“I’ve just seen something that at one point felt impossible”

To mark HOME’s reopening day, we asked our Executive Director Jon Gilchrist to look back on the work that has gone into making reopening possible…

As I put the final touches to this blog, I’m sitting (socially distanced) in the downstairs café at HOME, and I’ve just seen something that at one point felt impossible. After 169 days closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, today we welcomed patrons through our doors again.

It’s both a joy and a relief to see people returning to First Street. Across this weekend, many screenings are sold out (a reminder to book in advance!) and reservations in the restaurant are as strong as ever. We have to accept it might be a while until we feel that electric energy of a packed theatre and cinema converging on our bars of an evening. But regardless of this, I’ve never felt surer that the atmosphere that makes HOME so special won’t be lost in this socially distanced world. Ultimately, this confidence is for three reasons…

Firstly, as a building and a business model, HOME is responsive to this extraordinary environment. While conceived to deal with large volumes of people, our building could have been designed with social distancing in mind. We have big foyer spaces, wide staircases with space for passing, toilets on every level and a large outside area. And as a business model – with many art forms under one roof – we have a lot of shared financial overhead. This means with the cinema up and running, its easier for HOME to introduce the theatre programme – and we have an announcement about our visual arts proramme coming later this month. While things might be different for a while, we will have theatres, galleries and cinemas running again in a matter of weeks.

Secondly, we’ve been through a rigorous consultation period over the past two months – with staff, volunteers, audiences and artists – to make sure we understand as many different concerns and viewpoints as possible. We set up the HOME Soon Panel, which featured a range of people who all love HOME, but see it through a different lens. (this was where panel member Darren Pritchard proposed the “Vogue Through” instructional video you can now see online). We extensively surveyed audiences on their expectations, and ran a weekly audience panel where we tested everything from our ticketing process to our one way systems.

Thirdly, and probably most importantly, we have the most diligent and resilient team of incredible professionals at HOME. They took every unknown procedure, conflicting government guidance, or programming headache as an exciting challenge to be overcome. It’s impossible to highlight everyone who has contributed to this moment today – as everyone has. But I spoke to three people who have been at the sharp edge of the reopening process.

Debbie Bell, our Building and Environmental Manager, was critical in getting the building back up and running after a period of “mothballing”. She’s also been constantly reviewing national and international trends and advice – and putting the safety of patrons and staff first at all times.

Having already done it once five years ago, I didn’t think we’d be reopening HOME again, but here we are. At first it was fortnightly building checks over 20 weeks – watching the dust build up and the spaces remain vacant. But finally we were back on site and the water was turned back on, and (you guessed it) with water came a couple of floods – it actually rained in! With my safety hat on, the priority was to have a clean, safe and welcoming building. We have completed risk assessments with constantly changing guidance, which caused its challenges, but we have formal certification to say we are COVID-19 safe. Having the team return over the last few weeks has been fantastic. It’s good to be back. 

And while Debbie was focussing on getting the building ready, HOME’s Technical Director Sean Pritchard was reimagining our cinemas, galleries and theatres with social distancing measures in place. This was a step into the unknown, and Sean laboured over new version and new version to make sure we maximised the number of seats we could use while keeping a safe distance between patrons. This involved removing seats and inserting new stairways in the auditoria. In a board meeting, a trustee compared this to the most taxing mobile phone games – and suggested we license it (we are yet to do this).

When lockdown began back in March, we went from a packed-house final T1 performance of Insane Animals (a vibrant, raucous musical) to a mothballed building within the space of a week. This was not an unusual turnaround timescale for theatre, but it was a surprisingly poignant moment not knowing when we may be allowed to return.

There followed an intensive period of drafting numerous options for socially-distanced seating plans for our spaces whilst taking into account the seemingly ever-changing guidance – the ultimate aim being ensuring our staff and audiences are safe (and feel safe) while giving our patrons the best possible experience. It has been a really challenging process but also heartening to see how the staff at HOME have responded in such a collaborative way. It’s great to have people in our cinemas again.

In the short-term, due to the parameters we need to put in place, the scope and scale of theatre productions coming through the building will inevitably be quite modest. Socially distanced working, limited space for artists backstage and avoiding long labour-intensive tasks involving large numbers of Technical staff are all things which don’t exactly lend themselves to working in theatre! All of that said, any form of live indoor performance right now would be a huge tonic for everybody, and we can’t wait to bring live theatre back in October.

But the building is just the start. Through all the consultation, the front of house team at HOME were highlighted as a reason why people enjoy the venue so much. We are determined to keep this level of customer service, retain the atmosphere that makes HOME what it is, and ensure we remain COVID safe. This was the role of our (very) new Head of Customer Service Jude McGill (Jude had been with us for just three weeks when lockdown hit).

I’ve worked in FOH management positions in arts venues for over 15 years and thought I’d experienced pretty much all of the weird and wonderful aspects involved in the role. Dealing with the unique challenges of getting a team ready to welcome customers back into the building during a worldwide pandemic is definitely something new for my CV.

Never before have I had to consider the best way to create that warm smiley welcome from behind a mask or visor. Or how to word signage that instructs people to stay a safe distance back from my team in a way that isn’t completely contradictory to every customer service value we hold dear.

 While thinking of how to introduce a raft of brand new safety procedures the overriding priority throughout has been achieving that tricky balance between reassuring all our lovely customers that we are looking after their safety without risking losing that great HOME experience that everyone has missed so much. The key to this was to ensure that my customer facing team all felt happy and safe coming back into the building so that they could pass that on to our customers. Staff were kept informed throughout all the reopening preparations and provided invaluable feedback on every aspect. They all also received comprehensive training on all the new measures before starting back.

I feel that we have been successful in achieving that happy balance. At the end of the day when people come to visit us it should be a treat, an escape from world events even, whether it’s watching a transportive film or just having some tasty grub and a drink.

It’s Debbie, Jude, Sean, and everyone else who has sat through Zoom call after Zoom call to get us here who will be celebrating today. As more people come in through our doors, it’s so rewarding to see the responses we’ve had by email and through social media realised in person.

We’d like to thank every one of our audience members who has been patient and supportive as we prepare for reopening. We can’t say we know what will happen next, but we know that reopening isn’t the end. We’ll continue to listen to our audiences, and if you have any thoughts on your experience of HOME, please do send us an email. We’ll also continue to monitor government advice, aware that any spike in the R rate might lead to further measures or restrictions. This is why your support is more important than ever, as we once more step into the unknown.

We hope we will see you back at HOME in the coming weeks – I can particularly recommend Les Misérables.