With the pandemic leaving many theatres in critical financial positions, the big question will be how long will it take for audiences to return after restrictions are lifted, says Wilton’s Music Hall’s Harry Hickmore
Two months since they were shuttered up and with the date of their revival uncertain, theatres remain out of bounds for those working in the industry and for audiences.
Those craving their return now look back with fondness on the crowded foyers. The jostle at the bars. The “sorry-those-are-our-seats-over-there” shuffle to the middle of the row. It is this closeness – both to the drama on stage and to those sharing the experience with you – that makes theatre so special.
With social distancing now a part of all of our lives, this closeness – theatre’s inevitable tactility – has become its Achilles heel. For the few theatres that might have a shot at making socially distanced auditoriums a financial plausibility, recent weeks have been spent working out the practicalities: masks, gloves and visors for staff, temperature screening on entry, two-metre-spaced queues for toilets.
The logistics are complicated, though not insurmountable. The bigger question is whether this appeals sufficiently to persuade punters back into our buildings in the interim before “normal service” can resume at some unspecified time in the future.
My job at Wilton’s Music Hall – a 350-seat theatre in east London – is to sell tickets. If you look in the right places on social media you’ll find a sizeable populous raring to return to our venues, unfazed by the prospect of lengthy queues and unusual seating arrangements. The National Theatre is actively exploring socially distant auditoriums. Rufus Norris is adamant that “we have to do what we can”. The figures from its Thursday streamings might also suggest the appetite is there: the double bill of Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch was watched by more than three million people.
Poll these viewers on whether they would consider actually stepping foot in a theatre any time soon, however, and you will likely get a different picture of the public’s enthusiasm for Theatreland’s return.
That’s what Indigo Ltd has been doing. For the past month the consultancy firm has been surveying audiences across the country about their theatregoing futures. One thing is already clear from the responses: the resuming of theatre trips is a long way off in the minds of most.
‘It looks as though the lure of theatre will maintain its power to open up audiences’ wallets’
So far, more than 86,000 theatregoers have responded to the survey. For 70% of respondents, it’s going to take them at least three to four months before they consider booking theatre tickets again. Were theatres to reopen, this in itself would only persuade a mere fifth to return immediately. The rest requiring further reassurance from government that it’s safe to do so. For some, a vaccine or near-to-complete suppression of the virus is the only route back.
It’s worth noting that 58% of the survey’s respondents are over-55s. This percentage may seem large, but it maps on to the wider theatre demographic. Arts Council England’s latest research on theatre audiences revealed 63% of audiences for London’s subsidised theatre are over-55s. The figure is slightly lower (50%) for commercial London theatre and it rises to 64% outside of London.
The sector has long been dependent on the loyalty of demographic groups such as these. But right now, the lives of many in these groups look set to be some of the most disrupted by Covid-19. As well as over-5s, to whom coronavirus poses a greater risk than it does to younger generations, it’ll take a while for tourists to return in their droves to our theatres. One third of Shakespeare’s Globe’s audiences are overseas visitors. With international travel set to be affected well into 2021, it makes you wonder when again will we see queues around the block for shows such as The Lion King.
Many in the industry – myself included – often overestimate how many committed theatre fans there are in our audiences. They could act as guinea pigs as we experiment with new ways of hosting theatre while social distancing exists.
The theatre ecology relies on a range of theatregoers with a range of theatregoing motivations. At Wilton’s, only 20% of our audience book for more than one show each year. For every die-hard fan there is someone who has come to the theatre for the first time on a whim. There’s a couple who have scrolled the internet to find their next date destination. There’s the family enjoying their annual trip to the West End.
Having spoken to hundreds of theatregoers since the shutdown, many are reluctant to return if they’re not going to get the bona fide theatre experience. Theatre is, of course, about the show. But it’s also about the sociability, the interval drinks and the stage door autographs.
Indigo’s survey asked people what they were most looking forward to about returning to the theatre. The “buzz of live entertainment” was the most popular response. Whether that buzz can be recreated with social distancing remains to be seen.
What’s certain is that theatres must launch fierce campaigns to entice audiences – once it is safe – back to our buildings. The good news is that, for the moment at least, it looks as though the lure of theatre will maintain its power to open up audiences’ wallets. A recent YouGov poll found 19% of those surveyed expects to spend more on theatre following lockdown, with only 14% predicting they might spend less.
With so many who have previously filled our theatres now obstructed from doing so, perhaps for a long time, we must use this as an opportunity to try to engage previously underrepresented audiences.
Marketing departments will likely look closer to home for local audiences – encouraged by the reigniting of community spirit that lockdown has brought with it. Young people too will be looked at afresh. And, of course, in the renewed search for relevance at this time, we should look to be guided by the diversity of the UK population.
At the beginning of this crisis, as they closed, many theatres signed off with the words “we’ll be back”. The neon lights atop London’s Old Vic proudly beam these words. Pending further support from government and a concerted philanthropic effort, this mantra will hopefully, for most theatres, become a reality. We must now start asking ourselves how we ensure that audiences come back with us.