The impact of Covid-19 cannot be compared to any previous crisis that has ever affected theatre and the arts.
In the coming months, there will be a considerable need to restore public confidence, and the longer theatres are closed, the harder this will become. One barrier to renewing public confidence is the risk of subsequent outbreaks after the first wave calms down, which could put us back at square one.
When things do finally return to a certain normality, Covid-19 may also provide some theatres and festivals with a convenient ‘out’ on a production. Shows that were struggling at the box office and were heading for closure – regardless of the outbreak of Covid-19 – will instead use this reason to take the focus away from any negative issues.
Meanwhile, a show that’s already booked but yet to open, and which had not been selling well before the crisis started, could be pulled, with the presenter considering that even if they had to pay a partial cancellation fee, it may still save them considerable sums. This would be a potentially devastating blow for any producer with limited funds who is trying to regroup and survive.
Postponements and delays to productions started sometime before Boris Johnson’s briefing on Monday, which advised the public to avoid theatres. More than a week earlier, Andrew Lloyd Webber had announced the West End postponement of his new musical Cinderella, which was due to open in August and has been moved back to October.
As one of theatres most identifiable global figures – even among those who rarely, if ever, go to see a live performance – his comments will have resonated with many already anxious members of the public. I understood Lloyd Webber’s reason for quickly releasing a widely reported statement delaying his production’s world premiere, but I also question whether his announcement was made too early.
It also happened while the Society of London Theatre was trying to maintain a united front and reassure the public, especially with regard to shows that were playing on its stages, but were seriously starting to struggle at the box office. They had sought to do this by posting their own statement: “Official advice states that there is currently no clear rationale to cancel events or postpone international travel, and the government encourages business as usual.”
Throughout this crisis, timing has been critical and real care is now needed over when and how information is conveyed. We need clarity and strong reasons behind any decisions that are taken.
Throughout this crisis, timing has been critical and real care is now needed over when and how information is conveyed
There is the question of whether the government should have moved faster to close theatres. On Monday, when Boris Johnson advised the public to stay away from theatres, even then he did not issue a directive to actually close them. That decision was immediately taken by the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatres.
They were in an untenable position where they had to put public safety first and demonstrate a duty of care. At that point, deciding to keep theatres open would have made the industry look like it was putting profit before safety, and fallout would have been immense.
However, Johnson’s advice to stay away came came at a time (5pm) when many people were already on route to the theatre for evening performances. While New York governor Andrew Cuomo ordered Broadway to close, throwing some shows a lifeline, Johnson’s guidance did not provide the necessary directive for insurance pay-outs.
In certain instances, “failure to open” is a clause that allows partial insurance to be claimed. This means that a number of Broadway shows scheduled to open ahead of the Tony-nomination deadline are likely to now be abandoned entirely with the decision taken that making a claim for losses is the better option.
This is a heartbreaking situation for writers, composers, artists and creative teams who may have spent years working on a project to get it to Broadway and who will be left feeling robbed of what may have been their big break.
The Adelaide Fringe and Festival ended last Sunday. It dodged a bullet, as audience capacity restrictions didn’t come into force in Australia until the day after their festivals ended. Unfortunately, other events may not be so lucky.
The escalation in restrictions for global travel understandably caused a subdued end to an otherwise successful festival and fringe, with many companies, artists and fringe workers anxiously leaving Adelaide with onward dates cancelled and facing uncertain times ahead.
The rapid way this crisis has escalated is what’s been most disturbing. When I was eating my Christmas dinner with family and friends less than three months ago, the idea that the world would be in lockdown would have been inconceivable.
In these bleakest of moments, it’s important to remember that this unprecedented crisis will also eventually pass. It was a point ably made by veteran Adelaide Fringe performer Cam Venn at the end of his new show Shark Heist: “I may be having to now go and be present online for a bit instead of live, so it’s important we all stay connected and take care of each other, but especially not to forget that when this crisis is over, that you do remember to still come back and see all of us performers on stage again.”
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan