Local theatres battle for survival

Theatres to reopen in August

March 2020 will be remembered as a black month in the history of the London’s theatres; the moment they went dark because of Covid-19. That closure – now four months in and counting – is almost unprecedented in British history.

An article in The Stage in April suggested you have to go back as far as the 17th century to find similar, prolonged, closures. These was due to a far more deadly pandemic, the plague, plus a lengthy shutdown imposed by Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell. The closure seems unprecedented in modern times. Historians point out that even during the First and Second World Wars, many theatres stayed open.

On paper, at least, it looks as if things might be easing. This month the Government announced a massive £1.57 billion investment package for the arts. Outdoor performances have been OK’d subject to social distancing being observed. And indoor performances may start as early as August, subject to the success of pilot schemes.

But for some, it’s too little, too late. Some theatres have already announced redundancies. The Royal Opera House laid off its entire team of casual staff. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mighty LW theatre group, which includes the London Palladium and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, is reported to have begun redundancy consultations.

Meanwhile, Philippa Childs, head of the media and entertainment union, BECTU, has pointed out that venues won’t be able to reopen quickly. “Theatres will have to bring back productions, sell tickets, conduct rehearsals and prepare for how they will operate in a Covid-secure way before they can open up again” she said.

So how are our local theatres coping in these grim times? How do they view the Government package and proposals for reopening?

The Chiswick Calendar spoke to three local venues: First, the tiny Chiswick Playhouse, which has some innovative ideas for entertaining youngsters, and is considering outdoor events. Secondly, the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, 125 years old yesterday (Monday 20 July), which celebrated by announcing an amazing birthday present for newborns in Hammersmith and Fulham. And last, but not least, the huge Riverside Studios complex by Hammersmith Bridge, which reopens its main cinema this week and is also offering a small cinema for private hire.

Images above: Executive Director Mark Perry; Production poster for Tryst

The Chiswick Playhouse (formerly known as The Tabard)

The theatre’s production Tryst was attracting rave reviews before the lockdown struck in March. Executive Director Mark (“Fred” when acting) Perry says the closure was a disaster for the venue.

“We have no public funding,” he says “We rely entirely on ticket receipts and bar takings. All that came to a complete halt in the second week of March.”

A public appeal, started early in lockdown, subsequently brought in around £23,000. “It’s kept us going for now,” says Mark.  “It’s incredibly moving that the Chiswick community, and people further afield, decided we were worth donating to. It’s made a huge difference”. The theatre’s planning a special “thank you” event for donors when it’s back up and running.

So how long can it keep going without income? “Not forever, is the truth of it”, says Mark.

Like all theatres, the Playhouse is still awaiting news of whether, and how, it might benefit from the nationwide £1.57 billion package for the arts announced by the Government. “It’s a fantastic first step,” says Mark. “The key thing is finding out how it’s going to be apportioned. We’re all on tenterhooks to find out. I don’t envy those with responsibility for doing that, because it’s a huge task”.

The announcement that indoor theatres may be able to open as early as August, under certain conditions, was also welcome. But as Mark points outs, social distancing is tricky for smaller theatres. The Playhouse has less than 100 seats. Introduce social distancing and it starts to look hard to make a show economically viable.

So, like many other theatres, it is having to be creative. “We’re looking at September to see what it’s possible to have back and running,” muses Mark. “We’re launching a new Saturday morning kid’s club and are also planning a Sunday storytelling “adventure”.

And he hasn’t discounted the possibility of putting on outdoor performances. “We’re having an ongoing conversation about where we might be able to put on a few performances in an afternoon,“ he says. “What’s great about Chiswick is that loads of local people come to us with creative ideas. “

So keep your eyes peeled for possible outdoor events.

Mark is determined to ensure the theatre survives. He’s a Chiswick resident and has worked with the Playhouse, with a few breaks, over many years. He’s also invested his own money in it. “I’m a passionate believer in the Theatre,” he says, “And I’m going to be doing everything I can to make sure we stay open”.

Images above: Lyric Hammersmith exterior; plush Victorian, recently refurbished interior

The Lyric Hammersmith Theatre

The Lyric celebrated its 125th birthday yesterday, 20 July. With the theatre closed and most staff on furlough, there were no big parties.

Instead, the theatre announced a delightful present for babies born in its home borough of Hammersmith and Fulham during its birthday year. According to Lyric press release, “Parents and guardians can register their child with the Lyric if they are resident in, and have been born in the borough, between the 20 July 2020 and the 20 July 2021. Once the theatre reopens these children will be offered free opportunities to take part in and enjoy the arts throughout their first 25 years”.

Executive Director Sian Alexander calls the project, Born in the Borough, “our gift to Hammersmith & Fulham”. It’s a lovely gesture, particularly as the Lyric is battling its way through a particularly tough time. When it closed down in March it lost 75 per cent of its income. Last year, it had two shows that went to the West End and one that went on tour. Today, the only live event it has scheduled is the annual panto, scheduled to start on 20 November.

Around 75-80 percent of the staff are on furlough and, like other theatres, the Lyric is waiting to find out the details of the Government’s investment scheme. But this money will have to be split between arts institutions across the whole nation. And, according to Sian Alexander, “We don’t yet have details of how it will be distributed, when it will be distributed or what the criteria for it will be. We think it will be part of the solution for us, not the whole solution. We will still be reliant on our local community to see us through this time.”

Images above: Lyric Hammersmith interiors

Local theatres might “come into their own”

That community has stepped up to help, donating generously to the Lyric’s Recovery Fund. And, in turn, the Lyric has continued its commitment to the community. In normal times thousands of young people pass through the Lyric each year to attend classes and activities courses related to acting, singing and the performing arts. This year, the theatre is continuing its summer courses for young people in film making, production, and acting – albeit, for the first time, online.  It’s also boosted the number of bursaries available for youngsters to attend those courses.

The announcement that theatres may be able to open up in August is not the silver bullet you might imagine. As Sian says “Most theatres need around 60-70 percent houses across the year, on average, to balance their books”. Theatres are still awaiting further guidance from the Government, but it’s clear that, once social distancing is put in place, they could be looking much smaller capacity audiences.

If theatres do reopen, it would also seem to put local venues in competition with the big beasts of the West End. But in the peculiar circumstances of our time, Sian thinks that local theatres like the Lyric might come into their own. “You don’t have to go on the Tube,” she points out. “Being a local theatre and being on the doorstep for local residents will be a really important part of people being able to come back to the theatre safely and comfortably”.

“We’ve benefited many times in our history from community values. We’re 125 years old and determined to be here for another 125 years. But it’s pretty tough at the moment. There’s a lot of uncertainty about when we’ll be able to get back to serve the community in the way we would like.”

Images above: Riverside Studios

Riverside Studios, Hammersmith

This huge arts centre, part theatre, part cinema, part TV production studios, is acting as the local “canary in the coalmine” as far as Covid-19 is concerned.

It started lockdown in an unenviable position. It had only recently reopened after a five year closure for rebuilding, leaving it with a debt of around £20 million.

But it’s bouncing back quickly. Because of its hybrid nature, the Riverside has been able to restart operations more quickly than other local venues. Two TV shows are already being filmed there (Peter Crouch: Save our Summer and Nish Kumar’s Hello, America) and others are in the pipeline. Its wonderful fundraising celebrity quizzes, devised by QI producer John Lloyd and hosted by the likes of Stephen Fry, Jo Brand and Eddie Izzard, raised more than £26,000. Its Bakery and Bar and Kitchen are already up and running.

On Friday 24 July Riverside takes the next big step – reopening its cinema. This will be showing family favourites like Paddington alongside classics like Spirited Away and Back to the Future. For a full list, see riversidestudios.co.uk. Next month, it plans to show the new Christopher Nolan film, Tenet, currently scheduled for release on 12 August.

“Our thinking is that as lockdown is eased people are going to be looking for things to do as a family in a safe environment,” says Interim Executive Director Tony Lankester, “And we’re preparing Riverside to be there to welcome them”. Capacity in the main cinema has been cut from 208 to 68 to allow for social distancing. And, Tony adds, “We also have strong (brand new!) air flow mechanisms to keep the cinema well ventilated”. Audiences will be allowed to sit with their families, or “bubble”, but will be distanced from other groups.

A one-way traffic system has been installed, there’ll be intensive cleaning, and hand sanitisers will be available throughout the building. There will be random temperature checks. Staff will be wearing face masks, and patrons are asked to do likewise. For more details on its safety measures, see riversidestudios.co.uk

And if you want a slightly more exclusive cinema experience, Tony adds “We’re also making our small cinema available for private hires – people who want to invite their friends and family, those in their ‘bubble’, to the movies. They get the cinema to themselves, choose their own movie from our list of what’s available and choose their own date and time. Our capacity there is around 20, depending on the ‘bubble”.

As for restarting theatre at the Riverside, Tony’s taking a cautious approach; “We have no firm plans to open the theatre yet,” he says. “It’s great that live performance is being allowed from August. But like everyone else we’re making sure that the economics of it work, and that our patrons will be safe, before committing to a programme”.

Pam O’Toole is a journalist who worked for BBC World Service Radio. She has lived in Chiswick for many years

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See also: Chiswick Playhouse raises funds with ‘buy a seat’ campaign

See also: Iconic Riverside Studios Bounces Back