Richard Jordan: Theatres need controls to weather the storm of cancellation chaos
In recent weeks, the UK was hit by severe weather – blizzards, gales and extreme cold – forcing the Met Office to issue a red weather alert across the country, a level that warns of danger to life.
Despite the ensuing travel chaos brought on by Storm Emma and the ‘Beast from the East’ – and police urging people to stay at home – many theatres did not cancel their productions. Was it the old adage that the show must go on? Or perhaps they just wanted to avoid a hefty number of refunds.
During this period of extreme weather, “only travel if your journey is essential” was the message constantly being told to the public in any media reporting. But without the assurance of a refund or the opportunity to change a booking, could a theatre be accused of encouraging their patrons and employees to be taking unnecessary risks should they not cancel their performance? Or, with a code-red national weather alert in place, should it be policy that every theatre automatically cancels their performances?
Arguably, the UK’s advance notice of the Beast’s approach afforded time for the country to get prepared. Yet many theatres, especially in the regions, seemed completely disorganised when the snow fell.
Norwich Theatre Royal was hosting Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella for a sell-out week of performances when the bad weather hit. It found itself faced with a decision over whether or not to cancel. Understandably, like many other regional theatres, it wanted to hold out for as long as possible before pulling the plug. In the meantime, its box office was besieged with phone calls about whether the show would be going ahead.
Callers were met with an answerphone message saying that a decision would be taken later that day. At other theatres around the country, performances were already being reported as cancelled, which fuelled further speculation and confusion.
With the company and crew able to get to the theatre, the decision was taken in the afternoon for Cinderella to play. The theatre highlighted its ‘no refunds’ policy if a show went ahead, but added that on this occasion it would be contacting patrons unable to attend the following week with a one-time goodwill gesture.
The criticism thrown back at Norwich Theatre Royal by patrons now weighing up whether to make the trip or not was that they did not know what that gesture would be.
The following week it was revealed to be 20% of their ticket price credited to their accounts towards a future booking. That’s the equivalent of the percentage the theatre itself would have received from ticket sales for the production.
So a patron who had paid £130 for four tickets, but was snowed in, would receive £26 back. Notwithstanding that the theatre is still losing money, the gesture to the customer suddenly sounds a bit flat.
Norwich Theatre Royal did not deceive their patrons by not telling them, but in the chaos of such bad weather they also needed time to work out what was possible. Even so, had patrons known that the gesture would not be a full refund, would many have tried to attend and put themselves at risk in atrocious driving conditions?
Regional theatres rely on goodwill and patron loyalty. In such exceptional circumstances, perhaps Norwich’s “goodwill gesture” could have also thrown in some vouchers for free coffees and food discounts in their restaurant, ice creams or programmes to be used on future visits.
It would have perhaps softened the blow to a disappointed patron of only a partial refund, while not racking up huge costs to the theatre. Most important, the addition of such a gesture would also help to enhance the vital and valuable relationship between a regional theatre and its audience.
Nonetheless, both the company and 4,500 audience members managed to make it along to Cinderella. Therefore, the decision to play on was valid.
It’s also crucial that the show must go on, when it can, as in the case of a cancellation many production contracts refer to a “force majeure” – where an event, such as extreme weather, beyond anyone’s control renders neither party liable to claim against the other for losses. Depending upon the policies, in many instances insurance companies are also not obligated to pay out.
While the theatre itself may have some reserves to draw upon in the event of such an unexpected cancellation, a production may not be in the same position. It therefore becomes vital that they play, thus securing their own box-office guarantee or percentage when faced with paying significant weekly running costs.
There needs to be a better general policy and clarity in place for theatres and productions. They need help and support in understanding how best to deal with such a situation, as well as the controls in place to convey information to patrons that does not conflict or confuse with the official guidelines released by the police or the government.
The issue of postponement and cancellation feels like a topic that needs further review by UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre at their next meetings.
The recent snow and ice may be considered exceptional but, increasingly, the UK is seeing more extreme weather warnings in place. Theatres therefore need to ensure they have their plans in place to avoid chaos when the snow, inevitably, strikes again.
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