Travel safety issues need to be urgently addressed to ensure that audiences and theatre workers are not put off when West End and Broadway venues reopen, says producer Richard Jordan
Last week The Society of London Theatre announced that because of the Covid-19 pandemic, West End theatre closures would be extended again until August 2, 2020. Meanwhile on Broadway, producers continue to predict that March 2021 may be a more realistic opening date.
That delayed opening could buy more time for a vaccine to be found. This relies on scientists building greater knowledge of how the virus mutates and how long antibodies against it may last. If significant progress is made and a vaccine is available by early 2021, theatre owners may prefer to wait to reopen under potentially more workable revised operating conditions, rather than commit to spending millions on extensive venue restructuring so performances can resume sooner.
In the West End and on Broadway, these historic theatres were not built to accommodate any form of social distancing and the economic challenge of large shows needing to make enough to cover running costs has already been raised as impractical. Couple that with the West End and Broadway’s need to build and renew audience confidence and these two theatre destinations, both heavily driven by the tourist market, may find themselves the slowest to recover.
Recently, I have written about the need to rebuild confidence in theatregoing post-lockdown and Lyn Gardner recently observed that rural touring may be one of the best ways achieving this, together with the vital role that regional producing and touring houses need to play. Familiarity may prove reassuring as local audiences step back inside theatres in the belief that these environments will expose them to less risk than visiting the West End.
In Theatreland, as on Broadway, apart from making audiences feel safe enough to attend theatres in the numbers needed to keep shows viable, the industry needs to lobby the government about another issue: ensuring theatregoers feel confident to take their journey to the venue in the first place.
In London, a humanitarian crisis is at risk of happening on its streets. Attempting to shield homeless people from the virus, the government moved them into temporary accommodation in hotels where demand had vanished in the lockdown. However, as London cautiously moves towards reopening for business, these rooms will again become needed for visitors. The homeless who have been housed in them face being back on the streets, without alternative housing, despite the virus remaining prevalent and leaving them at high risk of being a victim or spreader of it.
It is important we do not waste the opportunity to build and extend this emergency homeless programme. It needs the government’s continued support as we enter what may prove to be a critical period of economic hardship for many – one that risks exacerbating the homeless crisis across our towns and cities.
The ‘new normal’ in London and New York’s immediate future could be one in which theatregoers hurry in and out of the city, spending less time strolling its streets on an evening out
There has been a similar issue in New York. During lockdown, the city has experienced a significant rise in crime – especially on the subway – even with the city emptied of tourists. For the first time in its history, “the city that never sleeps” closed its subway overnight. Some news reports have even suggested that districts such as Times Square may return to the high levels of crime experienced in the 1970s and 1980s.
None of this helps Broadway to plan its recovery from the pandemic. It needs to attract back the family audience from home and abroad, but they will see a city that seems to be in crisis. The “new normal” in London and New York’s immediate future could be one in which theatregoers hurry in and out of the city, spending less time strolling its streets on an evening out. Feeling safe when visiting the city is just as important to theatres’ recovery as audiences’ confidence that the venues themselves are preventing the spread of the virus.
The safety of public transport has become a public concern during the pandemic, so will need addressing before theatregoers’ confidence can be restored. Those attending a West End performance may wish to drive there instead.
However, from later this month, mayor of London Sadiq Khan is raising the congestion charge by 30% and extending its operating hours from Monday to Friday until 6pm, to a seven-day-a-week operation running until 10pm.
This could have a devastating impact on West End theatres – for audiences and theatre workers who will no longer be able to park in central London after the charge has ended in time to make a performance or half-hour call. Many theatre workers are on lower-paid show contacts. Going home late at night on public transport can feel a lonely and dangerous prospect when, for example, they leave a busier West End and head out towards the far reaches of the Northern Line. Driving often becomes a necessity.
An increased congestion charge and extended operating hours may leave many key theatre workers to believe that working on a production in central London is no longer financially viable. This could result in major theatre staffing issues at a time when more staff will likely be needed to implement socially distanced theatre operations.
These issues need to be urgently addressed to ensure that when West End theatres do reopen, travelling to them does not become too arduous for audiences and staff. The safety and practicalities of this are just as important for restoring both economy and confidence.