WE all knew it was coming, but the second national lockdown could not have been more badly timed for the arts, entertainment and hospitality industries, writes Oxford Playhouse director, Louise Chantal

Weeks before Christmas, this interruption means months of planning have been in vain. The first lockdown cost us our income, but with this second blackout lost revenue is compounded by the extra cost of the significant investment many organisations – including the Oxford Playhouse – have made in preparing for a tentative re-opening, bringing staff back to work and making our venues safe.

Having already cancelled this year’s panto, we had thrown ourselves into arranging a ‘blended’ programme of live performances, some of which were to be livestreamed; and six co-commissions of new digital works, enabling theatre artists to create work for a new medium and new audiences. We had successfully hosted three of these events, enabling us to welcome much-reduced audiences for what proved to be unforgettable and special evenings: artists and audience alike ploughing on regardless. We now don’t know when we will be able to open our doors again.

Of course, our exciting digital work will continue (see oxfordplayhouse.com for details).

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One of the few silver linings of this challenging year has been witnessing the cultural sector adapt and embrace new skills. Plays on Zoom, solo live sound installations, distanced theatre ‘walks’ and a myriad of online workshops, readings and rehearsals have become the norm.

The tenacity and determination to continue to be creative, to make new work and ensure (some) employment for artists has been truly impressive.

The financial implications of this second closure are dire. The Playhouse made a successful case to win emergency funding from the Government, which ensures we can survive till March next year.

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The extraordinarily generous response of our audience to the ‘Playhouse Plays On’ campaign has carried us through thus far, and every penny donated has supported jobs and livelihoods.

However, a future with recurring lockdowns, drastically reduced audience capacities and confidence, and the ever-constant threat of local restrictions will make it impossible for national tours to commence. We are now modelling budgets which include more dark weeks each year, when the theatre will be closed.

Last year we sold 70 per cent of all the tickets available – a huge achievement for a 640-seat venue which presented over 800 performances in total. We would be foolish to think this will happen again for a long time to come.

And will it even work? While airports, schools, universities and many places of work stay open, will these curbs save lives and be worth the economic sacrifices of so many? Or will we end up ‘living with it’ anyway, but with more boarded-up shops and closed-down theatres? It’s hard to eschew cynicism and remain positive when so many have already suffered so much.

As a ‘cultural leader’, I am surviving on the light and energy from so many artists who are determined to keep on doing their thing come what may.

The only way is forward. Keep on Keeping On – and support your local arts organisations! We need you now more than ever.

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‘Ready and prepared’

WHILE disappointing, many venues say they were at least prepared.

John Terry, director of The Theatre Chipping Norton, said: “While it could hardly be called good news, to some extent we at Chippy Theatre were ready and prepared for the lockdown news. All of our workshops and participatory work is moving online and will continue for the rest of the term. Our cinema screenings have been postponed and will be rescheduled as soon as we are allowed to do so.

“We remain optimistic and determined to share our production of A Christmas Carol, starring David Bradley, with our audiences this Christmas. Apart from delaying the opening night to December 3, our plans remain unchanged for performances through until December 24. Alongside preparing for live performances, we are also exploring options for digitally streaming the production.

“If anything, the toughest part was for staff who had only just returned from a long furlough period. They were desperate to get back to work and be useful again, and now we have no choice but to put some of them back onto the furlough scheme. Everyone is being very loyal and positive, but it feels like arts workers, particularly freelancers but employees too, are fighting such a long and exhausting battle to keep morale up.”

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Paul Williams, manager of The Bullingdon music venue in Cowley Road, Oxford, said: “Many places will be going back to square one, more jobs lost and less money being spent back into local economies.

“We are still waiting for clarity from the Government on streaming from the venue. Fingers crossed we will be able to entertain people locked down during this dark November. Planning is already in motion and we will not stop – no matter how many times the goal posts move.”