The Scottish Government Doesn’t Understand The Needs of Theatres

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Scottish Government

Last Tuesday, the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon announced that the next phase of easing lockdown restrictions would go ahead as of today. The Scottish Government is allowing restaurants and pubs to open fully indoors again, with one metre social distancing in place, and further relaxations on groups gathering socially (indoors or outdoors). It all sounds perfectly fine and according to plan. But theatres, concert halls and other live entertainment centres are not happy.

While such venues have been told that they are able to reopen, they must do with two metre social distancing in place. This is stricter than the rules in place for hospitality and dramatically different to the rules in England, where theatres, comedy clubs and music halls can reopen at half capacity. The one metre distancing concession that the hospitality sector secured from the Scottish Government last summer has not been extended to live entertainment. And many venues are simply in dismay. Scottish theatres rallied together to try and get the distancing requirement lessened, but Holyrood didn’t budge. The Scottish Government has instead said that this state of affairs will be reviewed in three weeks, but there is no guarantee that the distancing measure will be dropped. 

The effect is severely damaging for the arts sector. Venues might have the green light to reopen, but the Federation of Scottish Theatre says that 96% of its members will have to remain closed if two metre social distancing is in place. Furthermore, the likes of Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen, and Perth Concert Hall would only be able to house around a fifth of their maximum audience, if not even less. Such capacity restrictions were apparently severe enough on hospitality venues to warrant exceptions, so why would they believe theatres could weather the storm any better? Reopening with these current restrictions in place would see theatres across Scotland haemorrhage money.

There is disappointment and confusion from theatre bosses. Theatres are not looking for special treatment — far from it. They want live entertainment to be on the same footing as all other businesses that have been given the go-ahead to reopen. Why there is such insistence on two metre distancing here, when more enclosed spaces used by other sectors are able to stick with one metre, is bizarre and incredibly damaging for theatres across Scotland.

The impact is already being felt. Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, which with two-metre distancing would only be able to reopen at 6% capacity, has already postponed its pantomime The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for a second time. The theatre’s Executive Director & Joint Chief Executive Sam Gough said that “the audience experience when we have to factor in any kind of social distancing restrictions would be terrible and the financials simply don’t stack up. It would be irresponsible of us to proceed when there is still uncertainty about when we might be able to re-open at full-capacity. The risks, financial and experiential, are just too high.” The fact that Gough cites the distancing measures, as opposed to COVID-19 directly, is incredibly telling.

Brian Ferguson, Arts Correspondent for The Scotsman, has been among those taking issue with the tighter measures. He said that “the Scottish Government has been rightly criticised for imposing harsher restrictions on theatres and concert venues than bars and restaurants, which won a concession last summer after research found that most hospitality businesses would not be able to survive financially on that basis.

“Scottish theatres and other sectors have been making that same point and at least the Scottish Government has agreed to a review of the restrictions over events — but it may end up getting bound up in a wider review of the future of social distancing in Scotland.”

The crisis facing Scottish theatres is compounded by a simple truth not unique to Scotland; the arts are simply not a political priority. In the 2021-22 Scottish Government budget published in January, £174 million has been put aside for culture and major events. This is a decrease from both the 2019-20 budget (£184.6 million) and the 2020-21 budget (£180.4 million), at a time when the economic vitality of cultural venues has diminished rather than improved. For all the promises of extra support, the numbers paint a different picture. One that illustrates how the arts are an apparently ever-shrinking concern on Scottish Government’s radar.

The First Minister also announced last Tuesday that an extra £40 million will be made available to help the creative sector, which will provide at least some reassurance for those venues able to apply for it. Such support is however not enough if theatres stand to lose money through prolonged closure or financially unviable reopening strategies. What such venues really need is clarity, and to feel like a genuine part of Scotland’s economic recovery rather than a burden. As Brian Ferguson puts it, “the Scottish Government needs to find a way to bring live theatre, as well as music and comedy, back in a financially viable, safe way, to get the industry back on its feet and get back to work. 

“The most obvious ways to do that are to trust the theatre sector to operate with one metre distancing and other safety measures in place in venues — but also use the kind of public funding that has been used to keep theatre afloat over the last year to help them create new work and reunite audiences with performers.”

Of course there is still risk. With the rise of the new COVID-19 variant first detected in India casting doubt on the summer plans already put forward by English theatres, it may well be that the SNP’s tactic of extra caution is the right approach. But nobody is yet able to say with certainty what the impact of the new variant will be, or whether it will impede the road map out of lockdown. In the here and now, the impression that theatres and other cultural venues are getting a raw deal is hard to ignore. If the Scottish Government genuinely feels that it is too soon to open theatres again, then theatres have a right to know. Instead, they have been saddled with illogical rules that don’t allow them to open their doors again even if they want to. If caution is the name of the game, then there needs to be greater emphasis on supporting theatres both financially and creatively while they remain closed, if the evidence suggests that reopening is simply not viable or safe. If it is safe, then the health of Scotland’s cultural sector depends on it getting the support and fair treatment that it desperately needs.

Words by James Hanton.


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Image: Mikehume // Wikimedia Commons

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