By Fiona Sturgeon Shea

  1. Dates for reopening

Technically, theatres can re-open now and have been able to since 17 May, but with strict 2m social distancing measures and capacity limits in place. The capacity limits vary between the different ‘levels’ in which local authority areas in Scotland sit. A few areas (mostly island communities) are in level 0; roughly half of Scotland is in level one (mostly outside of the central belt); with the remainder (mostly central belt) in level 2.

This is the current Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for the performing arts and venues sector from the Scottish Government. Here’s a summary.

Level 0 (Baseline)  

Level 1  

Level 2  

Level 3  

Level 4  

Standard capacity limits*

Indoors seated/standing: 400

Outdoors seated: 2000

Outdoors standing: 1000

Standard capacity limits*

Indoors seated/standing: 200

Outdoors seated: 1000

Outdoors standing: 500

Standard capacity limits*

Indoors seated/standing: 100

Outdoors seated: 500

Outdoors standing: 250

Closed to public

Closed to public

 * Higher capacities may be agreed through an application process to the local authority.

When we surveyed our members in April, 96% of them told us that social distancing at 2m made it financially inviable to re-open. Some are managing to produce and present work within the guidelines to greatly reduced capacities, often utilising outdoor performance. The Edinburgh Festivals, for instance, are covered by a ‘flagship events’ initiative run by the Scottish Government, which also involves larger events such as the current EUEFA Euro 2020 championships in Glasgow. So, this has given them some additional funding and, in some cases, additional flexibility. 

We advocated for a review of social distancing which has been ongoing. The First Minister announced the outcome of this on Tuesday 21 June, and set out the plan for reducing and then removing physical distancing, subject to confirmation based on data nearer the time.

The plan sets out that on 19 July, when the whole of the country is expected to be moved to level 0, the need for physical distancing will be no longer be required outdoors and physical distancing indoors will be reduced to 1m for all public settings.  This means that indoor businesses will be able to work at 1m distancing from 19 July and outdoor parts of businesses will no longer have any physical distancing requirements, subject to confirmation nearer the time.

Events caps will remain while we are in level 0 and businesses may still apply for numbers above the capacity limits through the exemption process.

Scotland will move beyond level 0 when it meets the gateway condition – which is all over 40’s having been vaccinated – and assuming we are meeting the revised strategic aim of alleviating the harm of the virus (expected around 9 August, but subject to confirmation nearer the time).

When Scotland moves beyond level 0 and therefore out of the levels framework, almost all COVID restrictions will be removed for businesses and individuals.  This will mean that all businesses can reopen and can operate without restrictions on physical distancing.  

The Scottish Government are looking to remove the majority of restrictions at 9 August, including the removal of event caps, but there will continue to be a need for baseline protective mitigations going forward. We’re awaiting further updates to the guidance for the performing arts and venues sector.

These are the source documents:

Protection Levels Framework update: 

Review of Physical Distancing Doc: 

  1. Concerns about reopening / Fear/hopes for the next few months (I’ve conflated these two as I think they’re interconnected)

The areas I’m mainly hearing about are:

  1. Financial and organisational viability
  2. Safety and confidence
  3. Skills, learning, good practice
  1. Financial and organisational viability

While the social distancing review is relatively positive and gives people a better chance to plan than previously, there’s no guarantee that it will all go according to the plan set out. Without any kind of Government-backed insurance scheme, there’s a real issue about how the sector manages cancellations and ongoing uncertainty. I’m hearing stories about producers based outside the UK cancelling tours because of the lack of certainty compared to England. There are concerns that there’s an expectation that we will simply ‘trade out’ of the pandemic and this is unrealistic for many.

While the second round of the PAVR funding (which just closed to applications yesterday) is welcome, it’s short-term and there are serious concerns about what happens beyond September. Given the inter-connectedness of all of this (with SEISS and The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme only at the moment operational till September), it’s an issue for everyone in the sector. I don’t need to tell you about the impact on freelancers. 

  1. Safety and confidence

There are some good indications that audiences and workers (in the widest sense of the word) are keen to return safely to the range of different work that the sector creates, produces and presents. However, everyone has different needs. A lot of FST’s work over the last year has been focused on COVID safety, gathering and sharing resources and good practice. We had a really informative panel discussion at yesterday’s members’ meeting that covered the need, not just to have the paperwork in place, but to consult actively with everyone you’re working with to ensure that they feel safe and confident to return, put lots of work into planning and contingency, and go beyond the guidance in many cases. We are also working in partnership with SOLT/UK Theatre on the See It Safely initiative but need to consider seriously what a public-facing campaign might look like (within our resource limitations).

  1. Skills, learning, good practice

We have been in discussions with Skills Development Scotland (SDS), the entertainment unions and others about the long-term impact of the pandemic on the workforce. SDS have indications of a large number of formerly employed and freelance practitioners leaving the performing arts sector. This will potentially leave a large skills gap of experienced craftspeople that we cannot afford to lose. I’m also hearing that this is having an immediate impact on work being scheduled for July and August. So, simply making work will be a big challenge, alongside the strong will there is to ‘build back better’ to use that over-used phrase. We know that, in Scotland, there is a big emphasis on the fair work agenda coming from the Scottish Government and from the sector itself (the emphasis of our strategy work is testament to that); equalities, diversity and inclusion; anti-racism; and the climate emergency and sustainability. So, what recovery looks like is complex and challenging.

  1. What non-venue based theatre is up to, if it differs

What we were hearing yesterday at the members’ meeting was that many of these organisations haven’t been eligible for recovery/crisis funding because they weren’t at risk of immediate closure. (FST and my previous organisation, Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland, are in this category.) They haven’t put anyone on furlough and have continued to work throughout the pandemic (in many cases increasing their output) and been reliant on reserves and additional fundraising. They’re now reaching a difficult stage and, as I said, what happens beyond September and simply survival will be crucial to address. 

  1. Anything else that freelancers should know

As you know, SEISS is not devolved so Scottish freelancers are in a similar situation to those based elsewhere.

I hope you’re aware that we were did not advocate for a simple replication of the PAVR funding and have continued to stress that the needs of freelancers are different from organisations. Instead, we proposed to Government a much wider recovery fund that would recognise the realities of the sector and everyone who works within it. While PAVR is a much needed lifeline, it can’t realistically achieve everything it set out to do equally. 

Creative Scotland attended the members’ meeting yesterday and gave us some reflection on the first round of PAVR which funded 79 organisations and 2007 freelance commissions which was a surprisingly large number and very positive. The devil is obviously in the detail and we don’t know the range and depth of those commissions. As a freelance playwright friend of mine commented to me this week, “we can’t survive on micro-commissions forever.” 

Open fund for individuals

Creative Scotland have announced the dates for the simplified Open Fund for individuals which will be open from 10th August. From what I know of it so far, and Emma Jayne and I were at the same consultation session about it, it will be a positive thing for individuals, removing unnecessary bureaucracy.

FST Individual members

We have had two really productive meetings of our individual members, and are hoping to put another in place for July where we can start to move things forward constructively to ensure that the membership is and feels represented in all of our work, whether this be training, capacity-building or advocacy. 

Our focus now, as I’ve said a few times, will be on the recovery and the future. We have been in pretty constant contact with Creative Scotland, officials at the Scottish Government, and have written to and met the newly appointed Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, Angus Robertson, and Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development, Jenny Gilruth. They’ve all responded positively so we hope to be able to move forward constructively in the future.