Every Friday, the volunteer ushers of the Dubbo Regional Theatre and Convention Centre get together for an online catch up.
“It’s lovely to see everyone and hear what they’ve been up to but it’s not the same,” says Bernadette Reynolds, 75, who has been guiding people to their row in the centre’s 500-seat auditorium for more than a decade.
“We’ve all really missed the theatre. It’s all we talk about. I’ve really missed doing the daytime shows. They’re such a joy. Kids come from all around and I love watching the shows with them.”
Reynolds is also a keen concertgoer. “Human Nature, Guy Sebastian, John Williamson … I go along with my mates. We get all the big names here in Dubbo.”
The three theatres in Dubbo’s arts precinct have been closed since July due to stay-at-home restrictions. Covid-19 cases are still spiking in west and far west New South Wales and Dubbo remains in extended lockdown until 11 October.
Dubbo Theatre is just one of dozens of regional arts centres around the country counting the cost of Covid-19 while working out how to welcome back their audiences in the post-pandemic environment. But once restrictions are lifted, can the regional theatres snap back?
The theatre’s manager, Linda Christof, says there are significant hurdles to overcome, not least the organisational fatigue accumulated since the pandemic struck.
Our Ulumbarra Theatre can seat close to 1,000. Right now, we can only have 20 to 30 people.Jacoba Kelly
“When a show is cancelled you have to notify patrons and reschedule everything and that takes its toll on staff, patrons, sponsors and hospitality partners,” Christof says.
“Our whole team is really skilled at change management but now they’re exhausted. When you have a show from Sydney Dance Company, the Imperial Russian Ballet and Bell Shakespeare, you are usually sold out. It’s very disheartening and complicated to cancel.”
Audiences have their limits too, notes Christof. Like most regional arts centres, Dubbo pulls crowds from far and wide. Over a third of its tickets are sold to people from outside the local government area. School groups from the far west of NSW can travel upwards of 300km to see a show.
“This time around we’ve noticed more people are asking for refunds rather than to have tickets rescheduled. For a lot of people it’s easier than waiting and dealing with the uncertainty.”
Ulumbarra Theatre in Bendigo, Victoria. Photograph: Courtesy of the City of Greater Bendigo
Jacoba Kelly, acting manager of Bendigo Venues and Events, knows that feeling. “We had a huge lift in audience numbers after the first lockdown. But the next wave came as a real shock,” she says.
The lockdown of Melbourne has hit the Bendigo performing arts scene particularly hard, Kelly adds. “We’ve always had a free flow of artists and technicians between Melbourne and Bendigo. Without it we’re very restricted in what we can do. It continually impacts our ability to program.”
Caps on audience numbers are also making it very difficult to justify the costs involved in reopening a theatre, Kelly says. “Our Ulumbarra Theatre can seat close to 1,000. Right now, we can only have 20 to 30 people.”
‘Performing arts companies are struggling’
Chris Bendall is CEO of Critical Stages Touring. The company had productions visiting regional communities in every state and territory in 2021. Lockdowns and border closures led to nearly 30 cancelled shows across 20 venues.
The pandemic has tested the old theatrical adage to breaking point, he said. “The show can’t always go on. Confidence is down, appetite for risk is low, programming budgets are under pressure, and performing arts companies are struggling just to present a first season, let alone tour.
“Next year, we will also likely have the added complication of needing multiple casts, including standby casts and crew, should any members of touring parties need to isolate or even fall ill,” Bendall adds. “For a small theatre company, understudies have never previously been a practical option.”
Regional venues may also feel compelled to present uplifting “feel-good” works to recover their audiences. Bendall wonders if programmers will be willing to take risks on untested and challenging stories in a risk-averse environment.
“The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities, and I fear that the touring market will become harder for emerging and independent artists to navigate in the future,” he says. “Will new and diverse voices, especially those from First Nations and culturally and linguistically diverse artists, be able to flourish? In the rush of new work that emerges, will marginalised voices be heard?”
You can’t switch this industry off and on again.Simon Hinton
As regional theatres reopen in coming weeks and months, venues and companies will also have to deal with Covid compliance and vaccine passport schemes for audiences.
“We are anticipating some disruption next year,” says Simon Hinton, the artistic director and CEO of Merrigong Theatre, which operates from the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre in Wollongong.
“The biggest problem is the border closures [and the] harsher lockdowns in different LGAs, which will cause the movement of shows and artists to continue to be difficult,” Hinton explains. “We are expecting to be able to open in a month’s time, but I don’t know if there will be any shows to put on. The government doesn’t really understand you can’t switch this industry off and on again.”
Hinton is still waiting to hear exactly how access to performances, cafes and bars should be managed and restricted to those who can prove a double dose via a phone app QR code.
He is concerned that it will fall to staff to deal with any blowback from patrons. “So now we’re planning to have security guards to assist our staff if people get pushy and don’t want to comply.”
Dubbo Regional Theatre, before audience numbers were restricted. Photograph: Mark James
Hope for innovation
All of those speaking to the Guardian for this story expect a challenging year ahead. It may force some innovation, however.
“Going forward from here seems almost like a clean slate,” says Bendigo’s Jacoba Kelly. “In 2022, we’re thinking about activating new spaces – outdoor spaces, perhaps – and the new Covid-normal.”
In Dubbo, Linda Christof hopes that the absence of live performance will help cement the notion in government circles of the economic importance of the arts in regional cities and towns.
Chris Bendall predicts there may be fundamental shifts in the way productions tour.
“I believe we will see the concept of ‘slow touring’ really take shape over the coming years,” he says. “Slow touring is about staying in local communities longer, rather than the typical one-night stand.
“Longer and deeper local engagement is going to be much more attractive to communities, where meaningful exchange between artist, art and audience is possible.”