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What the future holds for Kent's theatres as the Orchard Theatre, the Hazlitt and Gulbenkian remain closed

The curtain came down on theatres across Kent and Medway more than two months ago, and for those who love the buzz of live theatre - along with their staff and performers - the loss is being felt keenly, both cultural and financial.

In the After the Interval National Audience Survey by Indigo, of 86,000 people, 93% said they were missing live theatre events during the current crisis and 74% wanted to get back to the buzz of a live event. And 17% said they were booking for events - but half of them were for November onwards.

Theatre seats sit empty across Kent and Medway -but for how long? Picture by: Martin Apps
Theatre seats sit empty across Kent and Medway -but for how long? Picture by: Martin Apps

Forty one per cent said they would not consider booking for events for the next four months, and three quarters felt safety measures including social distancing and increased seat spacing would be needed for them to feel comfortable about returning to a theatre.

So when will we see curtain up again locally, and how are venues planning ahead, behind the scenes, while many staff are furloughed?

In Dartford, the Orchard Theatre may be shut but there's plenty of activity going on behind closed doors.

Theatre director Lorna Strawson said: “All performances and events at The Orchard are suspended until June 28 and the building and box office is temporarily closed. This date is being kept under review pending further updates from the government and industry bodies. We’re working hard to reschedule as many events as possible and to contact customers to reimburse them.

"As you can imagine the volume of enquiries is very high and we’re grateful to our customers for their patience and understanding. We’d urge all ticket holders to wait to be contacted in relation to their tickets – and to follow the procedures we have set out."

The Orchard Theatre in Dartford is currently closed but there is activity behind the scenes
The Orchard Theatre in Dartford is currently closed but there is activity behind the scenes

But she added: "Many customers have asked how they can support us. The best way to do this is to choose a voucher reimbursement or to hold onto tickets if the show is rescheduled. We’d also ask customers, if they feel able, to buy a ticket for a future show. We have shows on sale, online, through to the end of 2021. Committing now to a future visit is one way to help safeguard the Orchard beyond the current crisis.”

In Canterbury, at the Gulbenkian and Colyer-Fergusson Concert Hall, who normally cater for audiences of all ages, from across a wide range of communities on and off campus, the closure has been keenly felt.

"Having to close our doors for this period is incredibly sad for our whole team at Gulbenkian," managers said.

"We can’t wait to open up again and given recent announcements from the government, we are tentatively hoping to open before our autumn season of live performance starts in September.

"It seems likely that our cinema will re-open first and we are aware from government that this could be as early as July. With that in mind, we are currently putting in place measures to enable us to open with social distancing and the safety of our audiences, visitors and staff being paramount considerations.

The Gulbenkian's cinema may open before its theatre
The Gulbenkian's cinema may open before its theatre

"Whilst we have been closed, we have been supporting friends and partners by profiling online performances and events happening under a Gulbenkian Recommends section on our website and sending updates to our audiences via our email list."

They added: "Having to close for an extended period is having a significant impact on the finances of arts organisations across the country, as well as on individual artists and small companies we work with.At Gulbenkian we have taken the decision to support our artists, by rescheduling events where possible and paying artists where we can even if we have to cancel. Please support us and them at this difficult time by making a donation if you can. "

Donations can be made via bit.ly.com/gulbdonate while online highlights include the YouTube Live stream of Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Dream on Friday, May 22 at 7pm, which was recorded earlier this year by University of Kent students and staff to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Sir John Tenniel, illustrator of the first publication of Alice in Wonderland.

In Medway, Medway Council said: "The box office, on the phone and online, is open for business for both the Central Theatre and the Brook Theatre with a programme in place from September onwards. We are continuing to follow government advice and are mindful that this may need to be reviewed following any further government announcements."

At Maidstone's Hazlitt Theatre, managers said they would be led by the government on when to open, adding: "We will reopen at the right time when it is safe for the staff and customers to do so."

When will it be curtain up again?
When will it be curtain up again?

Tunbridge Wells' Assembly Hall Theatre managers said they were unable to comment at the moment, but in a statement on their website said: "Currently we are automatically cancelling and refunding all performances up to and including Friday, July 31. We will extend this by one week every week until we are in a position to reopen. We hope to welcome everyone back soon."

When asked about speculation that theatres might not reopen until 2021, MP for Ashford Damian Green, who is a member of the cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said: “I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. I too love the theatre and going to the cinema, but I’m afraid that such places where audiences are close together have to be at the end of the queue or at best have to open with few seats available to maintain social distancing.

“I’ll be personally surprised if I can go to the cinema or theatre by this autumn.”

For more theatre news during the current crisis click here.

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