Oxford Playhouse Foyer CREDIT Geraint Lewis

Theatres across Oxfordshire may stay closed until next year unless they are given financial support and advice around social distancing.

Most staff at Oxfordshire’s theatres and performance spaces have been furloughed since the beginning of April, but many venues have continued to engage with their audiences by providing online productions, workshops and events.

Theatre producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who has staged musicals including Cats, Les Miserables and the Phantom of the Opera recently said that West End and Broadway theatres are unlikely to be able to stage musicals until early next year, and that it is impossible for theatres to plan for the future while social distancing is in place. 

John Terry, the Director at The Theatre, Chipping Norton which recently staged a production of Jeeves and Wooster to critical acclaim, said: “I think the point Cameron is making is that unless we get clarity on social distancing plans and financial support fairly soon, theatres won’t be able to re-open until the new year. We are currently closed until end of May, with the expectation that this may well get extended.”

He added that a longer closure would put the 47-year-old theatre in dire financial straits. “We have been fundraising, and have reserves in hand to be able to survive until the autumn, but a longer closure would be exceptionally difficult without the extension of government support such as the Job Retention Scheme.

John Terry

“Opening and maintaining social distancing may be possible up to a point, but is a challenge for a small venue like us – we operate in a smaller building and it would quickly become economically unviable to be open if we had to reduce our capacity significantly.”

The Theatre, Chipping Norton is a charity and does not make a profit. General Manager Jo Robinson launched the Head Above Water fundraising Campaign as lockdown started, and the theatre has been calling on its creative reserves to try and keep going during the lockdown.

John added: “We are working to keep audiences creative in the meantime with our Community Writing Scheme, and to keep the organisation together, but the lack of clarity that the science can give about where we might be in a few months, makes it extremely challenging for the live venue sector. As National Theatre Director Rufus Norris recently said, we are in “the premiere league of risk.”

At The Oxford Playhouse, the spirit of the stage has lived on through its online productions and events from a weekly music group for children to youth theatre workshops. 

Louise Chantal, Playhouse Director and CEO said: “The first priority for all of us at the Playhouse is the safety and well-being of our audience and staff. 

Louise Chantal CREDIT Geraint Lewis

“We will, of course, follow all the government guidelines on social distancing and the gradual return to work across the country, and hope to have a clearer idea of when we might be able to re-open soon.

“Meanwhile the Playhouse team are running all our young companies and community projects online, and have launched the Playhouse Plays On programme to ensure we can keep the Playhouse spirit alive until our doors open again.

Oxford Playhouse. Picture by Ed Nix

“The last few weeks are proof that theatre can thrive outside of physical buildings and have given us the certainty that whatever measures need to be taken over the coming months, creativity will continue to flourish in Oxfordshire and beyond.”

Alexandra Coke, Marketing & Programming Manager for Arts at the Old Fire Station said: “Cameron Mackintosh’s words echo what a lot of us are feeling at the moment. Until it’s safe for audiences, actors and theatre staff to be together in the same space, we won’t be able to re-open in the same way. 

“But it’s important to remember that Mackintosh deals in large-scale musicals in the capital city, in auditoriums of more than 1,000 people. There’s a big difference between one of his big London shows, and smaller theatres across the rest of the country.

OFS on George Street in busier times

“We can be more agile in how we approach re-opening. We can experiment with new kinds of performance, ones which engage the audience while maintaining social distancing. We don’t have to re-open in the same way – we can do it differently.

“Small arts organisations are used to taking challenging circumstances and turning them into opportunities. Oxford’s theatres are already thinking about innovative ways to re-open, and I’m confident that we’ll see some really good stuff happening in the coming months. Theatre may be different, but it will still be there. We can’t wait to see our audiences again.

North Wall co-director Ria Parry says: “We’re continuing to closely follow advice from Public Health England and the arts sector about the current situation. Like many other venues, we are working on multiple scenarios of what a visit to the theatre might look like when we are allowed to reopen. The most important thing is that audiences and artists feel safe​.”

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has said they are committed to supporting theatres with help available through the government’s financial package for business, workers and the self-employed.

Arts Council England has launched a £160m emergency package for venues, artists and workers across the culture sector.

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