The show will not go on. At least, not for a while. The events of the past few days are unprecedented. There has been nothing like it within living memory.
While there was a short shutdown of Theatreland in the wake of the 9/11 bombings, you have to go back to the Second World War for such a widespread and – we expect – prolonged closure as this, and the circumstances then were very different, as was society.
All the West End is now closed for the foreseeable future, as are most theatres outside London. And the few theatres that have not already shuttered are likely to have followed suit by the time you are reading this.
This decision was taken in light of prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Monday in which he encouraged people to “avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues” but fell short of telling such venues to close. Theatres had been hoping for clear instructions – possibly because this kind of statement would help with insurance claims, although not everyone was confident that insurance would be paid out even in the case of a government diktat.
Whatever the case, Johnson’s language was deeply unhelpful and potentially damaging. He needs to do much, much better in the coming days.
In the event, theatres rightly took matters into their own hands and interpreted the prime minister’s speech as an instruction to go dark. We do not know when theatres will open again, but most people I speak to are hopeful that shows booked in for the autumn will go ahead as planned. No one seems to think the closure will be any shorter than eight to 12 weeks.
Johnson’s language was deeply unhelpful and potentially damaging – he needs to do much, much better in the coming days
But, really, we don’t know. And that is a large part of the problem. What the industry needs now is clear guidance from government: about how long it can expect the closures to last, whether they are indeed enforced by government, and what support will be available to ensure that – whenever theatres are able to open again to the paying public – there is still an industry left to produce the entertainment people will surely be crying out for. As I write, we still don’t have information on any of this from the government.
Arts Council England has stressed that it will support its funded organisations through this crisis and, largely, I would expect most national portfolio organisations to be able to weather an eight-to-12-week closure period, but it will be much more difficult for organisations without the buffer of existing public support – whether that is unfunded not-for-profit companies or the commercial sector. The Arts Council and government need to consider how they support the whole of the industry, not just the organisations they are used to funding.
Suppliers and, especially, the huge number of freelance workers who are the backbone of the theatre industry will also find themselves in particularly precarious positions and will need help.
And, while theatre will rightly look to government for support both now and as it looks to rebuild after the crisis, it must also support itself and each other. It is crucial that those organisations that find themselves in relatively privileged positions – whether because they are funded, or are large commercial organisations with healthy bank balances – do everything they can to support those whose circumstances are more straitened.
Too often in the past theatre has let those at the bottom of the pyramid prop up the rest of the industry. Now is the time to change that behaviour.
Too often in the past theatre has let those at the bottom of the pyramid prop up the rest of the industry. Now is the time to change that behaviour
As for The Stage, we will do our bit. Online, we have put our rolling coronavirus updates in front of our paywall so that everyone has access to up-to-date information about the unfolding situation. And we will continue to report on developments to make sure you, our readers, are as informed as you can be.
We will also be talking to experts to try to get straight answers to your questions and we want to hear from you about your experiences of coping with the current situation. Have you found an innovative way to digitally stream your theatre shows? What are you doing to prepare yourself for when theatres reopen? How are you keeping your spirits up? We want to know and we want to share your experiences with the rest of the community.
Theatre can and must survive the current crisis, but it will only do that if we all work together. Please look after yourselves and those around you.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith