Interview: How The Dukes is Adjusting to a Covid-19 World


We spoke to the Director of The Dukes, Karen O’Neill, about the impact that Covid-19 continues to have on arts venues across the country.

1) Firstly, thank you for doing this interview! This is certainly an uneasy time for theatres, and you must be busy preparing for your re-opening! Is The Dukes currently working towards an opening date?

It has been an extremely difficult time for The Dukes and arts organisations across the UK. The impact of the lockdown has been huge and we still face a great many challenges over the next few months, but I am happy to announce that The Dukes will be reopening from the 4th August to bring back independent cinema to Lancaster.  

2) How is The Dukes adapting to the new social distancing requirements?

Social distancing presents the biggest challenge for The Dukes as it places strict limitations on the number of people we can have in the venue at one time. We have done a lot of work to look at how we support social distancing, from reduced capacities in the auditorium to creating space in our bar area too. The Dukes will have much smaller numbers in both auditoriums to allow for 2m social distancing and we will be operating a one-way system around the venue to ensure that our audiences feel safe and secure returning to the cinema.

3) I noticed in an interview with the Lancashire Post that you will not be raising your prices! Is accessibility to the arts an indispensable part of The Dukes’ ‘brand’, if you will?

The Dukes is 100% committed to accessibility in all forms of arts and culture across all our work and programmes. The Dukes introduced a new pricing structure in 2019 to support greater accessibility and we have a programme for 16-25’s which gives them a range of benefits. As a charitable organisation, our role is to provide high-quality films, performances, and creative engagement to everyone in the Lancaster district, so it is vital that we remain accessible to all. Putting our prices up at this time would not benefit anyone – it has been a tough few months for many people and it will continue to be. We want as many people as possible to become part of The Dukes audience.

4) There have been many discussions taking place on what is deemed ‘essential’ and ‘unessential’. Where do you think the arts belong in this debate?

I think the debate of what is essential and what is not essential only serves to polarise opinions and create divisions in our communities, which serve agendas around cost-cutting, for example. It annoys me when I see this debate, regardless of whether it’s the arts, healthcare, schools, or other statutory services. Pitting already unfunded sectors against each other devalues them both and it allows those who should be ensuring that there is the appropriate funding to shed their accountability and leadership. What is essential is subjective and our leaders need to be ensuring that they are meeting the needs of all, not those who just shout the loudest.

I do believe the arts are essential and the work done by arts and cultural organisations, companies, and artists branch across a wide variety of sectors, such as working with hard-pressed young people, supporting communities, working within the NHS and alongside large corporate companies. Arts and culture are ingrained into everything: without it, we would be left in an empty void without expression, conversation, reflection, curiosity, or design. Every person in the UK has a right to art and culture and we should be proud of our exceptional cultural sector, which has a global reach and contributes to our society and economy far more than it takes out.

5) The government recently promised a £1.5bn support package for the arts and the Dukes has been provided with funding from Arts Council England’s Emergency Response Fund. I imagine that this news has been welcomed?

Hugely welcomed and we look forward to seeing the details of the guidance shortly. I hope the fund will support a range of organisations and companies as well as artists and freelancers in the sector. This fund is thanks to many people within organisations such as ACE and DCMS who are working hard to convince the Government that investment in arts and culture is vital.

6) Your plays in the park were a staple of my childhood! With more restrictions on indoor space usage, will you be planning on utilising more outdoor space for future events?

It was very disappointing to cancel the Park Show this year due to COVID as we know how much they are loved in Lancaster, and they make up such a huge part of our calendar each year. However, we didn’t have a choice at the time – we were just not able to continue working on it. With the restrictions on indoor and outdoor performances recently lifted, we are looking at all the ways we can bring live performance back to Lancaster. Unfortunately, there are real challenges in terms of the limitations of social distancing and that the weather is often against us. With our normal ability to generate income from ticket sales reduced greatly, we have to be very careful about what we invest in to ensure the long term future of The Dukes.

7) As many movies/theatre productions have pushed back their release date until later this year, I imagine there will be catching up to do! Do you have a busy line-up for the second half of 2020?

Our cinema line up is looking very busy! I think it will be a brilliant time for cinema in late 2020. Hopefully, during the lockdown, people have been watching films that are new to them and different from their normal choices, which will encourage them to come to The Dukes cinema this autumn. We are currently working on our theatre season and will hopefully be able to make an announcement very soon.

8) Lastly, what can SCAN readers do to help support the arts in Lancaster?

Buy a ticket, come to an event at your local arts organisation, become a member, donate what you can. Creative organisations across Lancaster need your support right now, both as a community and financially. Buying a ticket not only gives that organisation a financial boost but it also sends a message that that organisation is important and relevant to the community – that is priceless.

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