The news last week that the theatre has been successful in a grant application from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund to the tune of £154,865 came as welcome relief. With the theatre having been closed since mid-March, and the only income being membership fees, the theatre’s finances were anything but healthy. While the grant from HM Government will ensure the survival of the LDS, it is unfortunately far from ‘business as usual’. The theatre faces enormous challenges.
It is far harder to re-open the theatre than it was to close it in March (although Company Secretary Rob Thirlby may disagree, as he has spent many months trying to sort out everything from cancelling waste contracts to returning bar stock, from enabling remote access to computer systems to ensuring alarm systems were checked, and much more, all without being able to get into the building). The new situation faced by the theatre’s management is one of having no full time staff, a requirement that the building is COVID-secure for volunteers and patrons, and all at a time when a socially-distanced audience can, at most, be a third of the size as previously. [The government’s guidelines on opening a performance venue can be found here.]
And it’s not just the audience that has to be socially-distanced; those on stage need to be as well, and rehearsals also have to follow these rules. Technical and backstage crew also have to be socially distanced, from one another and from the cast and audience. All of this limits the theatre to staging shows that have smaller casts, so that the distancing rules can be followed.
With the government grant, the theatre will now survive financially, but its ability to generate income from shows is limited by the requirement for socially-distanced audiences. Even with brilliantly organised social distancing in the auditorium, the maximum number that can be seated is around 130, limiting the box office income per performance. Without increasing ticket prices threefold, which would deter most audience members, the theatre’s income from shows will be slashed by two-thirds, likely even more. The result is that shows are likely to either break even or generate only a small amount of surplus.
One of the downsides to LDS owning its own theatre is the base cost of running the facility. Even while closed, the cost of simply maintaining the theatre was around £3000 a month; to open, we have to re-start contracts for waste disposal, cleaning, insurance to include audience, heating coming into the winter months, bar supply contracts, PPE… and all has to be covered by the much reduced income from shows.
Inevitably, the theatre experience will be different for both members working in all departments and for patrons visiting. The buildings need to be made COVID-secure, which in practice means introducing a one-way system of ‘traffic’, hand-sanitising regularly, wearing masks in all areas, and a much increased cleaning regime between shows in all public areas. It’s easy to see that all of this costs, a cost that now thankfully is being covered by the Culture Recovery Fund. Yet it’s also an ongoing cost, at least until social distancing can stop.
For patrons attending to see a show, there will be some other changes as well. We’ll be having a longer 30 minute interval to alleviate the rush on toilets; the bar will be table service, which means it may take a bit longer to get served and patrons won’t be able to mix with others outside their own ‘bubble’; the use of cash is being discouraged, with contactless payments being introduced in the bar, box office and front of house; there’ll be an at-seat ice cream service during the interval; and at the end of a show, there will necessarily be a more regimented system for leaving the building. We’re very conscious that going to the theatre is a social occasion as well, so it’s a fine balance that has to be struck between keeping everyone safe while ensuring that the joy isn’t sucked out of it all.
One of the greatest challenges the theatre now faces is that of having no full time staff, a terrible consequence of closure and loss of income. It’s hard to see a position where staff can be employed again until the theatre is in a position to generate income that allows this, and that looks likely to be when social distancing ceases. While closed, the lack of staff has meant a greatly increased workload for the theatre’s trustees, to date purely on the administrative side. One of the trustees, Colin Hide, has fortunately been able to devote considerable time to the administrative side of things, and has taken on the role of Temporary Premises Supervisor, based in the office.
Now that we are in a position to re-open, there will be an urgent need for volunteers in all areas moving forward… set construction, bar staff, front of house, box office personnel, all on top of everyone who gets involved in staging a show, whether backstage or on stage. Please look out for announcements for when help is needed in these areas!
The challenges extend beyond our own Society; several musical societies regularly stage their shows at The Little, but in a world where large casts need to be rehearsed in a socially-distanced way, coupled with a much-reduced audience capacity, their options for shows will be more limited. It remains to be seen how they will move forward, but the theatre intends to offer as much support to each of them as possible.
It’s also the case that things can change quickly… at just a few hours’ notice, there could be further government restrictions, a change from one Tier to another, all of which could impact upon the theatre’s ability to carry out work and even open.
So ’business as usual’ is very much on hold for now. Those theatre members who return to take an active role, whether on- or backstage, front of house or helping with administration, will find many changes, as will audience members who return in December. It will take a considerable effort on the part of many people to get the Society running again, but we know that it can be done and we know that members will come forward when needed.
Although there are a lot of challenges to be faced in the months ahead, there is a determination from those actively involved that we shall open, in a COVID-secure way, and we shall gradually get the theatre up and running to as full a capacity as possible, given the restrictions. The last six months of closure has been the only time in the theatre’s history when it has been forced to close – even during the Second World War. We are in uncharted territory in having to gear up to a safe opening, and one that is financially sustainable, but we are determined to do so and get The Little Theatre on its feet again.