We cannot be sure when theatres will open their doors again, but there are early signs if you read the tea leaves.
The West End is definitely closed until the beginning of June; the Barbican and Southbank centres are closed until July at the earliest. The cancellation of the Edinburgh festivals takes us to the end of August.
Meanwhile, Hairspray, due to open at the London Coliseum later this month, has announced new dates from September 1 and the Olivier Awards, due last Sunday, is now “likely to be held in the autumn”.
Producers appear to be coalescing around September – or soon afterwards – as a putative line in the sand: about five months from now.
A report from theatre consultancy Charcoalblue, written by partner Byron Harrison and titled Performance Buildings in the Post-Pandemic World, looks at the 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic and asks what we can learn to envisage how today’s sector might re-emerge. It is well worth a read: especially if you run a theatre building.
Harrison strikes an optimistic tone: “Demand for entertainment and meaningful cultural engagement… shows no sign of diminishing and could actually be enhanced as a result of the pandemic.” He observes that during the Spanish flu, when there were also widespread theatre closures in the US, “theatres reopened about 10 days after the number of deaths peaked”.
Why then are we looking at a much longer period of closure during the current crisis?
The first reason is hinted at by Harrison: despite reopening soon after their initial closures, many theatres during the Spanish Flu pandemic closed down again after a second wave of the virus: “Omaha closed its theatres a second time after being open for five weeks of performances; Denver’s theatres were open for just three weeks before being shut again.”
Everyone, including theatre operators, will want to avoid such a scenario today, so will err on the side of caution – as will both the public and governments, who are more risk-averse when it comes to such matters than they were 100 years ago.
Theatres will also need a head start. The government won’t be able to turn theatres on in the way they turned them off: it will not be able to encourage audiences back to theatres at 5pm on a Monday and expect them to reopen that evening.
Compared with pubs – and to some extent restaurants – turning the lights back on will be an extended process, probably including significant modifications to buildings and processes to reassure the public and workforce they are safe.
Clarity and forward-planning is going to be crucial. We are still in the bizarre situation where some touring productions are having to prepare for dates they know they won’t play, because they are still contractually obliged to theatres that have not yet taken an official decision to remain closed. This is in no one’s interests.
The sooner the whole sector can agree a firm line in the sand – even if it is some way in the future – the better it will be for everyone.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith