Lancaster's Dukes Theatre boss issues plea for support as cinema gets ready to re-open

Executive director Karen O'Neill said she has seen no support for the arts sector from central government, and that venues like The Dukes are "absolutely vital" for communities.

By Nick Lakin
Tuesday, 30th June 2020, 9:40 am
Updated Tuesday, 30th June 2020, 5:22 pm

The independent cinema at the Moor Lane venue is due to re-open at the end of July, or in early August, but things will be different.

Inside the 300-seat auditorium there will be a maximum of 26 seats per viewing, and a two metre distance rule will be in place across the whole venue.

Ms O'Neill said there would be no price rises, and that The Dukes is working to "break even", rather than turn a profit.

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The Dukes in Lancaster.

"We have to get back into a situation where we're bringing income in, as the longer we stay closed, the harder it is to stay open in the long run," she said.

"We'll be sticking to the two metre distance rule, even though the government has brought it down to one metre, as the actual guidance is two metres where possible.

"For our audiences and staff, it's the best course of action.

"We've set out groups of two across the auditorium, but if you're coming as an individual there won't be someone sitting next to you.

Karen O'Neill, director at The Dukes.

"We'll be monitoring the toilets, and there's a new cleaning regime in place.

"All our staff will be wearing visors, but they will be there to help and support."

The Dukes will be taking online bookings in advance, and there will be perspex screens on the bar and the box office, and footplates to allow people to open doors.

"We're putting people's safety at the forefront of everything," Ms O'Neill said, "but we also want to create a great experience, despite the changes.

The Dukes is planning to open its cinema at the end of July or in early August.

"We're trying to find that balance, and we're looking forward to welcoming people back."

She said that The Dukes had to find a new way of working, and re-opening the cinema first has given it the ability to do that.

But she warned that the creative arts sector in England was in danger if "significant support" from central government wasn't forthcoming.

"At the moment we're not seeing any level of support or clarity from government on re-opening theatres, and there's no support for arts organisations," she said.

"There's no information out there about what a support package for the creative sector would look like, and without significant support moving forwards, I fear what the future will bring.

"The arts is a huge driver of local businesses and economies, and in getting town centres back up and running.

"It's so important for vulnerable people, community wealth building and without those things we'll be poorer as a society in the long run."

She said The Dukes had provided input to the Arts Council, but she wasn't hearing any solutions.

"I understand that the Arts Council and the Department for Culture Media and Sport are having these conversations," she said.

We're behind the Arts Council, but it's a central government recognition that they need to do something quickly that we're waiting for."

Almost all of the 26 staff at The Dukes have been furloughed, but Ms O'Neill said that the future for theatres is "hugely challenging and worrying".

"It will change how we work," she said.

"Are we looking at testing for all artists? Housing them together? What's most challenging is that we just don't know.

"It's very hard to invest in an unknown entity.

"The whole sector is chomping at the bit to find a new way of working, but feels held at bay by the lack of government decision making and support.

"It's worrying how we're going to create and fund new pieces of work.

"We're hearing about redundancies and closures within the sector, and once these people and buildings have gone, there's no coming back.

Designers, technicians, support staff - all those people that are vital to the success of the sector.

"The UK is considered the best in the world in terms of creative arts - we export it across the globe and so many countries buy our content.

"If we don't recognise the value of that, we're going to lose that recognition."

Ms O'Neill said that despite being a relatively small independent organisation, The Dukes was "just as vital" to its community, and the nation as a whole, as any other venue.

There were some positives, she said, in that a delay in the release of new films would produce a "great summer" for independent cinemas.

"As people have been spending more time at home watching different kinds of films, I hope that we see more people going to see independent films in independent venues, and I hope that people engage with that.

"Some of the films that we show at The Dukes are fantastic.

"There's not many independent cinemas left in the UK, and we're one of only 17 in the north of England.

"The bar will be open for normal service, but we're not going to be doing walk-ins, as we don't want to have too many people in the building.

"We hope to have our film programme confirmed within the next couple of weeks."

In terms of The Dukes' internationally renowned theatre offer, Ms O'Neill said the organisation was looking at ways to change the way it works - particularly outside - in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

"The park show is a huge part of what The Dukes offers, and we're having conversations about how we can use new spaces in and around Lancaster too," she said.

"We're looking at different ways we could do our Christmas production, working with artists to give our audience something new.

"But it costs more to go outside so we've got to balance that against income. Can we get funding from trusts and foundations and other partners?

"We won't be able to have large casts - even five people in a cast is going to be a struggle."

Ms O'Neill, who {|took up the directorial role at The Dukes in June 2019, also had plenty of praise for Lancaster.

She said: "I love Lancaster - it's a really interesting place in lots of ways.

"There are lots of great organisations and artists across Lancaster and Morecambe, and I love the intimacy of the town."

The Dukes is expected to announce its new film programme soon.