It has been announced by the government that UK theatres will be allowed to open again for live productions from 1st August, on a trial basis with appropriate social distancing measures in place.
For many theatres, this offers a glimmer of hope, but they are far from out of the woods. Without being able to sell tickets at full capacity, most theatres will not see a profit from any performances, or worse, could even lose money. Theatres in Sheffield and York are also the latest to announce that they may have to make a number of redundancies if they are to survive following lockdown.
Due to the last few months of uncertainty and lack of generated income, this leaves the Christmas season of 2020 for UK theatres questionable. In the North East, some of our venues are hopeful that panto season can still go ahead this year. However, sadly, the People’s Theatre in Heaton have already stated that their 2020 panto has been cancelled. They released a statement back in June noting; “Although December feels a long way off, our preparations have already begun. We would usually start rehearsing soon after the summer, and we don’t see that being possible this year.”
The Customs House in South Shields also has Christmas productions planned from 25th November. But Executive Director, Ray Spencer MBE, has recently stated; “As each week goes by, a bigger question mark is placed over this year’s pantomime Rapunzel and we will make an announcement in August based on the best available guidance for your continued safety and protection”.
The Theatre Royal has yet to make a full statement regarding their annual Christmas panto, which is usually a huge hit with regulars. However, following their announcement of 44 redundancies and definite cancellation of all performances up until the end of November, it may unfortunately have an affect on their Humpty Dumpty pantomime, due to be taking place this winter. Playhouse Whitley Bay are also yet to make a statement regarding their production of Snow White, however it looks like it currently is still planned to go ahead at their venue from 5th December.
The Ambassador Theatre Group, operators of the Sunderland Empire, announced earlier this month that all productions until 20th September were being suspended. So, there may be hope that their Christmas production could still go ahead from 12th December as planned, but possibly at a reduced capacity depending on government guidelines.
There is also no official word from the Tyne Theatre and Opera House regarding their panto this year as yet, which has become another firm favourite with pantomime lovers in the region in recent years. However staff from the venue are hopeful that the production of Sleeping Beauty will still go ahead from 4th December as anticipated.
One of the latest announcements from a local venue comes from Northern Stage – who launched a press release a few days ago to reveal that their Autumn 2020 program will not be going ahead this year. However, they are intending on rescheduling many of their already proposed productions that were due to take place this autumn, including Gatsby and Red Ellen, at later dates. Their planned family friendly Christmas performances of Hey Diddle Diddle Christmas Spectacular and The Sorcerers Apprentice will also be postponed, with The Sorcerers Apprentice already confirmed for winter 2021. Executive Director of Northern Stage, Kate Denby, states; “While the government has announced its first steps to bringing back live performances, there is still some way to go until we can put shows on in the theatre. As a producing theatre, we need to consider how long it takes to make a show from scratch – from writing, through to casting, rehearsing, choreographing, creating the music, building sets and making costumes in our workshops – and that’s all before it even makes it onto the stage when our technical teams work their magic. So we have made the difficult decision to postpone our autumn productions, but we remain absolutely committed to making these shows and look forward to continuing to work with our brilliant creative teams and freelancers to bring them to life.”
BUT – in a positive and innovative move for theatre in the region, Northern Stage has also announced that Associate Director Mark Calvert and their creative teams are on a mission to save Christmas, and are planning “a magical theatre experience for the whole family that can be enjoyed in a safe and socially distanced way”. It won’t look like the type of production we are all used to, and it has not yet been confirmed if the production will be happening inside Northern Stage, but hopefully it will still be a spectacular and inventive show.
Due to the extreme circumstances that 2020 has presented to the theatre and live performance industry, many venues are now unfortunately left in a position that won’t allow them to produce Christmas shows this year. But the creatives behind them are just that, creative, so while the tradition of the Christmas Pantomime may not go ahead for a lot of venues, theatre goers and supporters are likely to see more unusual and unorthodox performances being showcased this year. Whether they are socially distanced, take place in outdoor venues, or even happen online. This year, more than ever, it’s important that the general public keep an open mind as to what Christmas 2020 may look like in theatre land, for the love of our venues.
*Update* – Since this article was published, Customs House have announced that their pantomime will not be going ahead for Christmas 2020. Please visit http://www.customshouse.co.uk for more details.