Sydney theatres on tenterhooks and music festival cancelled as NSW braces for ‘astronomical’ Covid rise

Theatres extend mask and vaccination mandate and prepare for ‘inevitable’ infections among cast as Omicron fears shut down Newcastle’s Lunar Electric festival

Sydney theatres are rapidly revising their Covid safety plans for audiences, cast and crew as infections surge in New South Wales ahead of a forecast 25,000 cases a day by the end of January.

As Covid rules are being relaxed, most major Sydney performing arts venues and companies have decided to go beyond the current public health orders and extended their requirement for all ticket holders to show vaccination certificates and wear masks throughout the performance (unless medically exempt).

This extension was planned to end 31 December. It has now been extended to at least 31 January.

Sydney producers are closely watching the news from London for some sense of what may eventuate. A number of West End theatre productions have been forced to reschedule and cancel shows as positive cases are identified among cast and crew.

Affected shows so far include The Lion King, Hamilton, Come From Away and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Comedy of Errors. Many British regional theatres are facing having to cancel their lucrative seasonal panto performances.

The Sydney festival is due to open on 6 January and has performances planned for venues including the Hordern Pavilion, the Seymour Centre, Sydney Opera House and Carriageworks. No one from Sydney festival was available to comment prior to deadline, but their website indicates they plan to follow NSW Health guidelines, plus mandatory masks.

Cast members from the Bob Dylan musical Girl from the North Country (L-R) Blake Erickson, Helen Dallimore, Tony Black, Chemon Theys, Peter Carroll and Samantha Morley pose for a photograph during a media call for the 2022 Sydney festival on Wednesday.
Cast members from the Bob Dylan musical Girl from the North Country (L-R) Blake Erickson, Helen Dallimore, Tony Black, Chemon Theys, Peter Carroll and Samantha Morley. The show is scheduled for the 2022 Sydney festival. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

‘It’s inevitable that Covid will enter’

Opera Australia, which has five operas including Turandot, Otello and La Bohème opening in the Sydney Opera House from 31 December, confirmed the company is “cautiously optimistic” about the summer season but is in urgent talks to prepare for a range of emergency scenarios.

“It’s inevitable that Covid will enter the workforce,” said the new CEO of Opera Australia, Fiona Allan. “We are preparing for every possibility. What if we have positive cases in the orchestra and the wind section can’t go on? What if the tenors in the chorus can’t go on? What if crew members test positive and we can’t fly in the scenery?”

Allan said the company was determined to go ahead with its summer season even if shows have to be presented in a stripped back, concert-style version.

“Our number one priority is getting the show on stage,” Allan said. “It might not be the show in all its glory but it can be the best we can manage on the day. We are doing practical planning. For example, if we have no chorus and no orchestra, could we still go on with just the soloists? We are hoping our audiences would rather still come and see a show than have it cancelled because we weren’t able to put everyone on stage.”

Opera Australia, which is the biggest employer in the arts sector, requires all performers, backstage crew and administration staff to undergo a rapid antigen test every 72 hours. This may be revised to a shorter interval in coming days.

“Rapid tests are necessary for everyone’s safety but they are also a massive additional cost with a pack of five tests costing $50,” Allan said. “But it’s cheaper than cancelling the show. The tests are part of our risk management.”

Any extra financial costs will be keenly felt by Opera Australia, which is already expecting a shortfall of 30% at the box office as international border restrictions eat into ticket sales.

Opera Australia is due to stage La Bohème at the Sydney Opera House from 4 January to 4 February.
Opera Australia is due to stage La Bohème at the Sydney Opera House from 4 January to 4 February. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Suzanne Millar, co-artistic director of Sydney’s inner city Kings Cross Theatre, is anticipating 10 shows beginning rehearsals in January. She said she feels confident that audience protocols are in place, with masks and vaccination certificates, but the implications around the lack of notifications for actors are a “horrible unknown”.

“The big concern is actors testing positive or being a close contact, then needing to isolate. We are advising all directors to have one person in the room who can go on at short notice with the book [script],” Millar said.

“The rehearsal room is like a home, it’s an intimate space where actors might be standing closer to each other than in normal life. We are asking them to rehearse in masks and watch for symptoms.”

Millar says the government may be underestimating the potential impact on the arts of a widespread outbreak if large case numbers cause a delay in testing results, and the end of the QR code check-in system in NSW means people are no longer notified if they have been at an exposure site.

It feels like it’s been handballed back to personal responsibility and for individual businesses to set their own rules. The numbers are frightening,” she said.

One insider in the theatre industry said: “We never anticipated a cycle where we had to replace performers because they had to isolate or they tested positive. But we never thought we’d have astronomical numbers like this, either. This is all new. Without QR check-ins we won’t even know if we’ve been exposed.”

Newcastle music festival cancelled after Omicron outbreak

Rising Covid-19 stress is impacting the live performing arts sector beyond theatres. The 10-day Tamworth country music festival, which contributes $70m to the state’s economy, mostly from domestic tourists, is due to open on 14 January, just as the predicted Omicron wave is due to spike in NSW. Organisers are concerned it might face a snap public health order shutdown like the Lunar Electric music festival in Newcastle, which was cancelled on Thursday, two days out from the event.

NSW Health issued a statement late Thursday afternoon saying “the ongoing spread of Covid-19 in the Newcastle area, where the majority of a record number of cases are the Omicron variant of concern, presents too great a risk for the festival to take place this weekend”.

Crowds at the Tamworth country music festival in January 2020.
Crowds at the Tamworth country music festival in January 2020. The 2022 event is due to start on 14 January. Photograph: Peter Lorimer/AAP

Evelyn Richardson, CEO of Live Performance Australia, said arts and entertainment organisations across Australian have no safety net from government and need a national insurance scheme to underwrite risk.

“The sudden cancellation of the Newcastle music festival is the reality the sector faces,” she said. “Omicron is clearly more transmissible and potentially more disruptive with the ongoing risk to companies that anything can be shut down at any time. We need a federal and state co-contribution scheme to underwrite risk in the live performing arts and entertainment sector.”

In November, the Victorian government announced a 12-month events insurance scheme to cover any business interruptions due to border closures or mandated density limits or sudden lockdowns. It does not cover the loss of a lead performer or headline act through Covid. NSW is yet to announce an insurance scheme.

“As we look to 2022 and the next wave of Covid-19, the biggest thing we need is not so much stimulus, but we need to de-risk the investment environment we are all operating in and that’s where there is a role for government to underwrite through insurance for at least the next 12 to 18 months,” Richardson said.


Elissa Blake

The GuardianTramp

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