Theatres in Scotland have called for an urgent review of Covid-19 social distancing restrictions for audiences, saying that the current two-metre rule leaves them in a perilous position.
On Monday, all of Scotland is expected to move into protection level 2, which permits theatres to open with social distancing and capacity limits agreed with local authorities. But in a survey conducted by the Federation of Scottish Theatre (FST), 96% of members responded that it is not economically viable for them to reopen under the current restrictions.
The requirement of at least two-metre social distancing in venues means the 236-capacity Tron in Glasgow could accommodate 14 theatregoers (6% of its usual full audience). Dundee Rep, which usually fits a capacity of 455, would have an audience of 80 (18%). A one-metre distance between theatregoers would raise those audience numbers to 60 and 110 respectively.
The continued uncertainty and lack of clarity in Scotland is resulting in nervousness of producers to book venues
England’s theatres were yesterday granted permission to open at 50% capacity from Monday, 17 May. In a statement, the FST – a network of 260 professional performing arts organisations and individuals throughout Scotland – said that its theatres were reliant on visiting productions that tour around the UK: “The continued uncertainty and lack of clarity in Scotland is resulting in increased nervousness and unwillingness of producers booking their productions and concerts into Scotland’s venues, particularly while their options are much more secure south of the border.”
James Mackenzie-Blackman, chief executive of Eden Court Highlands, Scotland’s largest combined arts organisation, is chair of the Scottish Touring Theatre Consortium. He said: “We are a creative and professional sector, confident that we can safely return audiences to our venues. We urge the government to recognise that the current guidance on social distancing makes a meaningful restart of the sector almost impossible, and to engage fully with the sector to address this.” The consortium is calling for guidance for performing arts venues to be brought in line with other leisure and hospitality industries in Scotland. Pubs and restaurants can open with a one-metre distancing rule. The Scottish government has stated that exceptions will be made for “internationally significant flagship events”.
Without a change to the guidance, the FST warns that “significantly more public sector finance will be required to protect an already deeply damaged sector”.
Fiona Sturgeon Shea, chief executive of the FST, said: “We have worked carefully and collaboratively to ensure that the sector is ready to begin making, producing and presenting work for public audiences and participants in as safe and accessible a way as possible. With the right regulations and package of support, the sector will be able to continue making its significant contribution to the cultural, social and economic life of Scotland, as well as health and wellbeing, as part of its recovery and beyond.”
The acclaimed theatre company Vanishing Point has stressed that social distancing rules for those working on stage must also be reviewed. The current restrictions mean that available productions cannot tour, it said, adding that clear and safe working practices were needed including, perhaps with government support, regular Covid testing for performers and crew members.
Draft guidelines issued to the Scottish theatre sector last month had initially stipulated a 2.5-metre social distancing rule for audiences and a 2.6-metre rule for performers on stage.
Creative Scotland, the public body that supports the arts, said in a statement that it recognised the scale of the impact and the challenges faced by theatres as a result of the pandemic: “We continue to work closely with the Scottish government and representatives from the culture sector, like the Federation of Scottish Theatre, to ensure that these challenges are fully considered as lockdown restrictions are eased, whilst remaining in line with public health advice.”