By Sarah Mills
LONDON (Reuters) - In an empty London theatre, producer Nica Burns sits among the once buzzing stalls hoping audiences will soon be back for good to watch live performances.
A year ago, Burns shut the doors to her six theatres, where shows like "Harry Potter And The Cursed Child" and "Everybody's Talking About Jamie" played to crowds in London's West End, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
Twelve months on, following Prime Minister Boris Johnson's roadmap out of lockdown for England, she is cautiously preparing to re-open them from mid-May.
"People have been heartbroken to be closed down for a year in a profession where it's not just about not having a salary," Burns, chief executive and co-owner of Nimax Theatres Ltd, told Reuters on a visit to the Apollo theatre.
"It's a vocation, performers really need to perform."
Burns said her theatres were "flat out" before drawing the curtains on the shows, going from "100% to zero". With some 1,000 people working across the Nimax group, she last re-opened briefly around Christmas in between lockdowns.
Johnson's plan states entertainment venues can re-open from May 17. For theatres, this means operating at 50% audience capacity, or no more than 1,000 people, with social distancing.
"In London we'll see 10 or 12 theatres open fairly quickly around that or certainly May, June into July. For others, it may take a bit longer," Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, said.
"You should expect things like timed entry ... You'll be wearing a face covering to begin with. You might need to follow a one way system around the building. Drinks might be served to you in your seat...and almost certainly you'll have an electronic ticket."
The West End grosses some 750 million pounds ($1.04 billion) a year in ticket sales, Bird said. Some theatres will resume past productions, others will re-open with smaller shows.
The government has announced financial support for the arts sector, but theatre counts many freelancers, who during the shutdown have had to look elsewhere for work.
"I'm opening all my six theatres quickly...but the very big shows can't open yet," Burns said. "We are lobbying the government very strongly for a government-backed insurance scheme."
Sejal Keshwala is one of 26 actors starring in "Everybody's Talking About Jamie", which will be among the first musicals to resume.
"It's strange because obviously I was in this building six days a week a year ago, and then it was just cold turkey," she said. "...But even just being here now, you still feel that tingling feeling of being in a West End show. I'm just excited to be back home very soon."
($1 = 0.7238 pounds)
(Reporting by Sarah Mills, Writing and additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)