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  • Writer's pictureStuart Barr

Campaign for open air performances to spearhead UK's cultural revival

Updated: May 4, 2021

The Coalition for Open Air Theatre and Out To Perform have joined forces to persuade the government to prioritise the early opening of the covid-safest part of the performing arts: the small-scale outdoor performing sector, which we believe presents the opportunity to spearhead the cultural revival in 2021.

We've built a coalition of 70 signatories, representing the breadth of the sector from small-scale touring organisations to the largest production companies in the UK, to make sure the government recognises outdoor performing as being all-year-round not just a summer activity.

Read our open letter to Secretary of State Oliver Dowden below.

Oliver Dowden CBE,

The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

100 Parliament St, London SW1A 2BQ

12th February 2021

Kickstarting a cultural revival with the early opening of the outdoor performing arts sector

Dear Secretary of State,

We are pleased that, over the past year, the government’s policies followed the evidence that “outdoors” is an inherently Covid-safer environment for the performing arts due to the rapid dispersal of aerosols.

Your decisions allowed live outdoor performance to restart last year on 11th July, following the Coalition for Open Air Theatre’s recommendations. The impact of this was an estimated 500,000 people were able to experience the joy of attending small-scale live performances last year, generating c. £7m in revenue and supporting creative and hospitality jobs in every part of the UK. Your policies also enabled outdoor carol singing to take place after 2ndDecember following Out To Perform’s Save Carol Singing campaign. This gave an estimated 100,000 people the pleasure of singing together safely for the first time since March.

As you continue to manage the difficult balance of unlocking of the economy with public health concerns, we urge the government to lead the national cultural revival by allowing the segment of the performing arts with the lowest Covid risks to reopen as soon as lockdown ends: small-scale outdoor music/drama/dance.

Whilst the media narrative focuses on the big-ticket outdoor summer festivals, which are unlikely to operate this year due to their scale, perambulatory style and long lead-times, we believe that focusing on smaller scale and more local outdoor events can more than fill their place, kickstarting the cultural renaissance of the UK. We believe this would:

• be an economically-valuable and mentally-uplifting element of the British 2021 staycation

• be an international showcase for how life can get back to normal quickly, in advance of the G7 summit;

• help sustain the workforce, build audiences and cultural momentum in the lead up to indoor entertainment’s re-opening later in 2021 and FestivalUK*2022.

However, “outdoors” doesn’t just mean summer. Case studies from Out To Perform, The Minack Theatre and data from Indigo Audience research shows that people are more prepared to attend outdoor performances in all seasons and weather than in previous years due to cultural starvation. There is thus an opportunity here to be grasped.

The signatories to this letter have amassed vast experience in being able to apply rigorous Covid-prevention protocols, and urge the government to kickstart the safe return of the performing arts sector straight after lockdown ends, with events that are:

1. Outdoors: where the air is Covid-safer

2. Local: where audiences will, initially, be primarily from the local area

3. Smaller-scale: under c.500 people

4. Controlled seated: where social distancing can be easily managed between bubbles

We believe that this is the best way for the nation to enjoy the uplift that only live entertainment can bring at the earliest opportunity, as well as supporting jobs in the creative sector.

The co-signatories to this letter show the breadth of appeal of these arguments: from <£100k turnover small-scale touring companies to >£100m National Portfolio Organisations, and who have amassed vast experience in running safe outdoor events during the pandemic. We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you and your department to discuss the practical steps necessary to reopen small scale, local outdoor performance this Spring.

Out To Perform

Stuart Barr, Founder/CEO, Out To Perform

The Coalition for Open Air Theatre

Adam Nichols, Artistic Director, OVO and The Maltings Theatre, St Albans

Zoë Curnow, Executive Director, The Minack Theatre, Cornwall

Co-signatories of the letter

Ali Robertson, Producer, Aakash Odedra Company, Living Spit and Opposable Thumb

Antony Stuart-Hicks, Producer, APL

Mehmet Ergen, Artistic Director, Arcola Theatre

JoJo Pickering, Director, Bash Street Theatre

Simon Pullen, Director, Bash Street Theatre

Neal Foster, Director, Birmingham Stage Company

Chris Hawley, Artistic Director, Black Box Theatre Company

Will Mytum, General Manager, Brighton Open Air Theatre

Joe Hancock, Artistic Director, Burn the Curtain

John-Webb Carter, Producer, Carter Dixon Productions

Rob Forknall, Artistic Director, Changeling Theatre

John Savournin, Artistic Director, Charles Court Opera

Anthony Richards, Director, Common Players

Erica Love , Director , Culture Central

Trevor MacFarlane, Culture Commons

Olivia Pay, Director of Comms and Broadcast, English National Opera

Annilese Miskimmon, Artistic Director, English National Opera

Estelle van Warmelo, Artistic Director, Feral Productions

Stevie Thompson, Director, Flibbertigibbet Theatre

Matt Pinches, Co-Founder and Producer, Guildford Shakespeare Company

MJ Morgan, Producer, Ha Ha Films Ltd

Ben Kernow, Director, Ha-Hum-Ah Theatre

David Conway, Chairman, Hampstead Garden Opera

Stephen Badham, Company Producer, Illyria Theatre Limited

Oliver Gray, Artistic Director, Illyria Theatre Limited

Michelle Cawardine-Palmer, Executive Director, Kneehigh

Becky Owen-Fisher, Producer, Lamphouse Theatre

Jon Marshall, Director, Magic Carpet Theatre

Emma Gibson, Communications Director, Miracle Theatre

Louise Richards, Executive Director, Motionhouse

Joanna Rosenfeld, Co-producer/ co-director, One Fell Swoop Unlocked Outdoor Shakespeare Festival

James Clutton, Chief Executive and Director of Opera, Opera Holland Park

Philip Parr, Artistic Director, Parrabbola

Piers Cottee-Jones , Founder, PCJ Productions

Dave Hunter, Event Manager, Penlee Park Open Air Theatre

Stefan Escreet, Artistic Director, Ragged Edge Productions

Ollie Oakenshield, Director, Rogue Theatre

Angelina Boscarelli, Director, Rogue Theatre

Oliver Mears, Director of Opera, Royal Opera House

Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director, Royal Shakespeare Company

Gregory Doran, Artistic Director, Royal Shakespeare Company

Catherine Mallyon, Executive Director, Royal Shakespeare Company

Alex Reedijk, General Director, Scottish Opera

Neil Constable, Chief Executive, Shakespeare's Globe

Jessica Cheetham , Director, Spun Glass Theatre

Peter Woodward, Centre Director, Sterts Theatre

Daisy Louise Plackett, Director, Strange Fascination Theatre

Simon Michael-Morgan, Director, Strange Fascination Theatre

Bill Bankes-Jones, Artistic Director, Tête à Tête

Evelyn Roberts, Managing Director, The GOAT Mcr

Paul Moss , Producer , The HandleBards

Mark Hayward, Producer/Co-Artistic Director, The Pantaloons

Alex Gomar, Director, The Place, Bedford

Richard Wolfenden-Brown, Director, The Plough Arts Centre

Pete Talbot, Artistic Director, The Rude Mechanical Theatre Co

Lindy O'Hare, Founder, The Thorington Theatre

Guy Watson, Amphitheatre & Events Coordinator, Trebah Garden

Guy Withers, Artistic Director & CEO, Waterperry Opera Festival

Rosalind Johnson, Director, Wells Theatre Festival

Nigel Godfrey, Director , West End in Schools

Myriddin Pharo , Artistic Director, Wildworks

Emma Hogg , Executive Director, Wildworks

Katie Wilmore, Producer, Willow Walk Productions

Gary Mcelligott, After Dark PR,

Emma Cameron, Freelance Producer

Anna Fleischle, Production Designer

Timothy Sheader, Director

David Pugh, Producer

Freelancers Make Theatre Work

Quotes from companies that co-signed the letter.

“We created outdoor site-specific promenade-style immersive works attracting 26,000 audience in 2020, and ran shows across all seasons right up until Christmas, employing 16 people.”

“Our sold-out Christmas season certainly adds weight to the claim that audiences are willing to attend outdoor performance at any time of year (over 5,500 people across 2.5 weeks in December)”

“Last year, 41,000 people watched our open-air shows July-December, generating £650k in revenue and supporting 25 year-round and 40 seasonal jobs on site.”

“In 2020 we held 22 open-air shows with 2,500 audience. The enjoyment of audiences was palpable. Some people were moved to tears just to be part of an audience and to hear applause. In 2019 we welcomed 5,727 people to 35 open air theatre performances. This year I’ve booked 45 performances at 15 National Trust/other venues and anticipate strong demand for tickets. There is pent-up demand for culture and outdoors is the safest option. We also plan open-air music events at a farm-theme venue. Such Venues appreciate the value of promoting open air shows, which support employment at their venue.”

“We imagine catering to audiences of 150-250 for 35 performances in June, July and August, in a project that will support 6 full-time employees for 10 weeks each.”

“We’re planning a month-long tour of Blithe Spirit this summer and hope to have local audiences in excess of 1500 attend over 14 performances. There’s undeniable demand from audiences, so although it's unlikely theatres will be fully open this year, I think the opportunity to perform outdoors is essential, especially for smaller local companies.”

“Our recent audience survey said over 90% were willing to attend outdoor performances this summer. Our 2020 cancelled season would have employed over 500 people across a 4-month period.”

“93% audience survey overwhelmingly supportive of outdoor 2021 shows. We already have a few summer 2021 shows on sale and the bookings are encouraging.”

“Last year we managed to organise a small scale covid secure tour to several venues around Norfolk, with a cap on audience numbers, masked covid marshals ensuring social distancing and extensive signage and online information. It was due to the organised easing of restrictions that enabled us to do it, as well as a necessity to survive. However, this time round the situation seems far more desperate, disorganised and uncertain.”

“It would be helpful to add being given sufficient time to plan; requesting that DCMS understands that we can’t just turn the lights on and open a show. If it is possible to be given as much notice as possible that would greatly assist the sector in returning safely and thoroughly. For example, if assurance could be given in March/April that activities could go ahead from 01 June, this would give us sufficient time to prepare. Secondly, it would be great if local councils were give more guidance to remove grey areas. Last year, our council restricted TENs licences to 30 people inc. performers, but other councils didn’t restrict like this.”


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