With a bright and dry weekend forecast, the weather is perfect for England’s outdoor theatres, which now have permission to reopen for live performance. But as the government gave the go-ahead only on Thursday evening, it will still be some time before most shows can go on.
The open-air Minack Theatre, situated on the cliffs of south-west Cornwall with the Atlantic as its backdrop, reopened its grounds last Saturday. It has since had 2,500 visitors, “but we’ve not been able to put anything on the stage for them,” said the executive director, Zoë Curnow. “It’s been really frustrating. So we’re delighted [by Thursday’s announcement].”
Curnow has swiftly programmed a new summer season, with theatre productions scheduled from 20 July. Smaller-scale storytelling performances will commence this Monday, 13 July, and from Saturday the Minack is resuming its daytime tours, in which a local actor, Mark Harandon, portrays the gardener who created the theatre with its founder Rowena Cade in the early 1930s.
The summer programme will include monologues and a revival of the Minack’s 2019 production of Marie Jones’s two-hander Stones in His Pockets. “It doesn’t need as much rehearsal time because it’s a remount,” said Curnow. The actors will be in a bubble together, flat-sharing.
As for social distancing in the audience, Curnow said the Minack was fortunate in that the season is financially viable even with a reduced audience capacity. With its jaw-dropping setting, it is a popular tourist destination even without productions. “We’re always full from July to September,” said Curnow. “We have over 300,000 visitors a year.”
The Minack has been inundated with proposals from producers around the country, she said, not least because it was name-checked by the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, in Thursday’s press briefing.
Pubs were given 10 days to prepare before they reopened; open-air theatres had less than 48 hours’ notice. Curnow said she “couldn’t sign any contracts until after 5pm on Thursday”.
Will Mytum, the manager of Brighton Open Air theatre (Boat), said Dowden’s announcement came after “weeks and weeks” of waiting for news, and he would be surprised if any open-air productions could open with such short notice. “But I hope they do. It’s a short season for outdoor performance in Britain and we’ve lost a chunk of it, so the sooner the better.”
Boat, which usually runs from May to September, is set to reopen on 25 July. Mytum applauded the government’s rescue package of £1.57bn for the arts and heritage sectors but said the past few weeks had been unsettling. “Open-air theatre has been held back compared with other outdoor activities. It’s been confusing. If you can go to a pub from 4 July you’d think sitting outside watching theatre would be as safe.”
He said theatres needed time not only for rehearsals but also for implementing safety measures and running adverts. When Boat opens later this month, it will host performances by companies from around the UK, many of which have already formed a bubble.
Adam Nichols, the artistic director of Maltings theatre in St Albans, Hertfordshire, said they had already begun the casting process for their August outdoor Shakespeare festival. A recent petition launched by Nichols, urging the government to allow outdoor performances to return in July, quickly gained more than 7,000 signatures. He argued that reopening would allow open air theatres to generate revenue, be less dependent on government support and bring benefits for the local economy.
Outdoor theatres play an important social role because they attract people who are not regular theatre-goers, Nichols said, describing the open-air sector as “more accessible and inclusive”. (Circuses, too, have been allowed to open from 11 July. A spokesperson for the Equity union called circus a British cultural institution and “an affordable art form that brings families and local communities together”.)
As well as deep cleaning of venues and e-ticketing, government guidance for reopening stresses a reduction in venue capacity and limited ticket sales to ensure social distancing. Nichols said seating for open-air theatres had a greater degree of flexibility than indoor theatres, which have fixed constraints.
His festival productions will run without an interval, to avoid gatherings. Actors will arrive in full costume for each performance, to minimise backstage movement. Nichols said it was challenging to enable social distancing between actors without scenes looking ridiculous for the audience. He has chosen to stage Henry V (“history plays tend to be more formal, there’s less touching”) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (“although it has a lot of slapstick, unlike some of the comedies there is less at close quarters”). They are waiting for guidance on the use of gazebos and marquees to provide cover from rain.
Regent’s Park open-air theatre in London is exploring the possibility of opening for a short period later this summer. Sheffield Theatres welcomed the government’s announcement and said it was working closely with the city council on its previously announced plans for a “Shakespeare to Sheffield” outdoor performance programme this year.
But there have been concerns, too. Peter Stickney, the artistic director of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which stages all-male outdoor Shakespeare productions, said he was “concerned that in the clamour to present live theatre this summer, many actors and creatives, who are likely in pretty desperate financial circumstances, might get exploited”.
Stickney fears that safety and quality may be sacrificed by some in the rush to stage outdoor work. He said the government guidelines for reopening “would be incredibly difficult for us to follow rigorously and still deliver a performance that would be in any way recognisable”. The company has rescheduled its production of Macbeth to next year. He said the outdoor theatre industry was “full of creativity, expertise and ideas” and “ready for big and exciting conversations about safe and high-quality ways forwards”.
Shakespeare’s Globe, perhaps the world’s best-known open-air theatre, said it was not economically viable for it to open with socially distanced performances. “We’re an independent charity with very limited reserves,” a spokesperson said. “The government understands our situation, and we are incredibly grateful for their promised investment in our sector.”