not permitted (as this will fall under stage four of the Culture Secretary’s plan to reopen), this framework will likely apply once those venues can open their doors.
Social distancing will remain in place both indoors and out. According to the new rules: “Social interactions should be limited to a group of no more than two households (indoors and out) or up to six people from different households (if outdoors). It will not be against the law for businesses and venues to host large groups, though premises that are not COVID-secure will not be able to house more than 30 people.”
Venues are encouraged to lower capacity to at the very least allow for social distancing, with staggered entry times to avoid queues, One-way travel routes will be put in place, while patrons will be told to avoid certain types of transport on their way to shows.
The guidance adds that: “Organisers should ensure that steps are taken to avoid audiences needing to unduly raise their voices to each other. This includes, but is not limited to, refraining from playing music or broadcasts that may encourage shouting, including if played at a volume that makes normal conversation difficult, for example during performance intervals.” This is due to the potential risk for transmission.
For audiences, spaces will have to be reconfigured so that audiences are sat rather than standing. Where possible, e-ticketing systems should be used, while refreshments and merchandise should be pre-ordered. It is encouraged that programmes are provided in digital format.
Audiences members are encouraged not to bring bags and coats into auditoria to prevent cluttering.
Audiences will not be permitted onto the stage, or to “touch equipment, props, instruments, set or other objects used by performers”. Auditoria will be cleaned between performances, with schedules having to be adjusted to make time for these deep cleans.
Before venues can reopen, the document says, they will have to introduce brand new cleaning regimes, with “some surfaces cleaned regularly throughout the day”. While most air conditioning systems will not need adjusting, venues and buildings are encouraged to use natural ventilation at all times if possible.
Hand sanitiser will need to be provided at “multiple accessible locations”, including for wheelchair users. Floor markings and signage will help guide visitors and workers around buildings.
Venues are encouraged to “limit the number of suppliers when hiring equipment”, with all equipment cleaned on arrival.
For musicians, owners of personal items will have to take responsibility for disinfecting their own personal property, while those will smaller instruments are encouraged to keep them under their seats rather than in communal spaces. Handling of music scores is to be limited to the individual using them, while “dropping off points” will be installed.
The guidance also says that equipment including headsets will have to be dedicated cleaners, making sure they are regularly disinfected if shared between users.
Self-taping or online auditions is actively encouraged, and auditionees should try not to arrive ahead of their allocated time slot. Barriers or screens should be placed between actors and casting teams, though always working alongside the needs of disabled and deaf workers.
Productions are encouraged to rehearse “outdoors where possible” and socially distance those rehearsing. They should also try and “reduce group and cast sizes where possible to maintain social distancing.”
Productions should be “mapped out” ahead of in-person rehearsals, with actors encouraged to learn lines in advance.
As said earlier, for the time being, only outdoor performances are permitted.
Singing in groups or in front of audiences should only be done for work purposes, while singers should have extended social distancing (if face-to-face, actors should be three metres apart) when singing to one another or at audience members / musicians.
Ideally, singing performers should be positioned “side-to-side or back-to-back”. Booths, barriers or screens should be used if possible between individual singers.
Productions should limit “wind and brass playing in groups or in front of audiences to professionals” and try and observe extended social distancing (three metres is considered appropriate) between wind and brass players.
The guidance also states that productions should consider “regular private testing (noting that this will not allow any relaxation of other control measures)”.
Shows should also “reduce the size of the cast where possible to reduce the number of contact points, for example by reducing numbers of non-essential supernumeraries, players taking dual roles.”
Performers will be encouraged to do their own hair and make-up, and “avoid using public transport, aiming to walk, cycle or drive instead.”
In the document it is said that: “A face covering can be very simple and may be worn in enclosed spaces where social distancing isn’t possible”, though also that they are not mandatory, and that “face coverings are not a replacement for the other ways of managing risk, including minimising time spent in contact, using fixed teams and partnering for close-up work, and increasing hand and surface washing.”