Anger grows as theatre sector asks why it’s not allowed to open

Reopening of cinemas but not theatres described as ‘inconsistent and illogical’

Abbey Theatre directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray: Calling on the Government to “look again at the reopening of theatres both in light of our readiness and for the mental health and wellbeing of theatre-goers”. File photograph: Cyril Byrne

Abbey Theatre directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray: Calling on the Government to “look again at the reopening of theatres both in light of our readiness and for the mental health and wellbeing of theatre-goers”. File photograph: Cyril Byrne

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The Irish theatre community has called on the Government to reconsider its plans to keep theatres closed, with the decision to keep them shut being described as “inconsistent and illogical”.

Theatres, along with wet pubs, are among the few sectors that are not permitted to reopen following the lifting of restrictions on Tuesday.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Arts said it was “not possible at this time to allow for live entertainment, including live theatre performances, to return other than in very limited circumstances outdoors”.

Tony Holohan said Nphet had not given consideration ‘to distinguishing between the risk that applies’ in theatres in comparison with cinemas, which are being allowed to open

The department stopped short of an explanation for that decision, and many people in the theatrical community are angered by comments made by chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan.

He said at a National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) briefing on Monday that the body had not given “consideration from a Nphet point of view to distinguishing between the risk that applies” in theatres in comparison with cinemas, which are being allowed to open.

The National Campaign for the Arts said it was “extremely disappointed” by the decision, calling on the Government to initiate a pilot project with a view to reopening theatres and arts centres fully in January.

A statement from the campaign’s steering committee added: “Every day closed is a loss of precious revenue, every performance cancellation, every activity postponed, lights off and silent stages, all eat into the ability of theatres and arts centres to survive, recover and work their way out of the impacts of the pandemic. We are losing unique talent as the days tick by, we cannot afford this as a nation, we have seen and proved the need for accessible arts for all.”

The committee said a “huge amount of work” had gone into getting theatre venues as Covid-proof as possible, to no avail.

Abbey Theatre directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray said the facility has the “appropriate measures in place to welcome small, socially distanced audiences back”. The two called on the Government to “look again at the reopening of theatres both in light of our readiness and for the mental health and wellbeing of theatre-goers”.

The manager of the Town Hall Theatre in Galway, Fergal McGrath, said he was “very disappointed, dismayed and very surprised” by the decision, which had not been explained and was “difficult to rationalise”. “At the moment we can go to a gastropub or a gym. We can go to every type of nonessential retail outlet in the country. We can even go to the cinema. All that despite us being well-managed, well-ventilated and well-controlled environments. We don’t understand how we got left behind when these measures were announced.”

In London right now, a theatre can play to 50% of its regular capacity, or to 1,000 people, whichever is the lower. In Ireland, we cannot open our doors to a single audience member

Anne Clarke of Landmark Productions, one of the largest theatre companies in the country, said the decision that allowed cinemas to open but not theatres was “inconsistent and illogical”. “Theatres are, if anything, an even safer environment than cinemas, in that they typically offer a single, carefully controlled event per day, unlike cinemas, with multiple attendances each day,” she said.

“Why, in this case, are cinemas allowed to open, and theatres are not? What is the scientific rationale for this? In London right now, a theatre can play to 50 per cent of its regular capacity, or to 1,000 people – whichever is the lower. In Ireland, we cannot open our doors to a single audience member.”

Donal Shiels of Verdant Productions said theatres should have been opened “at the very least on a trial basis”. Verdant had been in rehearsals to stage The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen at the Draíocht in Blanchardstown throughout December, but now the show will have to go ahead online.

“It is both frustrating and heartening to see our colleagues in the UK pushing ahead with some openings in December, with limited capacities,” he said.