Theatres will be allowed to admit audiences from next month, the government has announced.
Audiences will be able to return in smaller numbers in less than two weeks, from August 1 – though as expected, must observe the social distancing measures that theatre administrators have already complained will damage show viability. Both audience members and performers will be required to conform to distancing rules.
The announcement is a step forward, but will do relatively little in the short term to improve arts finance – even with the government's £1.57 billion fund for arts, culture and heritage organisations.
The news is not intended to mark a full resumption of regional theatre production but is partly intended to allow the results of previous stages of the government’s five-stage “roadmap” to be presented. These include special pilot productions, created under social-distance guidance, that will be used by the government to assess the overall effectiveness of its ruling.
Theatres and similar venues have been told they must reduce auditorium capacity, greatly increase deep-cleaning measures (including between performances), and add the distance markers already familiar in shops. They should also, ideally, sell tickets online to reduce social contact and improve track-and-trace measures.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said: “I’m pleased we are making real progress in getting doors reopened to the public, with social distancing. From August indoor theatres will safely welcome audiences back.
"This is a welcome step in a return to normal and will help secure the future of this important sector."
Though many theatres have welcomed a signal that life will start returning to normal, many have already announced specific dates to return – usually corresponding to the date they intended to start their autumn season in September or beyond – and wouldn’t be able to bring things forward even if they wanted to.
Everything depends on timing, availability and rehearsal, all of which are planned well in advance.