Work is underway to bring the curtain up at His Majesty’s Theatre, the Music Hall and The Lemon Tree and welcome audiences back in a “phased re-opening” after the lifting of Covid restrictions.
Jane Spiers, chief executive of Aberdeen Performing Arts which runs all three venues, said everyone involved was “super excited” at the prospect of opening, in the wake of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement.
“I guess the overwhelming emotion is just a massive weight lifted. It’s been a really tough 16 months, we’ve had to find reserves we didn’t know we had,” said Jane.
“We’re ‘the show must go on’ industry, so it’s been really tough over the last 16 months.
“So now we can start moving from survival to recovery. We can start having emotions like excitement, the anticipation of curtain up again.”
Jane said that even though restrictions will lift next Monday, all of APA’s venues will see a phased re-opening, with a partial re-opening from September then fully back up and running by November.
“You can’t just click your fingers and put productions back on the stage. Over the last 16 months, we have had to reschedule 700 shows… we lost 40 weeks from this year alone. So there’s a lot of work to do to get us back up and running.” said Jane.
Shows to mark return of live entertainment
“We want to come back first and foremost for our audiences in the north-east. So I’m beyond excited that the first show HMT is going to be Freezin, the student show.
“I’m so proud. It’s the 100th show as well, so it’s a phenomenal anniversary, it’s a show that means so much for the city.”
The Music Hall will burst back into action with APA’s award-winning indie music festival, True North with a theme of Rise Up – a call out to come back bigger, better and stronger.
Meanwhile, the hugely popular A Play, A Pie And A Pint series will mark the return of The Lemon Tree.
Jane added APA wanted to come back slowly to make sure they were getting things right, as well as being aware there was still risks and concerns around the pandemic
“We know our audiences are missing us, because they’re telling us their lives are so much less rich without us. But we also know that they’re apprehensive. It’s been a long time since we gathered in large groups indoors together,” she said.
“So there’s a big job to do, to get ready to welcome them back and to reassure these audiences.”
And work is already underway to welcome people back. Jane was speaking in the auditorium of His Majesty’s with a whirl of activity and work around her.
What Covid measures will be in place?
Staff were polishing brass or vacuuming the foyer as part of a top to bottom deep clean of HMT.
Meanwhile, on stage, electricians were performing maintenance work on the lighting rig – and even repairing the illuminated “T” from the His Majesty’s lettering which adorns the front of the building, after its lights went out.
But the emphasis will still be very much on a gradual return to normality while following carefully all the measures required to keep people safe in these Covid times.
APA has been talking to other UK theatres and unions, signing up for a national-accredited scheme, See It Safely, for reopening venues.
Jane said: “Whether the government requires us to wear face masks or not, we will be opening and asking people to wear face masks. We’re fogging, we’ve got crews in deep cleaning all of our venues at the moment, and we’ve expanded our housekeeping team as well for coming back.”
Another reason for caution was the financial risk coronavirus still carries if it leads to any future cancellations or closures – especially after the brutal impact of lockdown on APA.
Jane said: “As I’ve said we had to find reserves from places we didn’t know were there. And not just financial reserves, either. It’s really hard to go from Business of the Year in 2019, to closed and broken in 2020.
APA income was wiped out overnight
“The performing arts sector was particularly hard hit and because of the scale of our organisation and the fact so much of our turnover is earned income, was just wiped out overnight. So financially, it’s been really difficult for us.”
She said APA has taken advantage of every possible funding opportunity including government grants be they aimed at the cultural sector, business sector or charity sector, to raise nearly £3 million to keep going and safeguard jobs. The organisation furloughed some 280 staff and pulled down some £2 million in job retention scheme funding.
“We would not be here if it wasn’t for the support we’ve had not just from government, but from Creative Scotland and the local authority, but from our audiences,” she said.
“I’m actually bowled over that we’ve raised nearly £150,000 from the public at a time when there are so many good causes out there, and when people are feeling the pinch. So that’s been a fantastic boost. And pretty much given us the determination to carry on.”
She also praised staff for being with the organisation every step of the way, including the retained team who basically tore up their job descriptions and did everything in their power to keep APA going.
The pandemic has left a legacy of an arts organisation that knows how to cope with change and unpredictability and to build back, said Jane.
Smash hit shows heading for Aberdeen
She said: “Clearly we’re going to have to build back reserves, we don’t have any, we need to build back audience confidence. But I do feel that we’ve got a fantastic programme and a great team. We’ve got lots to tempt people back with and so I’m optimistic about recovery. If anybody can do it, Team Aberdeen Performing Arts can do it.”
As for the “lots to tempt people back with”, Jane points to the programme of shows lining up as the light go on again at HMT, the Music Hall and The Lemon Tree.
She said: “We have some great shows lined up from November onwards. It’s almost like a bumper next 18 months. So at HMT, we’ve got Everybody Is Talking About Jamie, We’ve got Bedknobs and Broomsticks, we’ve got Waitress and we then go into panto.
“We’ve obviously secured the big shows like Book of Mormon, Dreamgirls and we’ve got Bat Out Of Hell.
“At the Music Hall, it’s the same story. So we’ve got Paul Weller, UB40, Del Amitri, Shed Seven. We have all the raft of comedians that we would normally have, Jimmy Carr, John Bishop, Katherine Ryan, and Sarah Millican.”
Jane added The Lemon Tree would boast legendary bands such as Big Country, The Undertones and Skids, and upcoming comedians.
“We are so looking forward to it, you won’t believe it when you see it – it’s an embarrassment of riches.”