The Theatre Royal is facing criticism for plans to hire an experienced events company to help with its new panto when its own casual staff would 'jump' at the chance.
An angry former worker accused the Newcastle theatre of "squandering money", claiming it is choosing to pay a firm "double the rate" of its front-of-house staff and failing to support them over the Christmas period.
In response, the theatre says that the decision not to use the workers "was not taken lightly" but sees its plans to bring in extra staff, ready-trained in socially distancing, as a necessary - and cost effective - way to ensure a safe festive show.
The theatre, which announced a wave of redundancies earlier in the year, recently won National Lottery support to stage the upcoming panto, Robin Hood, and last week it received news of a £3m award from the Government's Culture Recovery Fund to help it mitigate its pandemic losses.
Employees learned that while the panto will enable the theatre to bring back some permanent staff for a fixed time period, it will be a smaller and simpler operation that does not require casual workers, although the theatre plans to hire Showsec, a company with experience in socially distancing events, to help with audiences front of house.
The employee, who asked not to be named, claims the theatre has its priorities wrong, leaving people feeling worthless and "incapable of doing new things", adding: "They are bringing in staff who don’t know the layout of the theatre and paying twice the rate to do so when there are zero hours staff who have been there years, and know the building inside out, plus all the redundant staff that would jump in at a moment's notice if asked."
In response, Philip Bernays, chief executive of the Theatre Royal, explained that the plans for Robin Hood came about at very short notice.
"We have had to ensure that it is financially deliverable in a tight budget and timescale," he said.
The National Lottery support enables the theatre to host the show for a socially distanced audience "but no more than that".
He said: "The Covid landscape is highly changeable and we still need to keep our overheads low and the operation at reduced levels - this is not the permanent re-opening of the theatre nor a return to normality."
He said the theatre has regularly worked with Showsec, and for a number of years, and that staff are used to the building and how it works.
"They are ready trained and experienced in dealing with a wide variety of socially distanced events and Covid-secure operations and we are confident that they will maintain our high levels of customer experience through health and safety, security, and a friendly welcome."
He added: "The decision was not taken lightly to not use our zero-hours visitor service assistants.
"We do not have enough assistants to cover the performances; although the audience will only be 38% of our usual capacity, it actually requires more staff than we have to ensure the complex social distancing requirements are fulfilled to ensure the safety of audience and staff.
"We do not have the resource to recruit or deliver the training needed to establish a large enough team within the time-frame."
He said that the theatre's working relationship with Showsec is "straightforward and cost effective" and, due to the size of the agency, it can replace staff at short notice in the event of illness.
"We are a theatre and our job is to put on shows – we are delighted to be able to do so, but this is still against a background of great uncertainty."
While the CRF award ensures the theatre's survival until March next year, he says beyond that the future, including any potential reopening to full audiences and a return to financial viability, is unknown.
"The pantomime is great for Newcastle but we must still take decisions to secure the long-term future and viability of the Theatre Royal."
The theatre has added that a new logo, which the worker claimed it "wasted money" on during lockdown, was actually designed before lockdown happened.