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Safety measures could plunge Perth Theatre into new crisis, as bosses prepare for scores of job losses

Horsecross Chief Executive Nick Williams
Horsecross Chief Executive Nick Williams

Physical distancing measures could force Perth Theatre to slash its audience numbers by more than two-thirds, making future shows financially unviable.

The chief executive of crisis-hit Horsecross Arts said the two-metre rule would only allow for 70 people in the auditorium at one time, compared to the current capacity of 500.

It places a question mark over the fate of the ever-popular Perth pantomime, due to go ahead in December.

Nick Williams, chief executive of Horsecross Arts – the charity in charge of Perth Theatre and Perth Concert Hall – explained the extreme difficulties facing the organisation as a redundancy consultation got under way with his 168-strong workforce.

As revealed by The Courier on Friday, around 120 staff – 70 part-time and 50 full-time – could be axed, as the government’s job retention scheme begins to wind down.

“Whilst the retention scheme has been a huge support and a great lifeline to enable us to support our staff, as time goes on it costs us more and more and by the end of October it will end entirely.

“If we kept going the way we were we would have run out of money by the end of the year. The outlook was horrendous.”

Mr Williams was brought onboard last year after as serious financial problems forced Perth and Kinross Council to take control and led to mass resignations.

“Just before lockdown, we were starting to see some green shoots,” he said.

“There was still a lot of work to do, of course but there was definitely an indication that we had turned a corner and it was looking like we might find some new stability.

“When we had to close in March, it felt like the rug had been pulled from under us.”

As talks over jobs continue, Horsecross Arts is exploring how its venues can adapt when lockdown lifts.

“The theatre is especially difficult for us,” Mr Williams said.

“That is a lot to do with the narrowness of the site.

“We have entrances on Mill Street and High Street, and fire doors that open onto the vennels at the side but even if you have all of those doors open, it becomes very difficult to manage everybody.

“The layout of the building makes it hard with any form of distancing. At two metres, we can get under 70 people in that auditorium but that is spread across all three levels.

“Even if we go down to one metre, that brings capacity to just under 200. Even at those numbers, it would be a fairly miserable experience for the audience, compared to what they’ve had before.

“But at 70, there is virtually nothing we could put on that would be economically viable.”

It is not clear if, or how, the 2020 Perth pantomime can go ahead. “I am desperate to get Cinderella to the ball this year,” he said. “But we haven’t taken a decision yet.

“We have to wait to see the guidelines before we can say if this year’s panto is going to be possible.

“Part of the joyous fun of panto is being together with an audience that’s rowdy, entertained, laughing and participating with what’s going on on stage. Sadly, a lot of distancing measures feels like the absolute opposite of that.”


Audience confidence is ‘key’

Building back confidence amongst audience members will be “key” to the future success of Perth’s theatre and concert hall.

Chief executive Nick Williams said that – as well as doubts over how to physically fit people into the building – there was still the question of whether audiences will want to return in the first place.

“On top of everything else, we just don’t know if people would be willing to return to theatres and music venues,” he said. “That is a really big unknown for us.”

A survey of audiences found that the majority were keen to get back to shows, but only when they felt safe.

“Some said they would only feel safe when there’s a vaccine,” said Mr Williams. “Others said they would be happy to wear a mask, but they were worried that other people in the audience might not.

“Making our audiences feel confident is absolutely key to getting people back in our buildings.”

He said audiences had continued to support Horsecross during lockdown, with many making donations or taking credit noticesĀ  instead of asking for refunds for the 100 shows that were cancelled or postponed between March and June.


New ways to experience theatre

Horsecross Arts is exploring new ways to revive the arts experience in Perth and Kinross.

Mr Williams revealed that a programme of outdoor events and touring productions was being considered.

“Obviously the weather is going to be an issue, but we are looking at what we can do for communities in and around the area during the autumn,” he said.

“We are looking at starting with some outdoor events that we could maybe manage to do, while keeping everyone safe.

“I can’t say too much about this at the moment, because there are still so many unknowns.

“But we are always thinking about how we can engage in our communities while the venues are closed. We are looking at if we can go to them if they can’t come to us.

“That feels like an exciting opportunity for us in these difficult circumstances.”