While theatre companies welcomed the easing of restrictions announced on the weekend that stipulated that New South Wales venues could replace the 50-person limit with the “one person per four square metres” rule from July 1, they say it is simply not financially viable for them to reopen until the social distancing rules are completely rolled back.

“If you apply the four-square-metres rule to the Roslyn Packer Theatre, you go from an 880-seat house to a 140-seat house. But your costs don’t go down [because] you still have the cast, crew and marketing expenses. You literally can’t sell enough tickets to make back the money,” Sydney Theatre Company (STC) executive director Patrick McIntyre tells Broadsheet.

McIntyre says that the business model for the mainstream theatre industry requires getting as close as possible to capacity – or a minimum of 85 per cent full. It’s a similar story at Belvoir, a company that relies on box office and bar takings for 60 per cent of its income.

Executive director Sue Donnelly says Belvoir will trial one production under the social distancing guidelines but cautions it won’t be from July 1 and it isn’t a long-term solution.

“We’ll just start with one show on the basis it’s a very small show, because it’s cheaper. But theatre companies need more notice than a couple of weeks, so it will probably be late July,” says Donnelly, who learnt about the move through the media.

While Belvoir hasn’t yet announced which show it will stage under these new conditions, there are still plenty of questions that need answers: will patrons require timed arrivals? How many entrances and exits are needed? How many staff to manage them? Should patrons wear masks? And are plastic screens needed at the bar and box office?

“The famous Belvoir foyer is always crowded, but we can only have around 35 people now. So we’ll have to look at staggering timings to get drinks. Ironically we’ll need more staff to assist people, even though there’s less audience,” Donnelly says.

Live Performance Australia, the peak body representing the live performance industry, has been lobbying for a full reopening without social distancing by September 15, a date many companies are working towards. By then Belvoir is hoping to be able to stage Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, adapted by Kendall Feaver and directed by Kate Champion; while the STC is hoping to open with the world premiere of Wonnangatta starring Hugo Weaving and Wayne Blair.

“You can shut us down overnight, but you can’t switch us back on overnight. So if we are to be back on stage at full capacity in September, we all need to start making significant investments in July to make that happen – getting people back in rehearsal, building sets and having marketing expenditures,” says McIntyre.

While in lockdown, the Sydney Opera House has been staging a digital program, From Our House to Yours, featuring new and never-before-seen content, as well as live performances broadcast direct from the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage. It has had 2.2 million views and downloads to date.

“We are currently working through a number of safety, operational and programming considerations that will inform our approach to reopening the building and enable the presentation of live performance,” a spokesperson for the house tells Broadsheet.

Darlinghurst Theatre has recently begun performing again, albeit with a vastly-scaled down version of normal. They’re offering Red Carpet Cabaret, which opened last week and features some of the country’s best cabaret and musical theatre performers entertaining a small group of diners at the theatre’s restaurant. Co-artistic director Amylia Harris says the season has been a huge success but is desperate to re-open the mainstage Eternity Playhouse.

In March the company was forced to postpone its 2020 centrepiece show, the multi-award winning A Chorus Line, on the eve of opening night. The current restrictions mean the theatre could hold only 50 people, and with a cast and crew of 25, that isn’t feasible.

“[Co-artistic director Glenn Terry] and I are desperately seeking clarification from government on the social distancing guidelines and when they may be safely removed because that’s very impactful for us,” Harris says, pointing out it will cost more than $150,000 to remount the show.

Given the arts industry was the first to be shut down and will be one of the last to re-open, its future is looking increasingly concerning. Organisations are hopeful a federal government support package will be forthcoming, hinted at by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. And the NSW government’s $50-million state government “Rescue and Restart” package was very welcome.

“The situation for our company is critical, as it would be for any company whose revenue is switched off for six months,” says McIntyre. “We’ll need some form of capitalisation to get back on our feet ... but we’re super confident it’s a good value for money investment. Some people put the [financial return from theatre, tourism and hospitality] as high as $136 billion. So getting theatres back is important culturally and for wellbeing, but the economic contribution is very real.”