While there is, quite understandably, a lot of focus on when theatres might reopen, the equally important question is ‘how?’.
There is a big difference between theatres reopening in September or January (or whenever) and their being able to operate at something like full capacity, and theatres reopening at any of those times but under significant restrictions due to social distancing measures.
Would it be preferable to open sooner but have to play to no more than 50% capacity, or to wait a few more months but be able to play at something approaching full capacity? What if the allowed capacity was only 30%? What if it was more than a few months?
How will front of house and backstage work? How will audiences get to their seats? Or the theatre? Will they use public transport? If so, will there be social distancing measures there? If not, is there a point to public distancing measures within theatres? How will this affect employment levels and pay?
The answers to these questions – and many others – will differ from theatre to theatre, but if restrictions are put into place they are unlikely to be flexible or tailored to different types of venue.
Theatre must devise a blueprint that will work for the majority, otherwise the danger is that the government will come up with that blueprint itself
There won’t be a single solution that works perfectly for everybody. A show with lower running costs could, for example, afford to play to smaller houses than one with higher running costs. A remounting of a previous production likewise. West End and fringe theatres are likely to have more cramped communal areas front of house and backstage than modern, purpose-built venues. Having any restrictions in place might make immersive theatre completely impossible.
That said, theatre needs to come up with some form of blueprint that will work for the majority, otherwise the danger is that the government will come up with that blueprint itself. Then, we risk ending up with restrictions that are impractical for the majority and the nightmare scenario of the lifeline of government support also being removed.
Conversations about the ‘how’ are happening – in closed groups, often in silos of people who hold similar roles at similar organisations.
But, writing for us last month, producer Sonia Friedman stressed that “We will all have to work together… with the single objective to get our beloved industry back on its feet as soon as possible”.
She’s right. Theatre is a broad church and what we actually need is an open discussion, involving a variety of theatre professionals from organisations of different shapes and sizes, plus independents who don’t represent any organisations, to work out what is the best possible solution for theatre as a whole.
This is a decision that will affect everyone who works in this industry and will potentially shape the whole of the sector for many years to come. It will require everyone to work together to come up with a solution.