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Summer of Culture: What will the return look like where you are?

A Royal Shakespeare Company performance of The Tempest | All images credit: Alamy

14 min read

After 15 months of mothballing, the UK’s cultural gems are nearly back in business. The directors of 14 theatres, galleries and operas around the country tell Georgina Bailey what they hope re-opening will look like – and what they need to recover.

From the 160,000 users who watched the Royal Shakespeare Company’s daily BBC Bitesize Shakespeare lessons to Opera North’s soundscape walk of their home city, As You Are: A Soundwalk for Leeds from composer Abel Selaocoe, the UK’s cultural institutions have had to adapt to ensure we could still enjoy art, music and theatre during the pandemic. Aside from a few outdoor shows last summer, and a brief socially-distanced indoor respite in the autumn, most have relied on digital performances and streams of archived footage. But the creativity has still managed to shine through, even as the industry struggled. 

Many institutions accessed the government’s Culture Recovery Fund, and everyone The House spoke to had utilised furlough – and yet most still faced huge cuts in income and had to say goodbye to staff. All worry about the freelancers who make up much of the creative workforce.

However with the country re-opening, excitement is building as the first major performances start again. Directors and producers across the UK told The House about their plans.


Chichester Festival Theatre

  • Kathy Bourne, executive director
  • Founded: 1962
  • Seats: 1,489 across two theatres
  • Covid impact: Staff furlough and salary sacrifice mean no redundancies to date

Reopening plans: 

“Supported by a grant from the Culture Recovery Fund, Chichester Festival Theatre will transition back to something approaching full operating capacity by reopening its doors with a weekend of open air concerts and family events in Oaklands Park in early June, followed by a mini cabaret season in the socially distanced Minerva Theatre, enabling us to test run this smaller space. The grant also supports the resumption of community engagement and outreach projects.

“The Festival Theatre reopens with our summer musical, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, running from 5 July to 4 September. It will be followed by four more productions across the Festival and Minerva Theatres, taking us into late autumn.

"We hope to perform South Pacific to full capacity, assuming that all social distancing measures are lifted from 21 June. However, we will also continue to offer a choice of socially distanced performances in July and August, for those audiences who are not yet comfortable returning to a full house.”

Glyndebourne, East Sussex

  • Sarah Hopwood, managing director 
  • Founded: 1934
  • Capacity: 1,200
  • Covid impact: Some staff furlough, no redundancies to date

Plan for reopening: 

“Glyndebourne reopened on 20 May with Glyndebourne Festival 2021 which runs until 29 August 2021. Our first performances are new productions of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová and Rossini’s Il turco in Italia and coming later this summer is another new production – Verdi’s Luisa Miller – a revival of Mozart’s Così fan tutte and a semi-staged concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. We’ll also be presenting a special concert series featuring Glyndebourne’s resident orchestras, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  

“The season has been planned and organised to allow for social distancing restrictions to continue this summer. We are carefully managing performer numbers and have adapted our working practices to ensure that performing companies can maintain social distancing on stage, in the pit and in rehearsals. Audience numbers are initially capped at 600 – 50 per cent of our usual 1,200 person capacity. We will release more tickets for performances in July and August in June if the government roadmap goes as planned. Every extra ticket that can be sold is crucial for Glyndebourne’s long-term survival.

“This plan will cost us in the region of £7m. It has not been a light decision to use our reserves in this way, but it is considered imperative to keep our staff in work, retain valuable skills, provide work for freelancers, and to engage with our audiences who have remained so loyal throughout.”

Opera North, Leeds

  • Richard Mantle, general director
  • Founded: 1977
  • Capacity: 1,100 at Leeds Playhouse
  • Covid impact: Cancelled 272 performances since March 2020, 75 per cent of staff furloughed, no redundancies 

Plan for reopening: 

“Our live performances resume with Fidelio opening at Leeds Town Hall in June before touring to Salford Quays and Nottingham. This will be followed by A Little Night Music which will finally come to the Leeds Playhouse stage, albeit with social distancing in place, a year later than originally planned.

“Our first full season and tour in the wake of the pandemic will open in October with audience capacities following the most up-to-date government guidelines, with the safety and comfort of all audience members, staff and performers remaining the top priority.

“We are thrilled that the season opener will be a new production of Carmen featuring Chrystal E. Williams in the title role and conducted by our new music director Garry Walker. Following that, there will be a Bernstein double bill with Trouble in Tahiti paired with West Side Story Symphonic Dances, for which we are collaborating with Phoenix Dance Theatre, another leading Leeds arts organisation. A new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto is planned for winter, alongside Alcina, our first mainstage production to be created from recycled, re-used and second-hand sources as part of our commitment to sustainability.”

Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon

  • Chris Hill, director of audiences and marketing
  • Founded: 1879
  • Capacity: 1,490 across two theatres
  • Covid impact: Furloughed up to 90 per cent of staff and ended more than 100 contracts with freelance artists and theatre-makers. After consultation, 72 staff lost jobs or left. Lost £46m in income, received £19.4m loan from the Culture Recovery Fund in November 2020. The loan will not be repaid until 2040 

Plan for reopening:

“In the summer of 2021, the RSC will restart live performances in Stratford-upon-Avon for in-person audiences, opening with an outdoor production of The Comedy of Errors, directed by Phillip Breen.

“The production will be staged in the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre – a specially constructed outdoor performance space located in the Swan Gardens, flanked by the River Avon and overlooked by the Swan Theatre, with near 500-capacity – from July to September. 

“Audiences will buy tickets in advance for a certain section of the theatre, but seating will be unreserved to allow our staff to seat audience members safely in line with the government guidelines.

“Initially at least, households or those in social bubbles will sit together, but will be socially distanced from other households/social bubbles. This may change in line with government guidance.

“The first production to take place in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre will be The Magician’s Elephant, running from 14 October 2021 to 1 January 2022.”

 The Crucible, the Lyceum and the Crucible Studio, Sheffield 

  • Rob Hastie, artistic director
  • Founded: 1971
  • Capacity: 2,448 over three venues
  • Covid impact: Most staff on furlough or flexi-furlough; 23 made redundant

 Plan for reopening:

“We took part in the government’s Events Research Programme, opening the Crucible Theatre for the World Snooker Championships in April. We’re now very excited to be reopening the Crucible to theatregoers from 24 May with The Together Season Festival, a programme of work from local artists. We are then working towards our new production of Victoria Wood’s Talent: her debut play, which she wrote for Sheffield Theatres Studio in 1978 at the age of 25. A new season will be announced in June, as we approach the 50th Birthday of the Crucible at the end of the year.

“We have stuck resolutely to the government’s guidance throughout this period, and will continue to do so in the months ahead. We continue to look to the government for an understanding of the specific challenges facing our sector and the massive difficulties presented by an inability to plan effectively.”

King’s Theatre and Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

  • Fiona Gibson, CEO
  • Founded: 1906
  • Capacity: 3,265 over two venues
  • Covid impact: 121 shows have been cancelled or rescheduled, some up to five times this year – refunded £2.79m in ticket income and issued a further £232k in credit notes. Of core staff, 14 are working full time and 63 are on flexible furlough or furlough. All 150 “casual” staff contracts ended

Plan for reopening:

“In Scotland we are still under indefinite guidance of two-metre social distancing in the venue. We plan to reopen for a socially distanced on-stage audience of 44 for an audio play, Blindness, produced by the Donmar Warehouse at the end of June – in a theatre which holds 1,910. Our average yield per performance is usually £80,000 to £99,000. Our maximum yield from this audio play is £990 per performance. 

“We are hugely excited by reopening at all, but the reality is that we can only do this for short or occasional periods and it’s not sustainable. As guidance stands, we can allow a maximum of 100 people into the theatre until early June and then after that 200 but beyond the end of June we have no idea what the guidance might be and therefore have no capacity to plan. Already we have real examples of major touring companies deciding to tour to additional venues in England because they lack confidence in the Scottish cultural recovery guidelines. This is a major problem for us. Decisions made now by these producers affect us months and years into the future because of our advance planning cycle.”

The Millennium Centre, Cardiff

  • Graeme Farrow, artistic director
  • Founded: 2004
  • Capacity: 2,497
  • Covid impact: Utilised furlough but reopening with a significantly smaller team and have moved some services online

Plans for reopening:

“Due to the current Welsh government rules on social distancing, we can’t currently put on performances, because it is not commercially viable for most of the producers we work with. However, we are making positive and exciting steps towards reopening.

“Our new outdoor eating and bar offering opens at the end of May, we are planning cabaret shows over the summer months and will be presenting a major exhibition – Voices of Change – in July and August. We hope to have performances back in our main theatre space, the Donald Gordon Theatre, from early autumn.

“We are hopeful that financial support will be forthcoming until we are able to reopen fully again. We are keen to have a timetable for unlocking, as soon as this is practicable, as this will help us manage the financial as well as the health and safety risks with the virus.” 

Watermill Theatre, Newbury 

  • Emily Moseley, producer 
  • Founded: 1967
  • Capacity: 220
  • Covid impact: Successful recipient of the second round of cultural recovery funding. Most staff furloughed, no redundancies

Plans for reopening:

“We are again opening in May with an outdoor season of work, which will continue to be socially distanced (for both the audience and company) regardless of the restrictions being lifted. We open with last year’s smash-hit Hound of the Baskervilles, then the Watermill Ensemble’s actor-musician production of As You Like It, and closing the summer with Just So by Stiles and Drewe – the musical based on the Just So stories which was written for the Watermill in 1989. It’s going to be a fun summer!”

Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse

  • Mark Da Vanzo, chief executive of Liverpool & Merseyside Theatres Trust
  • Founded: 1964 / 1866
  • Capacity: 1,160 across two venues
  • Covid impact: Managed to restrict redundancies to a very low level, supported approximately 200 staff throughout the pandemic with furlough and the Culture Recovery Fund

Plans for reopening:

“While our doors have been closed we’ve still mounted performances either digitally or outdoors as restrictions have allowed. We will be welcoming our audiences back, socially distanced, from the beginning of June with the YEP Directors' Festival.” 

Tate Liverpool

  • Helen Legg, director
  • Founded: 1988
  • Annual visitors pre-Covid: 660,000
  • Covid impact: Lost 80 per cent of visitor numbers, had to cut operational costs in half. All staff used the furlough scheme to some extent, while those at executive level took a voluntary 10 per cent pay cut. Lost the equivalent of 11 roles through voluntary redundancy.

Plans for reopening:

“As restrictions eased on 18 May 2021, we reopened and joined with visual arts partners from across Liverpool in offering a warm and safe welcome to the Liverpool Biennial, the UK’s largest free festival of contemporary art. The exhibition features new acquisitions and commissions from artists including Jamaican-born Ebony G. Patterson, American artists Martine Syms and Judy Chicago, and Merseyside-born Linder. It opened with social distancing precautions in place such as timed tickets, one-way routes and mandatory face coverings except if exempt.

“No exhibitions at Tate Liverpool have been cancelled because of the pandemic but our programme has been impacted, with many rescheduled or postponed. Exhibitions for Lucian Freud, Louise Bourgeois and a new Art North West commission with Chester-based artist Emily Speed, which were planned for 2020, will now take place this year.” 

V&A Dundee

  • Leonie Bell, director
  • Founded: 2018
  • Annual visitors pre-Covid: 624,600
  • Covid impact: Furloughed around 80 per cent of staff in first lockdown. There have been no staff redundancies

Plans for reopening:

“We reopened on 1 May with Night Fever: Designing Club Culture, a UK-exclusive exhibition on the joyful design history of nightclubs. We also reopened with our permanent Scottish Design Galleries, and this year we will be focusing on ways to decolonise these galleries and to tell untold stories of design from Scotland.

“As with last year, we have booked time slots for all visitors to allow safe social distancing. Our visitor assistants are still giving a warm welcome and have learnt to smile with their eyes!”

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

  • Stephen Freeman, executive director
  • Founded: 1921
  • Capacity: 700
  • Covid impact: At one point almost 95 per cent of staff were furloughed, but ultimately had to make 63 per cent of roles redundant

Plans for reopening:

“We are reopening on 23 June, with a brand-new play called BLOODY ELLE – A GIG MUSICAL. It’s a gig, a play and a brilliant night out all rolled into one. It is an uplifting story about falling in love for the very first time, heart-warming and really, really funny. We will be operating with social distancing in place but will review that in line with any new guidance.”

Theatre Royal Bath

  • Danny Moar, director 
  • Founded: 1805
  • Capacity: 900
  • Covid impact: Cancelled 30 to 40 shows, made four redundancies but kept 50 other staff through furlough

Plans for reopening:

“We reopened on 25 May with Ralph Fiennes in the world premiere stage adaptation of T S Eliot’s masterpiece, Four Quartets, as part of our LIGHTS UP season. We have social distancing in place, but the minute the government says we can get back to full capacity with whatever conditions attached, that’s what we’ll do.

“Over the period of closure, the audience has been incredibly supportive. Many of our audiences refused ticket refunds, just left the money with the theatre, which was great. We had many donations to help us. The response when we were able to open was amazing enthusiasm for live entertainment again.”

Waterfront Hall and Ulster Hall, Belfast  

  • Charlie McCloskey, head of event and customer experience  
  • Founded: 1997 / 1862 
  • Capacity:  3,621 across three venues 
  • Covid impact: More than 90 per cent of shows rescheduled, utilised furlough for staff

Plans for reopening: 

“We are excited to announce that Van Morrison will take to the iconic Ulster Hall stage this summer. Visitor and staff safety are our number one priority. The team is finalising plans to welcome live audiences back and we are confidently planning for what promises to be a great schedule of concerts. We will continue to work with the relevant authorities to ensure that live music fans have a safe and enjoyable experience that is fully compliant with any public health requirements. 

“As we move closer to our indicative reopening date, there is a sense of excitement and pent-up demand amongst audiences as they can once again return to our venues to see their favourite artists. 

“It is now essential that we have timely clarity on the detail of any reopening requirements. Ongoing financial support from government to an industry that has been closed for 15 months would be very welcome particularly if we are required to reopen with partial audiences. The costs are the same if we are at 50 per cent or full capacity and we will need ongoing support or grants to avoid passing that cost onto our audiences.”

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