“Storyhouse is famously full of generations reading, working, meeting, playing, scheming and learning, that’s the Storyhouse we need to open.”
Chester’s Storyhouse has announced that it is re-opening at 8am on Saturday 4 July with “as close to a full range of services” as it can safely manage. It expects to be the country’s first theatre to re-open, converting its main stage into a cinema as the government still offers no clear signal on a return to live performance on stage.
It has not been an easy decision for the cultural venue, which welcomes over 1m customers a year, as it wrestles with what it describes as a “straightforward fight for survival in the face of the imminent calamity facing the country’s theatre industry”. Two thirds of the country’s theatres expect to be out of business by Christmas, theatre-related income accounts for three quarters of the Storyhouse’s £7m turnover.
The charity however, which last week stated that “it’s time for theatres to think about how they can re-open to serve their communities” believes that remaining closed is not an acceptable option.
Chief Executive Andrew Bentley sums up the dilemma: “it would be less costly for us to stay closed. Storyhouse however has a deeper and umbilical relationship with its community, our resilience comes from that, not just from selling tickets.”
“We house the city library, while our community hub has become central to lives of many as they look to re-start their lives and careers. We face higher costs in security and safety measures, nevertheless Storyhouse is famously full of generations reading, working, meeting, playing, scheming and learning, that’s the Storyhouse we need to open”
“Big theatres are talking of hibernation, that really is a horrible word, meanwhile some of the large cinema chains are now staying closed until they see bigger releases. It’s up to the independent sector and local high streets to show the way”
“We need to be careful however and we are determined that Storyhouse will be amongst the safest experiences in the city. Our strategy is to open everything we can, but incrementally. Hopefully after a week or two we will all get into our stride in how to do this together. Until then we’ll be erring on the side of caution.”
Extra safety measures the charity is taking include requiring customers to wear simple face coverings when on the move around the charity’s buildings and events. “We’re behind the curve on this in the UK, however the government have now indicated that this is a helpful mitigation especially in indoor public spaces. We don’t need customers to do this except when they are moving about, nor when they are watching a film or sitting down eating or reading. Let’s take a leaf from those countries that have been doing this for a decade and make this an uncontentious and happy norm. A simple scarf or snood will do”
Storyhouse’s two cinemas are selling at maximum 25% capacity and are only bookable by household groups, all customers are comfortably separated, and customers can exit their seats without passing other patrons. The main theatre, now renamed “movie theatre”, has been upgraded to take first run titles and will eventually be able to hold over 300 customers socially distanced, although is starting with a capacity of 80. Seats are being removed from the centre of the rows to create new aisles to allow customers to pass without crossing, something that will stay in place until social distancing is no more.
Capacity at the venue will be limited at the door during the day and extra security checks will be featured for the time being, including taking details on the door for contact tracing. The venue’s public toilets will be open as usual. Returning books are being quarantined for 72 hours. Take-away coffee and snacks will be available with perspex screens on the café’s tills. There are hand sanitiser stations located throughout the building.
Andrew says that “queues may be a thing for a while. We’re trying to manage regular open hours, and of course we run the longest opening hours of any public library in the UK. There are some lovely quiet times in the evenings, that’s a perfect time to bring your books back. We’ll carve out some slots for more vulnerable customers if it looks necessary and useful. Other than that, we have just three rules for visitors – stay 2 metres apart, wear a face covering on the move, and enjoy yourselves.”
Feel-good films are leading the way at the cinema for the time being, with Miss World drama Misbehaviour, Military Wives, film festival favourite Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Oscar winner Parasite. From mid-July there will be family films screened daily at 10.30am. There will also be contemporary classics such as The Greatest Showman, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Bohemian Rhapsody.
Storyhouse is also about to announce films and dates for Moonlight Flicks and Moonlight Drive. “It’s been a mad dash trying to get hold of film licences for outdoor movies because there is a two week lag for approval after the government announced it was ok to go ahead, studios won’t process applications until that happened, but we expect to be ready to announce both very soon for a summer of outdoor film fun.”
Storyhouse’s new streaming membership programme has proved a big hit with over 3,000 new members in recent weeks. The charity urges its customers to “join the fight for survival by becoming part of the team. At only £4 a month you can help save Storyhouse at the same time as getting some great benefits. You can be part of the solution, please join the cause”