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'It feels like we're the whipping boys': Venues and promoters scramble to implement new 50% capacity rule

Some venues have cancelled shows completely while others are adding additional performances and asking some ticketholders to change dates.

The cast of All the Angels, performing at Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre.
The cast of All the Angels, performing at Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre.
Image: Rough Magic Theatre Company

THEATRES, MUSIC VENUES and promoters say they have been “blindsided” by new Covid-19 restrictions on their industry as they try to come up with ways to implement the changed rules. 

From today, all indoor entertainment, cultural, community and sporting events that are indoors must operate at a maximum capacity of 50% and all of these events must now be fully seated. This restrictions are to remain in place until 9 January. 

Organisers were given just days to rearrange plans for events they had already sold tickets for at higher than 50% capacity, with some choosing to cancel or reschedule while others are scrambling to add additional performances or contacting customers asking them to move to a different date.

“It came as a real surprise. Uusually there’s be a sense from the government ahead of time what was going to happen but we had no indication they would go in that direction,” Lucy Ryan, director of programming at Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre told The Journal.

“And in the phase before 22 October it was 60% capacity so it’s a bit frustrating that we’re not even where we were before. For us that’s a difference of 15 seats.”

The venue was already operating at 75% capacity, she said, to ensure patrons felt safe.

“Now we’re in a position where we have to move people out of performances. I can’t tell you how counter-intuitive that feels,” she said.

We are planning to put on some additional performances of All of the Angels [the current play at the theatre] and we’ll be contacting ticketholders to offer them those additional performances and then trying to move them. Some shows haven’t hit capacity yet so we’ll be asking people to move to those.

She said those working in the sector feel “very negative” as they were working hard to ensure theatres were safe, with social distancing, regular sanitising and ventilation.

“It feels like we’re the whipping boys in some way, that we’re an easy target,” she said.

Ryan said customers calling the box office in recent days have been “very understanding” but the changes will cost the theatre money and everyone is concerned about what might happen in the new year.

“It’s not just this Christmas period, we’re taking bookings for all of 2022. It’s exhausting for a sector that is overworked and underpaid anyway to have all of these hoops to jump through.”

Venues such as Dolan’s Pub in Limerick have said their phone lines have been “overwhelmed” with queries regarding gigs as they tried to come up with a last minute solution following the government announcement.

The pub said it is now “working on a system that is fair and workable” for gigs to go ahead at 50% capacity. 

While some organisers have decided to press ahead and ask some ticketholders to change dates or take a refund, others have had to cancel or refund all customers and ask them to buy new tickets for reduced capacity shows.

Aiken Promotions yesterday announced that upcoming Christy Moore concerts at Dublin’s Vicar Street are to be cancelled.

Last night’s show went ahead as planned, but fans who want to attend on 14 or 16 December or 3 or 9 January will have to buy their tickets again today. These shows will operate at 50% capacity.

Moore’s 8 December show was also cancelled and is not being rescheduled at 50% capacity.

Artists and performers have expressed their disappointment at having to cancel or reschedule shows, as they had waited months to take to the stage again.

Rock Band Ash informed fans yesterday that they would have to cancel shows in Limerick, Galway, Cork, Wexford, Dublin and Castlebar due to the new rule.

They said their management, agent and promoters were working on rescheduling dates.

Supports for the sector

The Abbey Theatre said it is also working through a plan for any performances that are already over 50% capacity and its box office will be contacting impacted ticket holders to arrange new tickets, a credit note or a refund.

“We had already capped capacity at 70% for both Faith Healer and The Long Christmas Dinner, so we are hopeful that we will be in a position to safely accommodate any affected patrons,” the theatre said.

“Faith Healer was postponed due to the closure of the theatre in March 2020. We are relieved to hear that we will be able to go ahead with performances of this production.”

The Abbey said its shows will go ahead as planned and will still require the same number of artists and staff to deliver them, even with 50% capacity.

The theatre said that while the new capacity limit will not impact on staffing or productions for the theatre, the limitation “will have a huge impact on other venues and other productions across the country”.

We stand in solidarity with the arts community and support the National Campaign for the Arts call for additional resources for those affected. The Abbey Theatre will continue to work to support artists, audiences, our team and the arts community, as we navigate this latest challenge together.

The government has promised supports for those impacted by the new restrictions. Minister Catherine Martin last week said she had secured an extra €25 million to support live entertainment, including venues, producers, promoters, artists, crews and nightclubs. 

Following a meeting between officials from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media with stakeholders yesterday, the National Campaign for the Arts said it welcomed supports but was “disappointed” that no assurance had been offered about what will happen after 9 January.

“What criteria are being applied to this decision-making process and what will inform a review of measures in January?” the NCFA asked.

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In response to The Journal, Minister Martin’s department said the full new support scheme will be announced this week, “given the urgent situation now facing the entertainment sector”.

“Minister Catherine Martin TD, along with the Tánaiste hosted the Hospitality and Tourism Forum to speak directly to stakeholders and to hear what they need in terms of supports. The meeting was also attended by the Taoiseach and Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath. Representatives from the Arts and performance sector were also at the meeting.

“It is understood that a number of performance events will find it a challenge to run at 50% and some may cancel. Where events are proceeding it is a matter for venues to manage to capacities. With this in mind, financial supports have been developed to assist businesses in keeping afloat during this difficult time.”

The department also said those who lost jobs due to the new restrictions will be able to apply for the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) from today.

“If additional Covid restrictions become necessary, government had planned for this and, as part of Budget 2022, Paschal Donohoe TD, Minister for Finance, has created a Covid contingency fund of €4 billionn,” the department added.

“This fund is to provide certainty and flexibility for the public finances should the situation with the virus deteriorate further. If further funding for live entertainment is required then Minister Catherine Martin TD will seek additional support from the Covid contingency fund.”

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