The past months in lockdown, although incredibly demanding for all involved, have given us an opportunity to plan, to seek emergency support through grants and funding, and to give back to our community. As a not-for-profit registered charity, we have been fighting to survive through this difficult period. We have been successful in applications to the BFI, Film Hub Wales and the National Lottery Resilience Fund, the Arts Council Wales Stabilisation Fund, as well as being eligible for two Welsh Government Business Rates Grants. This crucial support has given us the security to plan essential maintenance, maintain audience and community engagement, and develop new modes of working in view of Covid-19, without drawing on our precious extremely limited reserves. Nevertheless, whilst this support has allowed us to take the vital first steps toward recovery, it does not provide the solutions to the longer-term challenge of surviving the Covid-19 crisis.
We have recently received the hugely significant news that funding has been secured to repair our fly tower which was damaged in the February storms. This essential support will come from both Pembrokeshire County Council’s Enhancing Pembrokeshire Fund and Arts Council Wales who will each cover a proportion of the costs of repairs following the settlement of our insurance claim, and we thank them for their backing at this crucial moment. We hope to undertake these remedial works through August and into September this year, weather depending.
However, whilst we are thankful to be in a position to prepare the Torch for re-opening, we will remain closed to the public until at least the end of October 2020. This decision is made on several counts but with the following decisive factors:
• Consultation with audiences suggests that there is no appetite to return to our auditoriums whilst there is so much uncertainty over the reproduction rate of Covid-19. To open any part of our operation without an audience is not economically viable and would quickly lead to redundancies.
• Film distributors are unable to confirm release dates and producers of live shows are cancelling and rescheduling tours to ensure that their businesses remain viable. As such we are unable to deliver a theatre programme.
• We take our civic responsibilities seriously and do not believe that it would serve our audiences, staff, volunteers or artists well to rush in to opening before we can reassure them that the Torch is a safe place to return to.
• The need to undertake essential maintenance and remedial works on the fly tower renders an immediate opening impractical.
With these factors in mind, we have made some difficult decisions on how we will operate from 1 November 2020:
• With social distancing in place, it is not viable for us to produce or present live productions. As such, all live theatre performances will be cancelled for the remainder of 2020 including our Autumn production and festive pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk. We are currently in the process of rescheduling our own productions and visiting shows into our 2021 programme and will be contacting affected customers over the next few weeks.
• Pending release schedules from film distributors, we will hope to open with a cinema only offer for the rest of 2020, at a limited capacity to maintain social distancing requirements. Operational staff would be required to work in bubbles under strict health and safety guidelines. This ambition to return with cinema only for November and December is dependent on the threat posed at that time by Covid-19, Government directives, securing further financial support and commitment from the film distributors.
• From January 2021, should conditions allow, we should like to return to live productions. This would prove our best-case scenario, allowing wider operations to return to something like normal levels in the new year, however this scenario comes with the most financial risk attached and is subject to change. Should social distancing rules remain in place from January we would be forced to continue with a cinema only offer into the new year.
There remain a host of unknowns and whilst we are planning for our best-case scenario, we are also preparing for the worst: should even a socially distanced cinema offer prove untenable from November then we may yet be forced to close for the remainder of the financial year.
Whichever scenario we are faced with, we must acknowledge that following the end of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme in October, and until we return to our normal levels of ticket income, we will be reliant on financial intervention and support from Government and other bodies in order to maintain our highly skilled staff team and Torch operations going forward. We are hoping for positive news following the announcement of an additional £59million contribution to safeguard the Arts in Wales and our team are working tirelessly to secure extra funding to help us to avoid job losses from November. Every alternative option will be explored.
Throughout these times of hardship, we remain committed to our mission to engage, inspire, entertain and challenge our audience, and supported by the Arts Council Wales Stabilisation Fund we will seek alternative methods of delivering opportunities to our community. Peter Doran, the Torch Theatre’s Artistic Director said:
“Here at the Torch we try and cover all aspects of theatre and the performing arts but at the end of the day, we pride ourselves on being theatre makers, producing our own work; consequently, if we’re not able to produce, it feels like the creative heart has gone out of the building and so we are determined to get up and running again as soon as it’s safe to do so. And to that end, we aim to come back in the new year with all guns blazing and producing great pieces of theatre. We are all looking forward to that. In the meantime, we are planning some interesting community projects for people to get involved in and we also plan something for the schools as a Christmas treat, so look out for us.”
Away from the art, we are also planning new membership, guardian, legacy and sponsorship schemes allowing our patrons and business partners to become more connected with us and support different areas of community and artistic activity. Further details and the launch of these new schemes is planned for September. A great number of our patrons have kindly donated the value of their unused tickets to the Torch over the past months and there has been a high level of interest in other ways our patrons can be more involved. The kind support of our patrons is always hugely appreciated and will be more necessary than ever in the coming months as we seek to bounce back brighter from this crisis.
As a business and like many others, we are going into the unknown. We have never been in a situation like this before and have been operating on a knife edge over the past few months. We have managed to put in place the first building blocks toward our survival. We have reason to be cautiously optimistic and remain determined to sustain for our community, our staff, our artists and the audiences of the future; but our situation remains critical, with many factors beyond our control and we will be seeking support from all quarters to help us get through the challenging months ahead.
Ben Lloyd, Executive Director, on behalf of the Torch Theatre Senior Management Team and the Torch Board.