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Theatres call for government help after their longest interval

Camden's independent theatres say they feel “hung out to dry”

03 July, 2020 — By Bronwen Weatherby

Upstairs At The Gatehouse staged a sell-out production of 42nd Street at Christmas

FRINGE theatres say they feel “hung out to dry” after the government failed to provide a financial rescue package or details of when they can re-open following the coronavirus lockdown.

While pubs, restaurants and cinemas welcome back customers on Saturday, theatres have been told they can only start rehearsals, even though there is no target date for bringing back audiences.

The cry for help comes amid warning that at least a fifth of venues in the UK will not survive the crisis.

Brian Logan, the artistic director of Camden People’s Theatre in Hampstead Road, Euston, said ministers did not understand the urgency.

He said: “From mid-March it’s been an ongoing process of crisis management and we’re getting zero clarity from the government.

“I’m mindful of the health implications so we won’t open until we’re sure it’s safe. But the arts are so important to people’s lives and livelihoods. It’s not just elitist frippery as some might suggest. It’s hundreds of thousands of jobs and is worth billions of pounds to the British economy.”

Mr Logan added: “We need a bailout to save the whole theatre industry from collapse. If there isn’t to be a bailout then at least there should be clear communication.”

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden presented a “roadmap” on Thursday for the reopening of theatres but the five-stage plan was criticised for not having a clear timeframe.

John Plews, the artistic director of Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate Village and chair of the Society of Independent Theatres (SIT), was one of the industry leaders advising the government on the state of theatres but said he was “incredibly disappointed” when the guidance was published.

“It felt like it had been drawn up by someone who doesn’t understand the theatre industry at all,” said Mr Plews.

“The first step says rehearsals can commence but a theatre company cannot rehearse if there is no opening date and no finance to pay the actors, crew and creative team.

“There are over 50 fringe, independent and pub theatres affiliated with SIT, I don’t know any that will open for rehearsal on Saturday.”

The Gatehouse is one of London’s leading fringe theatres and produces its own sell-out musicals every year.

Mr Plews said: “Everyone talks about how to socially distance the audience but that’s relatively easy to figure out. So far there is no guidance in the plan regarding social distancing in the rehearsal room, the dressing rooms, the wardrobe and wig rooms.

“I asked the government whether they could follow the same rules set out for football. Players, managers and referees weren’t wearing masks, but all other staff were. Would it then be possible for actors and directors to go without masks?”

Mr Plews added: “They are even talking about letting people on planes to sit next to complete strangers for at least two hours to go on holiday, but they don’t want to open theatres.”

A number of theatres including The Gatehouse believe they can survive until October but then will need substantial support.

David Brady, the artistic director of Lion & Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town said: “It’s the uncertainty that will cause theatres to close. We can’t plan performances because we don’t know when we’ll be open or under what conditions.”

A government spokes­man said: “We are clear that we want to get the performing arts fully back up and running safely as soon as possible and are working closely with the sector on a phased approach, guided by public health and medical experts.

“We are doing all we can to support these industries through government grants, loans, the furlough scheme and the Arts Council’s £160million emergency response package.”

Host festival in gardens?

Camden Fringe have been exploring ways of supporting struggling artists 

The Camden Fringe, the summer festival famous for helping to give new shows and talent a lift-off, has had been cancelled due to the pandemic.

Co-director Michelle Flower suggested that, if allowed, a socially-distanced fringe festival could be held in private gardens instead.

“We only came up with the idea last week so it’s still very much in the planning stages, but the hope is to link up with different fringes to help artists everywhere because it’s not just Camden that’s affected,” she said.

The Camden Fringe normally takes place across a series of venues in August.

She said a company called Eventotron could sell tickets for the events, if the shows were permitted.

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