Manager Conor Malone applies the new social distancing measures at the Balor Arts Centre in Ballybofey
What will the post-pandemic stage look like?
Well one audience got a glimpse last Friday night when the Balor Arts Centre in Ballybofey opened up for the first time since lockdown kicked in.
The Ghostlight Sessions featured renowned local artists Blackbird & Crow, The Heathen Choir and Dean Maywood.
Theatre manager, Conor Malone, faced the challenge of reopening with gusto.
“We started seeing the effects on the pandemic towards the end of February. As cases started being reported in Ireland you could see audience numbers decline.
Then, of course, the Government announced the closure of theatres along with other public spaces on March 12 and that was that.
“Last Friday’s gig was our first in almost exactly five months.”
The Balor had upwards of 50 shows programmed for that period including the likes of The Beautiful South's Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, former Thin Lizzy guitarist, Eric Bell, Dancing In The Moonlight – a new play about the early life of Phil Lynott – as well as their in-house summer youth musical which would have involved anywhere between 30 and 50 actors, musicians and stage crew from the town.
He explains the effect all this had on the regular visitors to the venue.
“People have missed it. There’s no question about that. I also think not being able to go has made people realise how much they valued going to shows.
"The public reaction when we announced our first show back was quite heart-warming and humbling. It sold out within three days of going on sale which I think shows the appetite and the need people have for live arts, culture, entertainment – whatever you want to call it.
“People have a need and they want to be entertained, moved, inspired. Art is more than an optional add-on or a hobby or a distraction. It’s actually a necessity. Which is something that I worry that our Government doesn’t understand.”
Was there any pressure to open up even in a limited way?
“You put the pressure on yourself. First and foremost it’s your job. It’s also something that I’m very passionate about.
"I believe what we do is important. Life has to be about something more than the rat race, getting up and working yourself to the bone.
"Having a vibrant arts centre and a vibrant cultural scene raises the quality of life for the entire town, the entire region.
"I’m also aware of the numbers of actors, musicians, technicians, stage crew who have been cast adrift as a result of the pandemic, that see venues closed and wonder if and when they’ll ever get to practice their craft again.
"And it is a craft, there’s years of training practising, playing, honing skills that has gotten them to where they are today. So you feel a pressure to open up, however limited it may be, on their behalf, to give the artists themselves a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel so to speak."
Conor Malone and the new look socially distanced audience layout at the Balor
Is there a fear venues like the Balor may be the last to open properly?
“I think there’s no doubt that we will be the last to open properly. When you think about it the job is to get full houses, to get as many people as you can into the one room sharing the same experience which also involves sharing the same air.
“We’re opening now with strict social distancing guidelines in place. For this to work people have to feel safe and comfortable and we have to show that we’re doing everything we can to provide them with a risk free environment. So it’s different, it’s flying on one wing so to speak financially.
“We can’t accommodate the numbers we did pre-pandemic so we can’t generate the revenue. Venues like the Balor won’t open properly and operate like they did pre-Covid until social distancing is no longer required.
“We can hope to limp along until then but unless proper supports are put in place and kept in place by the government there’s a real fear that a lot of venues will eventually go under and never reopen. And that’s a risk that the Balor faces long with every other venue in the country.”
Last Friday’s show operated under the 50 people at indoor gatherings guidelines. That included performers, technicians, etc. so there was a capacity of 40.
“We required people to wear a mask or face covering when they were moving around the venue. You could take it off when you sat at your table.
“The amount of small details that need attention is quite extensive. All seats and tables are wiped down and disinfected before and after the show, there’s a hand sanitizer station inside the front door, patrons contact details are taken in the event that contact tracing is necessary, even things like microphones have to be wiped down between acts or singers bringing their own mics to reduce risk of transmission – just an extreme vigilance with regards to hygiene and respecting other people's space.
“Of course you miss the mingling, the circulating, the casual chats and bumping into old friends at the bar sort of thing, but this is the hand we’re currently dealt so we either fold or we play it as best as we can.”
Going forward, what are the challenges and will the demand for live shows be there; will it be hard to reconnect with audiences?
“The demand is definitely there – the reaction once tickets for the first show went on sale made it patently obvious that people are crying out for live arts and entertainment.
"The connection with audiences is still there.The challenge is going to be finding acts to put on the stage. Before the March closure I would have had 80 to 90% of the Balor’s September to December programme booked. And it’s been decimated. The events industry has basically had to write off 2020.
“Touring is expensive and artists can’t put together a tour if venues are limited to 40 people or so. Overseas acts are a non starter. Artists from the UK and the US would have to quarantine for 14 days before performing – it’s just not affordable.
“The other side to that coin – and it’s a good side - is that Donegal is absolutely teeming with talent so if you’re a local artist there’s an opportunity now to get yourself out there.
“Stages are there waiting to be used and audiences are there waiting to be entertained. The Balor has always had deep roots in the local community and the Balor stage has always welcomed local artists.
"If anything gets us through the next while it’ll be those community roots. For example, we’ve put together a Balor House Band made up of the musicians that perform in our musicals and they’re going to play every Friday night in September – covers of Beatles, Stones, Eagles classics that sort of thing."
Why will the Balor survive?
“The cold, hard fact is that there’s no guarantee that it will – no more than any other venue in the country.
“I’ve done some financial projections and where we would have projected to break even in 2020 pre-Covid-19 we could be looking at losses of anything up to €25,000.
And that’s just for 2020 – there’s still 2021 to get through. That’s obviously not sustainable so government support for the whole arts and live events industry has to be forthcoming.
“And there’s a real worry throughout the sector that the government just don’t ‘get’ the industry.
There’s an old saying about understanding the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
“Before the pandemic we had a booming economy with 10,000 people homeless which suggests a government that doesn’t have a great track record of supporting the people that slip through the cracks. And there’s a big almighty pandemic shaped crack in the foundations of the whole events sector at the moment.”
Conor ends on an optimistic note.
“But this isn’t a sob story. Why will The Balor survive? Because it has to. It’s too important not to. And I’m incredibly stubborn – to the point of stupidity or so I’ve been told.”
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