Regional theatre: the state of play

10th June 2020

Minack Theatre, Cornwall
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Zoe Curnow, Minack

Zoe Curnow, Minack

Zoe Curnow, artistic director of the Minack, Cornwall, 24-06-2020

We were due to start on 31st March. We had the loveliest weather over Easter, so we would have had the most cracking season, it’s heartbreaking.

Theatres are allowed to open [without performances] so I can open the site, which for us is a genuine benefit because we’ve always operated as a tourist attraction as well. We have people who pay money to come, look around and explore our history, and learn how to put on a theatre show. We can open from July 4th. What we’re planning to do prior to that next week is open our gardens because gardens are allowed to be open, so we can soft-open in order to get the systems in place. We’re calling it ‘reawakening’ because we’ve been talking as if our theatre has gone to asleep for the last three months. So we’re planning to reawaken officially on 4th July for pre-booked visitors, everyone will have to book to come in, which is quite useful – in the past we’ve been inundated. It’s difficult to manage the volume of people coming here, and we have windy roads to get to us.

But we won’t have the heart of our venue – because we can’t do theatre performances. The official guidance at the moment is “at this time theatres should not permit live performances to take place in front of a live audience. This is important to mitigate the risks of aerosol transmission from either the performers or their audience. There will be further guidance setting out how performing arts activity can be managed safely in other settings…” So, at the moment, theatres and concert halls cannot stage live performances. I spoke to UK Theatre, they’re aware that the outdoor sector is a slightly different case, and the clock is ticking very fast. Once we get to the autumn it becomes impossible to stage financially successful shows here. They feel that guidance will come out quite soon.

I’ve looked to re-programme a very different-looking season, which I’m due to announce soon, so I can get tickets on sale. It’s a very different season. Obviously the old style of shows are not financially viable, with less than half the audience, and you can’t socially distance the cast. But you can do monologues and two- handers and you can put the cast into [social] ‘bubbles’. More will come out in the guidance and it’s almost there. It’s frustrating for those of us that want to be getting on with it. We did a cracking production of Stones in His Pockets last year, the two actors who staged it are happy to share a flat together now; so you could put them into a household together for rehearsals and performances, which would be the same as me and my partner doing a show.  I’ve got local performers, a husband and wife team who perform together, there’s no reason why they can’t perform together. Alternatively, we could reblock Stones with social distancing.

As with all these risk assessment processes with this virus, there are solutions – at the end of the day, you are looking to mitigate risk. I want to keep everyone safe. You can find ways of doing that because otherwise we couldn’t be going to a supermarket or the cinema, or get on an aeroplane. If they’re really saying there is a problem with actors projecting into the audience, just say you have to have x metres between the actors and the audience, it’s doable.

It would be roughly half the capacity with a 1m distance. We hold between 7-800 depending on the show, so our capacity will be between 3-400, with people sitting within their household groups and 1m+ between. They’re not on fixed chairs so we have to allow some shuffle space. My plan was to run 100 per cent relaxed performances and try to only programme work that was going to be no more than 90 minutes – the principle being that if people need the toilet they don’t have to wait, so no interval. That was one of the big unmanageables in terms of people being in a rush. Another decision I have taken is that we wouldn’t run shows that finish late at night, we would be running 6 o’ clock early evening shows, which is a shame lighting-wise but it would be mean people aren’t rushing off in the dark, into a car-park and then having to travel. If we’re the only people doing shows, we will be attracting people from further afield, we get them travelling an hour and a half anyway, so the more we can relax the experience the better. And it’s quite an exciting experiment. I’ve worked in theatre for 20 years – how lovely to actually try a genuinely relaxed show. Not all venues are suitable for that.

Would we expect people to wear facemasks? If that is in the guidance then we would require that, but we’re not expecting that. The person scanning the tickets will be wearing a face covering, but in terms of the visitors our thought at the moment is that we wouldn’t be requiring it. If that is the requirement we will sort that and we will sell them here. Will we be spraying seats? Well, our seats are grass and concrete so we won’t be cleaning them any more than usual, which was mainly through salt water and wind but cleaning regimes in toilets… absolutely. We will follow the guidance, we have our first set of risk assessments written. The guidance is out for the hospitality sector, we can use that. A theatre is not different in many ways to a pub or a café, we have take-away food outlets, so I need the hospitality sector guidance for that. Places like the National Trust that have had their gardens open have been really helpful about sharing their best practice.

Is there a worry about outsiders? Yes that has been a factor in Cornwall. At the end of the day, if the business is safe to open, so long as people maintain social distancing it doesn’t matter whether someone comes from Penzance, Perth or Paddington, they can have a conversation with eachother 2m apart, that’s what social distancing is all about. It shouldn’t matter where people come from, so long as everybody is following the guidelines. Cornwall is hugely reliant on the visitor economy, with a high percentage of private sector jobs reliant on that, be that a hotel or the food and drinks supply sector, gift shops etc. There will always be people who don’t like something happening, and they are entitled to their opinion, but it’s a health versus economy argument at a local level. Do I have a right to tell someone else they can’t come here if they’re doing it within the guidance? I don’t think I do and economically Cornwall needs it.

The season we originally had planned was mainly visiting productions, some of the small-scale touring professional companies as well as our usual long-standing companies that come down. So we are doing more producing now because there isn’t much work out there – though there is some, so who knows what might drop in. We were thinking of having seven or eight productions, our plan was that we would announce the first 4-5 weeks, putting them on sale, start them, see how they run, and then potentially announce some more. We do a professional production at Easter, using local young people in children’s roles, and this year we had the rights to do Hetty Feather. I’m holding back on that slightly because if the schools go back as normal there might be a possibility I can get it on the stage this year. I’ve got some great Cornish stuff lined up to come in.  I was thinking we would be reproducing shows from local Cornish professional artists that maybe had been put to bed for a couple of years – we would support them to get those shows back up and then give them a platform, so we would be producing that in order to make that happen for those artists.

Last year we had over 300,000 visitors in total – that includes people coming to look around, and the audience. The same period from March last year we had 100,000 visitors, so we’ve already lost a third of our business. We would normally be busier in July and August, the next 100,000 would be coming through to the middle of August, so this is a critical time. I am projecting that if we open in the way I’ve planned, we would still be losing over half a million pounds this year. In terms of box-office I’ve refunded over £300,000 of tickets. Because a lot of our money comes from visitors who pay to look around, it’s not as strong as survival question as it is for the Plymouth Theatre Royals and other indoor theatres that are making those awful announcements. I will have some income from July 4th and we had significant cash reserves. I’m not in a position where the business will disappear in the autumn. I’m not reliant on funding. Obviously our reserves are taking a hit, we can’t do this for lots of years. I’m slightly heartbroken because we’ve built up a huge education programme which we’ve been funding from our surpluses. We had over 300,000 young people take part in an activity last year, which given where we are is brilliant for our local youngsters. Those conversations have yet to happen with my trustees about what we can support going forward. We do all sorts of programmes, it will be heart-breaking if we have to lose some of that.

What I don’t want to be doing is taking a ‘common sense’ approach. The PM has said theatres should not be staging live events, I’m running what I like to think is a reputable business, we’re a charitable trust, so I think we have an obligation to be doing what the government is telling us to do. If we ended up with an incident here as a result of this [reopening prematurely], it would be indefensible. If they make announcements in July we will work with that. We will go with whatever we’ve got, even if I only get three weeks in August and the beginning of September. Stones in his Pockets I can drop in with 2-3 weeks’ notice, I can get that up and ready and back in. Last year we ran through into October. So I’m not completely despondent about it. I think we will get movement on all this in July, I’m assuming that movement will be a green light, but at the end of the day if that announcement is ‘no, there is no live theatre until at least the autumn’, that is not the end of the world. If that is what we have to do then we will be a tourist attraction for this year and we are working up some cracking theatre for the future.


Elizabeth Newman and David Greig

Elizabeth Newman and David Greig

Elizabeth Newman, artistic director of the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and David Greig, playwright & artistic director the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh 13/06/2020


Elizabeth Newman

At the start of lockdown, I think we were in a state of shock, it was crisis management. It was an acute problem, now it is a chronic condition. We are having to shrink our organisation drastically to mean that we can re-grow. We are consulting over 42 roles, and we have no work for 38 hourly paid members of staff either. What we will be left with if that consultation process delivers the proposal – which it might not – will mean there will be 13 full-time members of staff and four part-time members of staff, in comparison to 100 full-time people in the building –  and that is horrendous.

I have spent my entire career – this is my third building – always priding myself on growing organisations, not shrinking them. So – that is what is required, and if we don’t do that we will go bankrupt in November. All we can do as an organisation is manage to keep furlough going until the end of August, but as soon as we get into the 10-20 per cent that Rishi [Sunak] has said we have to pay we can’t afford to do that..

I think we have passed the point of no return. Even if a package was to come, we know it’s going to be such a length of time before the recapitalisation process that there is no way we can sustain staff for that period. What we’ve got to do is mitigate the risk. We won’t be able to guarantee the same level of audience even when the government says ‘we have a vaccine’ etc. We are still going to have less than we had before. We have to make 85 per cent of our income from the box-office. Our staffing is £2m, that is half of the £4m we make. We looked at our cash-flow the other day – we worked out that if we achieve anything less than 60 per cent audiences, we would go bankrupt in two months. We know that we can shrink, we can put plans in place with agencies to help staff who are facing redundancies look for work and during this interim period retrain, and we are helping them apply for the benefits they are eligible for. And we are trying to work out what we can do in that period to remain relevant, to engage our audiences, to support people through their lives through art. We are the biggest employer in the region, the next bit is: how do we make sure when we are in the act of growing that we don’t end up dying?

We started our first round of redundancies before most other theatres in April. Now it’s the second round, the most significant round. This is one chapter of the story but it’s not the completed novel. I think it’s important that the guardians of theatre in 2020 don’t announce the death of an artform that has been going for millennia. It’s important that we find a way of holding our nerve and saying: we are the captains of ship during the greatest storm we’ve faced in our lifetime, but we are going to find a way through that storm with the public, with our audience. For me it has been a balance. It is horrendous. But no one said at the beginning of life saying you’re going to have a lovely time, enjoy. We’re in a global pandemic and people all over the world are suffering and it’s to us to find our way through the storm.

The response has been extraordinary. Huge amounts of support from local people, people from all over Scotland. We get letters and I love the personal ones to me – most of them end with ‘keep going’. People are including cheques for money, yesterday a child who had built their own theatre at home sent five pounds of their pocket-money to keep going. I wrote back this morning – saying I look forward to welcoming you to the theatre. But there is a lot of sadness and anger and frustration that Kris [Bryce, executive director] and I haven’t been able to think of a way out. People not understanding why we can’t open up the cafe, or the garden – on the face of it people think ‘you’ve got loads of space’.  But our Scottish government won’t let us do that. Also there’s complexity around any kind of opening and the financial risk of that. At Pitlochry I’m concerned because I don’t want the theatre to be tracked as a place where people got Covid-19 from, that would be the death of our organisation for the future if we became the beacon of Covid-19 as opposed to the beacon of light hope and joy. I was joking to Tom Morris [AD of Bristol Old Vic] the other night that it feels like the virus has been invented as a theatre-hater, if ever there was a virus that wanted to kill off theatre it was Covid-19. We will not be reopening this year.

David Greig  

Basically we’re consulting at the moment, a majority of our company are at risk of redundancy. We’re reducing our company to a core. Picking up from what Elizabeth said, there’s a key thing for theatre which is that we do not know when we can come back. That is the brutal truth. If you told me for a fact, March 31, theatre will come back, we could probably find ways of stretching our income out and lose less people, I don’t know. But if we go March 31 and get that wrong then we are bust. We have to prepare for ‘indefinite’ even though we know and hope it won’t be that. We hope that at some point the theatre will come back, but it’s not until the end of this calendar year. We’ve been told that by both governments.

The question is: can you perform theatre with social restrictions, and all the theatres in the UK have said: with our funding system it’s impossible, it cannot make financial sense. But that’s before you go: you can’t sing along, because singing indoors is a vector for disease; clapping makes particles spread more; laughing does too. The more you think about the invitation to the audience – as you say ‘come, be blocked off behind screens, we will spray you and present shows where actors stand apart, and we will try to encourage you not to sing along’, it’s like an anti-theatre. So what you’re thinking is: we could cut our capacity to a quarter, massively increase our costs in cleaning, have no or limited bar income, then we would be inviting an audience into a risky environment but then is the invitation life enhancing? If you add all that together – theatre in a world of social restriction is certainly financially implausible if not artistically so. We can’t do the fundamental thing which is our income generator. So we have to create organisations that do something else indefinitely but keep the keys to the building and look after them, and keep as much as we can in knowledge and skills so that when the time comes we are there and we can regrow like a bulb underground waiting for the spring.

I remember when we first started getting a thought of Covid-19 saying to my executive director Mike [Griffiths]: this could be a catastrophe, we could be closed for three weeks, and the thing about it is that would have been really, really bad, and difficult to cope with. When Mike said “I think we are looking at three months” that was a big blow. We started to think about serious restructuring. Then we realised there wasn’t a way that theatre could come back until there was some way that we could do it without social distancing – it has been a horrible journey.

It is worth saying that regional theatres – if they were surviving and thriving was despite (in our case 15 years of) standstill funding. In a way we were surviving and thriving because we were finding mechanisms to make work, reaching wider audiences, putting on musicals, co-producing with partners. Those are all the things Covid hits: have you brought audiences in? Great, we will demolish that. Is your financial plan based on people sharing things and moving round the country? Great, we will stop that. Are you getting work happening internationally? Great, we will make sure that doesn’t work. Really we’ve been screwed from every angle by it.

I want to reiterate the point Elizabeth made about hope. The restaurant industry in the UK is in real trouble. But food is not in trouble. People will find ways of eating food together. Ultimately theatre is a need, as primal as food. People will do it. We have patiently built since 1945 an extraordinary infrastructure to provide theatre of a really high quality to as wide an audience as possible. Economically theatre will probably bubble back in London. It’s big enough but in a place like Pitlochry or a place like Edinburgh even theatre is an act of will, it’s a moral decision. We are a public service. The question we ask ourselves as we go through this is: do we come back the same way that we were before or do we try to come back with a 1945 spirit of renewal and reinvigoration and a new compact between city, government, theatre-makers and audience, to have theatre at the heart of the city… a community not just making work for a small number of people within a particular demographic. Saying: we belong to all of you, and we will make work for all of you.

I think I would like a plan. If the government is prepared to put money into our theatres we are going to use that. We will turn that into as much joy, hope and light as possible. I’m not looking any gift horses in the mouth. What I would ask for is a plan where we can get through this next three-year period,  making work for our communities, and being civic places of debate, ideas, joy, comfort, solace all those things. And I would also seek a longer plan – to say: actually this is the role of regional and city theatre, this is where we see it with relation to our society. I’m sorry to be negative but the big wave is Covid-19: there’s the health tsuanami and behind it is the giant economic tsunami. We had to face that quite quickly as theatres but the whole of our society is about to face it – it’s already crashing. There was a report stating that the city of Edinburgh is going to face in the region of one billion loss because of the impact on hospitality, tourism, the festival etc. If you think of that for a city that is about 600,000 people, the massive impact of that across a whole society is enormous. That’s the world in which we will be trying to rebuild our theatres. The question we have to ask is: are we trying to rebuild it as it was before, or are we trying to rebuild it better, adapted to this new situation?


On the play Adventures with the Painted People


It began not in a time of pandemic. I was thinking about cultures coming into contact with eachother. I was following my nose. Sometimes as an artist you end up talking about things that are the zeitgeist, you don’t sit down and think: I must do that. I’m obsessed with the ancient peoples of these islands and my northern corner of it. I was fascinated that this was the furthest the Romans got – this fort by the River Tay. When Elizabeth set up her programme of work about the river, that seemed like a lovely coincidence.  It’s about the meeting of one civilisation – literally civis means city culture, which is about writing, building walls – with another civilisation that we know to be an oral culture but don’t know very much about because it wasn’t written down. All that we know was written by their enemies in a way. I thought those people are ancestors of this country and that encounter was an interesting one, on both sides. I feel drawn towards the reach and ambition of Roman civilisation. But I’m also very drawn to Caledonian and Pict-ish thoughts and ideas. It seemed like something worth exploring, because it concerns sudden changes in the tide of history. It turns out that that seemed very zeitgeisty when we did it on the radio. It felt like it touched on those themes.

When I was writing it, I thought it was to do with Brexit. I’d use the analogy of Scottish independence.  During the Scottish independence referendum, writers got asked: why aren’t you writing about Scottish independence. Peter Arnott – the playwright – said: we did that five years ago or were going to do it 5 years from now.  When I sat down to write Adventures with the Painted People I was following my nose about an interest in cultures meeting each other. And it was only when I was writing it I realised: actually this touches on issues that seem very live, those issues of Brexit. It was only when we were doing it for the radio, I went “Oh this touches on issues of civilisational overreach and collapse”. I don’t think you could have sat down to do it like that. When you write, you’re always some kind of antenna picking things up from the ether you don’t know about – the really tricky thing is to get yourself out of the way of the message, because you too often spend time saying: I must write a play about the state of the nation, forgetting that your antenna are picking up the actual state of the nation and your consciousness is getting in front of that.

The play always comes after I’ve become interested in something. I spent a lot of time reading about this period in history and things around it. There comes a point where you go: oh, there’s a play. You can build some specific research after that  but mostly you know what you need to know to write a play. I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the last seven or eight years on traditional societies and knowledge, essentially non literate societies. There’s a fantastic book called Wayfaring by MR O’Connor – about the way people find their way round the world. She begins by thinking that people didn’t have maps for thousands of years – but people found their way accurately across the world.

I thought that’s the point – even when we say ‘non-literate’ it’s as if literate is the obviously clearly advanced thing. Yet everywhere we look – literariness can be crude,  like stones in the landscape; you could say – what a vulgar statement Hadrian’s Wall is in a way. There are other ways of looking at borders, marking territories.

All we know about the Picts comes from maybe not much more than 20 paragraphs of writing in 4-500 years of Roman history. And most is fairly pejorative. The assumption that therefore they were a culture that was unsophisticated is obviously wrong. I don’t know that the Picts of Scotland used something like song-line techniques. I didn’t know they did that but they will have done something like that, every traditional society has some way of encoding moving across its territory. There’s a thing called experimental archeology – practical archeology – which is basically pretending. You set out to find out what it might be like to be a Pict, say, by building a Pictish roundhouse and living in it for a while. I’d say a branch of that is playwriting – you’re thinking what would I have done…?

On the cancellation of the Edinburgh festivals


In August, our new work will start to go live – we’ve had 25 amazing writers scribbling away  and our ensemble, who left us yesterday, have done the recordings. I will spend the next two months editing and making films to go with them, with some visual artists. We will be having a celebration of art and place and nature at that time, and that will carry on for the rest of the year. It will be sad for Edinburgh as a place, as it will for Pitlochry. In August we usually have six plays on – and beyond us there is the gearing up for the Highland Games – people outside, it’s all buzzing. We must find other things to do.


I think it’s going to be a really interesting time for Edinburgh. There was debate about whether the festivals were too big… overtourism, Edinburgh being almost a verb “are you doing Edinburgh this year?”, instead of being a place. There have long been tensions around some of that stuff and some of those tensions were reaching quite a high point. Covid is going to demolish all of that. There might be a few events but the city won’t be full in August. There’s not going to be tourists, we won’t be troubled walking down the high street, we will be fine. There’s an element of: be careful what you wish for. I think we’re going to realise how much valuable our inter-connectedness as a city was, and what those festivals meant for us. But yes we will get some joy. I would never normally walk down the high street in summer without tourists – so what an exclusive sense of enjoyment and privilege to do that. I think we will connect with eachother as a city better and when the festival comes back hopefully we can rebuild it better and make it more integrated with our communities and more sustainably. I think it’s alright to grieve, though. I think a lot of August this year will be about experiencing sadness too – and that’s OK.


Listen to Adventures with the Painted People here


Louise Chantal, artistic director of Oxford Playhouse, and John Terry, artistic director of the Theatre, Chipping Norton, discuss the state of play as their venues contend with the consequences of the pandemic.




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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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