THIS year, more than ever, we need to see a love story played out on stage. We need to see Covid-19 killed off as convincingly as Snow White’s wicked step ma. We need lines such as: “He’s two metres behind you!” Or the Uglies throwing scorchers at each other like: “Did you get that face mask in Poundstretchers?” “Whit? A’m no’ wearing a face mask, ya cheeky madam.”

But will our theatres have reopened by Christmas? The Ayr Gaiety announced this week that it will be open for the annual funny business. Chief Executive Jeremy Wyatt declared: “I’m confident the theatre will reopen. It has faced a lot of challenges since it opened in 1902. It has been almost destroyed by fire, it was almost demolished in the 1970s and became a car park. And then it closed in 2009.”

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Wyatt says that while we live in, “very uncertain times”, the theatre is set to open from September. “We have a full autumn schedule and a great panto team with the creative team from last year. We have cast it now and it will be something special.”

The Gaiety intent is echoed in other theatres. The King’s Theatre in Glasgow, for example, is selling tickets to see Elaine C Smith in Cinderella. How wonderful. But wait a minute, do the likes of the Gaiety have a Fairy Godmother who can magic coronavirus, or any second wave, away?

There are other questions. Can we have close proximity audiences in place by September? Will theatres somehow become a magical kingdom whereby the virus is kept at bay with a rub of a genie’s lamp?

Oh, no, they won’t, says Glasgow Pavilion manager Iain Gordon. “Right this minute I’m working on the set for this year’s panto, Santa Claus is Coming To Town. I’m estimating I’ll spend around £90k on the set and a spectacular video wall. But this is a bit of a gamble. We have to assume that the coronavirus has disappeared by this point, or that there is an antidote.

“Yet we don’t really know that will be the case. What we also don’t know is whether people will be prepared to return. How do you get the confidence back in a theatre?”

The Pavilion manager maintains that if the Scottish Government still has social distancing restrictions in place, the idea of theatres opening is as much a fantasy as Jack giving the Beanstalk Giant a doing in a square go. “To create social distancing in the auditorium you’d need to go back three rows between audience members. And then you have the problem of audience members going up aisles to get to the toilet. You also have the problem of spacing in the toilets. What this all means is you would have to drop the numbers in the audience drastically, down to just a couple of hundred people in the stalls.”

The manager emits a deep sigh, the level of which you hear when Buttons is told by Cinders she thinks of him only as a friend. “The reality is I need 600 people in the building to make a production viable. And what of the audience’s ability to come to the panto? Lots of Pavilion fans will be struggling. The unemployment rate will be incredible, and the lack of money will be obvious.”

Aberdeen’s His Majesty’s Theatre say it is difficult to know what impact social distancing will have, however, as it stands, Beauty and the Beast will go ahead in December. And the SEC Armadillo is hoping Greg McHugh’s Aladdin won’t need a magic lamp to deal with the virus come Christmas time.

Yet, if Covid-19 presents problems for large-scale theatres, the nation’s art houses face a particularly acute challenge. The relatively small sizes mean every ticket sold is as precious as Cinderella’s sparkly slipper.

The Tron Theatre in Glasgow, for example, requires subsidy for its existence and is dependent upon panto revenue. It achieves close to 100 per cent attendance rates over the panto season – and would have been expecting the same from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz this year. But the appearance of star dame Johnny McKnight and co is most certainly not a forgone conclusion, which gives the theatre real problems. “In terms of the panto we’ve essentially slowed down our normal planning process – which was in its early stages, in the light of a landscape that is changing rapidly and in a way that we have little control over,” said a spokesperson.

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“We wouldn’t ordinarily be at the point of casting yet – and the script isn’t due till nearer the summer – so the producing and management teams have more time to review the situation over the next few months and adjust plans as necessary.”

The Tron will be carrying out a risk assessment programme, taken in line with government advice, with the hope of re-opening the Tron, with in-built social distancing measures in place. However, the theatre is to consult with audience groups about the best way forward. “We’re taking part in national survey After The Interval, led by Indigo-Ltd to gauge post-pandemic theatre-going behaviour and will be encouraging our audience members to share their views and intentions with us. This data will help shape our plans for re-opening.”

Perth Theatre is also cautious. But hopeful. Lu Kemp, artistic director, said: “Perth’s favourite panto dame Barrie Hunter is writing and directing – and starring in – Cinderella as he did for Sinbad in 2019, and he’s working on the script. We’ll do everything we can to make sure Cinderella gets to the ball this year.”

Nick Williams, chief executive of Horsecross Arts, the creative organisation behind Perth Concert Hall and Perth Theatre added: “We’re planning for a range of scenarios in terms of when and how we can reopen our venues.”

There is no doubt each theatre will pull out all the stops to be ready for the lucrative panto time but the reality is that if the doors don’t open by the end of the year, many theatre companies could go to the wall.

The Stage magazine asks: “Would it be preferable to open sooner but have to play to no more than 50 per cent capacity, or to wait a few more months but be able to play at something approaching full capacity? What if the allowed capacity was only 30 per cent?”

Clearly these small numbers present an existentialist crisis. Individual theatres are debating this new reality. Calculators are being bashed, pushing in numbers such as possible audience revenue and looking at worst-case scenarios.

Arts funding agency Creative Scotland isn’t convinced, however, that panto doors will be flung open. “Panto season draws millions of people to theatre, often as a much-anticipated annual family ritual. Planning for these shows takes many months, and the season is crucially important for some theatres' budgets, however, what the situation will be by panto season remains unclear.”

Creative Scotland’s hand will go deep into its pockets. “Creative Scotland will work with all those partners, national and local, who benefit from the immense public value delivered by the theatre sector to safeguard its future.”

The spokesperson added: “Creative Scotland has announced a package of measures aimed at helping artists and arts organisations including theatres navigate this crisis. This included the freedom to repurpose previously agreed funding to assist in whatever way necessary.”

However producer Robert C. Kelly isn’t hopeful the doors to the Palace or the Magic Kingdom will be open. “I produce pantomime in four towns across the UK and Ireland and we are neither announcing nor cancelling anything until the rules around social distancing become clear.

“I think as long as social distancing is in force then any kind of commercial theatre is all but impossible. How do you load an auditorium with social distancing? Will you adopt an airline system with entry by seat row number? And even if you can get enough people into seats to make the show work, what happens during a performance if one person in the middle of a row wants to go to the toilet? Most toilets have one door for entry and exit. How will that work if people have to pass one another? And will you close the bars? How do you check tickets?”

The feeling has been underlined by the comments last week of Professor Chris Whitty, the UK government’s chief medical officer. He said it’s likely that social distancing measures will be in place until at least the end of the year. The comment has prompted Sir Cameron Mackintosh, whose production empire stretches around the world to consider the prospect the curtains may remain down. “We’re still planning to open in the autumn but if the government plans to keep social distancing then we can’t keep extending what we’re doing.”

But many of the theatres, says a showbiz insider, have to run on optimism because they need the box office revenue panto is generating from tickets now being sold. “Should they have to refund it, well, that’s a problem for another day,” he said. “But the reality is no one wants to frighten the horses by saying that panto isn’t going to happen this year.”

He believes the chances of the nation’s panto halls being open are just slightly bigger than Snow White’s chances of avoiding the dodgy fruit offer. “My feeling is the Government had better have bags of fairy dust at hand in the form of a massive testing and tracing plan, otherwise Cinders and co won’t be going anywhere near the ball.”