I’ve been impressed by my neighbourhood Italian restaurant during the Covid-19 lockdown.
It’s a cheap and cheerful pizza-and-pasta joint set within a housing development. As with other businesses in the hospitality sector, it lost its main function when it was closed down in mid-March.
Quickly, it ramped up its collection and delivery service. That, perhaps, was a no-brainer. Next, just a few days later, the restaurant cleared out an area of its building and converted it into a shop.
This not only sells the kinds of things you might expect (such as dried pasta, bottles of wine, mozzarella and salami), but also a few things you might not, which it is able to source easily from its suppliers (toilet roll and bleach).
Even more impressively, the enterprising owner noted that flour had also become impossible to find in supermarkets, so he started dividing up his huge industrial-sized sacks of kitchen flour, weighing out kilo bags and selling them to customers.
Then, a few weeks ago, a couple of regulars came in and told him they couldn’t find anywhere selling fresh fish. So, he started a weekly trip to Billingsgate Market. Customers just need to message him through social media and the fish is ready to collect on Friday.
The following week, he launched a competition on Instagram for his fish network: post a picture of the fish you’d cooked that weekend and the best-looking dish would win a bottle of wine. It was judged by the French guy off Channel 4’s First Dates.
This restaurant’s pivot to home delivery is rather like the shift theatre has made to streaming its work online
More people found out about the service and the demand grew. I’d only ever eaten at this restaurant once before the current crisis, but now I pop in every week for something and it has become a key constituent of the local community.
When all this is over, I will definitely be going back to have a meal as soon as possible.
What has this got to do with theatre? Well, this restaurant’s pivot to home delivery is rather like the shift theatre has made to streaming its work online. It is delivering roughly the same service in a different way. But the really impressive part of what the restaurant has done is first of all to realise it won’t be able to operate normally for some time; second, to identify the needs of its local community; and third, to work out which of those needs it is best-placed to deliver.
Then, it’s just gone ahead and done it.
Increasingly, it looks as if going into hibernation and reopening much as we were before is not going to be an option for the theatre sector. Theatre organisations are going to have to get used to operating differently – to make themselves useful to their communities in ways they might not have considered before.
I’m not suggesting that theatres should start selling bleach and loo roll, or collecting fish for their audiences. But what are their theatrical equivalents?