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'We need to get back up this autumn' – Nica Burns and James Graham speak about theatre's future

The producer and playwright have been talking about what they imagine the future of theatre might look like

Nica Burns and James Graham
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

In the last 24 hours producer Nica Burns (owner of six West End theatres) and playwright James Graham (This House) have spoken publicly about the future of theatres as lockdown continues.

Speaking to Jeremy Vine on BBC Radio 2 this afternoon, Burns stated that "We are doing everything we can to come up with a plan. We want to reopen with audiences, staff and performers all feeling safe.

"It doesn't need to look like a hospital inside the theatre – we could have playful facemask designs and skin covers, as well as temperature scans outside venues."

Actor and writer Gyles Brandreth added: "Before that we can have half-way house stuff – outdoor theatre. Drive-in theatre. There are plans to do outdoor Shakespeare in Sheffield." Burns agrees – "We can use our beautiful parks – ENO are looking at drive-in opera at Ally Pally".

But solutions need to be found swiftly, Burns emphasised. "We need to get back up this autumn. Because otherwise many many venues will go bust. It's critical for regional theatres that they get their panto. Panto is such a great part of our culture, and for many theatres it can represent a third of their annual income." Brandreth hopes the same will happen – "panto is coming back – oh yes it will."

Burns added that she had helped write an "absolute concrete plan" that is going to the DCMS (Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport). "What we need is for the DCMS to look at our plan, which covers four things: how to completely disinfect a building, how to advise audiences to come with their personal protection safely, how to help front-of-house staff and finally how to look after our actors and backstage teams.

"We're going to look very hard at testing everyone. We're talking to leading actors and this will go to the DCMS." She also stated that having a longer interval may help solve issues with toilets.

Last night Graham went on BBC's Question Time where the future of the arts and theatres was debated, especially the need for more financial support for the sector.

Graham stated any further government funding given to the arts "wouldn't be a bailout, it'd be an investment. The money is almost instantly paid back, through the likes of annual tax revenue and VAT. In London alone, tourists bring in £2 billion cash, specifically for theatre. So it pays for itself."

"For every pound you put into the arts you get five pounds back. It's not that arts funding costs hospital beds. We can pay for hospital beds through our theatres and our films".

"You will start to notice if theatres can't be saved. The facts are that without a bit of help, 70 per cent of theatres will be closed by Christmas. And they won't reopen."

Journalist Camilla Tominey stated that "you need to put a date on it. We have heard about things happening in June, hairdressers from July, but we haven't heard anything about theatre or other cultural events. Mass gatherings are at the end of the scale, but just a window would give us something to look forward to. It would give theatres a lifeline if they could open bookings from a certain time."

Conservative MP Chris Philip, who is currently Under Secretary for the Ministry of Justice, agreed that the arts are "a huge economic contributor". "Clearly the arts sector does have a unique set of circumstances. It is going to be the most difficult to restart for obvious reasons."

"As the science improves and we get antibody testing", Philip added, people may be able to go to theatres.

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