Fears for future of local theatres if restrictions continue

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New Forest theatres
The Regent Centre’s refurb will still go ahead, unless there’s another lockdown

ARTS leaders in the New Forest and Christchurch have warned the future of their venues will be at risk if cancellations and restrictions last into next year.

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Despite being forced to close their doors due to the lockdown and shelve live performances, four prominent local theatres spoken to by the A&T reported they were coping well by adapting and offering online classes, projects and shows.

However, all conceded the future was “uncertain” as it remains to be seen how social distancing measures will affect them in the coming months.

Although the government announced on Tuesday that cinemas could reopen from 4th July, live performances are still banned.

Prior to that, the A&T contacted the Regent Centre in Christchurch, Forest Arts in New Milton, Hanger Farm Arts Centre in Totton, and Forest Forge Theatre Company in Ringwood,.

All four praised the goodwill of locals after hundreds declined to claim back refunds for cancelled shows and made generous donations. The Regent Centre alone has received £7,000 of private gifts.

All defiantly vowed to reopen safely in line with restrictions as soon as possible, stressing the impact of the closures was financial but also hit the emotional health of their users, including the elderly and disabled.

Sharon Lawless, CEO and creative producer at Forest Forge Theatre, said the situation was one of the biggest challenges the company had faced in its near-40-year history.

Sharon Lawless

“Our ethos of bringing theatre to communities and making our services accessible to all has been tested. But I have to say, I couldn’t be prouder of how the Forest Forge team has responded and adapted,” she added.

While its building is closed, the company has created online courses, run virtual participation groups and workshops, and is supporting its outreach workers and associate artists.

“Thanks to funding and people’s kind donations we have been able to continue our work, but with an uncertain future and our ability to generate our regular income still at risk, we need the support to continue,” she added.

Regent Centre general manager Mathew Vass-White reported that “at the moment we are doing okay” and the financial blow had been “cushioned considerably” by 2018 and 2019 being record years at the venue, an independent cinema and mid-scale touring house.

He said most of the team were placed on furlough, received a small BCP Council grant and had rescheduled six months of live shows across the next 18 months, which was a “massive task”.

A planned refurbishment paid for prior to the lockdown was not in jeopardy “provided we don’t go back into lockdown”, he added, and was on track to be completed before the centre reopens.

“Of course, our finances will only stretch so far and if we are unable to reopen much past the latter part of this year, we will be facing a different situation,” he said.

“When we’re open, things may look and feel different for a while as we adjust to new ways of experiencing theatre and cinema. But as we know, this situation won’t last forever and eventually we’ll return to the Regent Centre to full houses again.”

Hanger Farm Arts Centre manager Kyle Maxwell told the A&T in the weeks before the lockdown ticket sales had declined by 50%.

“As the weeks have passed we have cancelled all shows through the summer months and are now considering moving shows through September and October; a number of which have already been moved once,” he added.

“October, November and December are traditionally very busy months for the theatre and further cancellations through these months have the potential to have a serious effect on the viability of the arts centre.”

Minstead Trust took over running the facility in 2018 with a view to providing training and support. One of the most frustrating consequences of the lockdown was suspending community theatre and music-therapy sessions, he said.

A spokesperson for Forest Arts said the community had been “excellent in their response”, with most ticket holders offering donations or booking rescheduled shows.

Overseen by Hampshire Cultural Trust, it has collaborated with venues, including in Fareham and Aldershot, to run online classes and wellbeing and therapy sessions, set out new community outreach programmes and launched a digital publication.

“We are committed to ensuring that when customers come back to our venues they will not only find a warm welcome but a place where they can feel reassured that we are taking every precaution possible to ensure their safety,” she said.

“As an arts and heritage charity, we are, like so many people and businesses, facing uncertainty in our future funding given the current situation.”

As focus turns to the UK’s post-coronavirus recovery, a government taskforce has been appointed to recommend how the arts industry, which contributes more than £100bn annually to the nation’s economy, can get going.

It will be led by culture secretary Oliver Dowden and includes English National Ballet artistic director Tamara Rojo and former BBC chair Lord Grade. It does not feature local councils, however, which sparked criticism from the chair of the Local Government Association’s culture, tourism and sports board, Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson.

He said: “National ambitions cannot be delivered without giving councils a place on
the taskforce and ensuring that plans are grounded in reality.”

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