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Richard Jordan: What does coronavirus mean for the theatre industry?

People wearing surgical masks on the subway in Shanghai. Photo: Shutterstock
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The past week has been dramatic as the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global health emergency. In London, anxiety around it has escalated. The Evening Standard’s front page last Thursday said the virus was spreading fast. That same night as I travelled home on the tube after watching a play at London’s National Theatre, two Asian passengers boarded the train and five people seated in the carriage immediately got up and moved.

Coronavirus raises numerous concerns for the theatre industry, which urgently need to be addressed – especially regarding what plans and preparations are being put in place to deal with the situation.

Festival season is about to kick off in the southern hemisphere. The Adelaide Festival and Fringe (there have been 14 cases of the virus is Australia), Auckland Festival and, perhaps most significantly, Hong Kong Arts Festival, all start soon.

It has emerged that almost a sixth of performances at Hong Kong Arts Festival have been lost to the virus, including the US Boston Symphony Orchestra, the headline opening performance that has cancelled its entire Asian tour. From the UK, Bristol Old Vic’s production of Cyrano and A Quiet Evening of Dance from Sadler’s Wells have also been cancelled.

Cancellations, and even changes, have a massive economic impact for any festival, theatre and company. Production plans will have been set in place months ago with sets being freighted, flights and hotels booked, artists contracted, and possibly performances linked with other dates where there may be a sharing of costs. Lose a date and a tour could risk derailment.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office may issue travel advisories, but if a theatre or festival is not being cancelled, claiming on insurance could need a blanket travel ban or government-enforced closure to be issued.

Whatever happens as a result of coronavirus, expect production insurance premiums in the future to rise and in some cases, insurance even being refused depending on specific destinations.

‘Almost a sixth of performances at Hong Kong Arts Festival have been lost to the virus’

A headline festival such as Hong Kong Arts Festival will be well-run and supportive and so, coupled with the fact it is covering presentation costs, the financial risks are potentially lower. However, there are smaller productions, at home and abroad, without a large festival or theatre organisation to help them.

Some may soon be embarking on international engagements such as the Adelaide Fringe and the ongoing health crisis may leave many feeling anxious. Should a smaller production wait and see what happens or commit itself to opening, with all the further expenditure it would incur if it then needed to postpone or cancel?

Some may choose to hold back investment, for example on marketing and press, but how long do you do that for? And then at what cost to ticket sales and hopefully eventual recoupment? In either scenario, the company could be faced with heavy losses.

This is a nightmare dilemma for a producer, and one that could prove problematic for those unsure if insurers would pay out over a production cancellation or postponement (anyone unsure of this must check their insurance policies immediately and if necessary, seek professional advice and clarification).

The last thing any theatre wants to do is shut its doors unless its forced to, because of the economic damage. It’s no different for a large production. Mainland China’s appetite for Western shows continues to grow. Disney’s The Lion King is soon to be back touring, this time performed in English with a Western cast, while British company Punchdrunk is currently riding a wave of interest from Chinese audiences in immersive theatre work.

If a show must be suspended whether in China or anywhere else and company members are evacuated, what happens next? First there are possible issues over sets being freighted and already on route by ship to an affected destination.

‘The last thing any theatre wants to do is shut its doors unless its forced to, because of the economic damage.’

Then if any enforced theatre closure was brought into place and people evacuated, as has happened in Wuhan with the city being quarantined, it also raises another simple question: what then happens when things reopen and the production is still meant to be playing?

Producers and companies need clarity and assistance to help take decisions that ensure company well-being and protection from any risk of being in breach of contact.

There are already potentially significant economic consequences to consider at home and abroad, which could take a long period of recovery.

In the UK, while we are not likely to see coronavirus close theatres, we may still experience a tourist slump from people being reluctant to travel. This would be bad news for what is already looking like a tough year ahead for the UK theatre industry, both with possible cuts to funding and uncertainties over Brexit.

Asian tourists visiting the UK have continued to steadily rise in recent years, and London theatre productions such as the immersive Great Gatsby have proved so successful in attracting these new audiences, that its own website provides performance information in both English and Mandarin.

Which brings me back to my journey home from the National last week, if there’s a misplaced anxiety when two Asian passengers board a tube, how long will that take to translate into any production that attracts a large Asian audience?

To help theatres in the handling of this health crisis, the industry needs to work together. Key organisations such as Equity, BECTU, the Society of London Theatre, UK Theatre, the Fringe Theatre Networks, Independent Theatre Council, the British Council and Arts Council must therefore be well-informed and accessible, offering advice for members and non-members. Because this is not just a situation about current news, but one to learn from in case it should happen again.

Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan

Coronavirus forces UK companies to cancel international shows

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