The government’s guidelines will make it harder to stage shows – complex new procedures will increase costs while potential revenue is slashed by reduced audience capacity
Well that was quite a week. On Sunday, July 5, the government announced an 11th-hour, £1.57 billion arts rescue package. The following Thursday (July 9) came the news that outdoor theatres could reopen, followed by the keenly awaited guidelines for indoor and outdoor theatre performances.
The approval for outdoor performances was given with little notice. I had been preparing for a further delay as the World Health Organization had raised new questions about whether Covid-19 transmission could be airborne – which had previously been discounted – on the Wednesday (July 8). The timing was unfortunate and confusing.
Following industry pressure, the government knew it needed to give guidance for reopening venues. After all, the sector was already taking matters into its own hands. Drive-in theatres were being set up and other inventive ideas were emerging. For example, Flanagan Theatre Collective and Goobledigook Theatre were doing a door-to-door tour into people’s gardens for socially distanced audiences.
These offer a short-term fix to a long-term problem, and while they are novel and fun – bringing no little essence of showmanship – they don’t fill the gap. For most productions, performances like this are not viable as a business model.
As outdoor theatres reopen, followed by others, audiences need to be encouraged back into the habit of going to watch shows – the longer people don’t attend, the more it will diminish. While theatre lovers’ interest will not dim, it is the less-frequent attendees who need to return for shows to get back to hitting their weekly break figures.
The UK faces a challenging period of austerity, which will affect how much people can spend in theatres. Added to that, the complex rules for audience members just to take their seat mean their experience will need to be as smooth as possible – and the work on stage has to be better than ever.
The return of outdoor theatre is a step forward. But our industry has little time to get these shows ready and marketed if they are to hit the stage before summer starts to fade. That is not to underestimate the magic a trip to Cornwall’s Minack Theatre can hold: for many outdoor shows, location is an added advantage in encouraging audiences back. Nevertheless, reopening outdoor venues can only help a small number of our industry colleagues return to work.
Reading the government guidelines for the reopening of theatres – both outdoor and indoor – it soon becomes clear that the process of getting a show on to any stage will be more expensive and more complex.
Some of the published guidelines for reopening are obvious, such as asking employers to ensure anyone showing symptoms self-isolates, but others suggest a lack of understanding about how our industry works, despite the claim they were drawn up with industry advice.
For example, where possible, auditions should be self-taped or online. Gone are the days of the long line for the open audition. When it comes to rehearsals, the guideline is to work outside as much as possible but how practical is this for many productions?
Meanwhile, the important journey of discovery in the rehearsal room is lost, as productions should now be mapped out before the start. This presents an immediate issue for improvisational or experimental work.
Lines should be learned in advance and scripts projected on to screens – but actors and creatives need to make notes in their scripts. However, the guideline also advises against working face-to-face in either rehearsal or performance.
The guidelines also recommend reducing cast and staffing numbers and orchestras. That’s more bad news for freelancers but it could also lead to action from the unions: the 2003 strike on Broadway was over the size of pit orchestras. Now there is a visible move to reduce numbers, together with a reduced-capacity auditorium, which will slash revenue.
The government’s bailout may have helped save theatres from bankruptcy, but that won’t mean much if there is no product to put on the stages
For the production itself, the guidelines advise using more trucks to transport equipment to minimise proximity. This means the number of wagons transporting a large production would increase, as will load-in and out charges. The advice recommends that set builds do not happen on stage, which will have a significant effect on smaller theatres and companies – especially those involved in amateur dramatics.
According to the guidelines, companies and audiences should avoid public transport, instead aiming to walk, drive or cycle to the theatre. That is hardly conducive for many older audience members whose valuable revenue is relied on – or practical for a trip to a theatre that is further afield.
If you are on tour and may have shared a car or tour bus with other company members, the guideline is to find a different way to travel. What has not changed are the requirements of social distancing in theatres. Instead, the guidelines advise against bringing coats or bags into the auditorium.
There is no date given for when restrictions may be reviewed or lifted. The government’s bailout may have helped save theatres from bankruptcy, but that won’t mean much if there is no product to put on the stages.
The guidelines make the challenges of producing harder, with increased costs but without the kind of audience capacity that could help mitigate them. Added to this is the risk of further lockdowns without insurance.
The government’s advice urgently needs more industry input. Otherwise, theatre could face a future of solo monologues because that’s all that could be safely presented and affordable to produce.