Like many of Boris Johnson’s announcements, last Friday’s news that indoor performances may resume in a socially distanced way on August 1 – subject to the success of pilot schemes – came with little advance warning. It did, at least, afford indoor theatres two weeks to prepare, in contrast to the four days that outdoor theatres received.
This news is a step in the right direction, but before we get overexcited and rush out to buy those front-stall seats for September, the reality is that there remains a long journey ahead. The first hurdle is the pilot schemes, which must work.
Already Andrew Lloyd Webber has invested in heavy-duty virus monitoring equipment from South Korea, which is now sat in the London Palladium. He is looking to South Korea’s model, which allowed the country to keep its theatre doors open at capacity throughout the pandemic.
While government announcements are easy to make, delivery can be far more challenging, and the recent guidelines announced for reopening theatres, rehearsal and production are complex and impractical.
The pilot scheme will help to address much of this and will hopefully find solutions, but it will require time to implement across our theatres and rehearsal rooms. Real care also needs to be taken with the response to recognise the diversity of our venues: it cannot be a one-size-fits-all rule, especially as few have the same resources as Lloyd Webber.
There is a variation in operations that needs to be considered: a touring house, or music or comedy venue, with a mix of weekly or one-night engagements, might be considered higher risk with regularly changing companies, compared with a West End house hosting a fixed run.
Pilot schemes cannot solely focus on one scale or sector, particularly as regional theatres and arts centres may be the most crucial component in our industry’s recovery, as audiences will potentially travel less and feel more reassured by staying local.
Although this news comes too late for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it does afford some hope for the Brighton Fringe, which had moved its dates to the autumn and would be a valuable partner in any pilot scheme.
Considerable risk remains for anyone committing funds to a production
A big question is: does this save Christmas? Already some theatres have scrapped their holiday shows. Johnson said in his press conference that it could be “conceivably possible” to move away from one-metre social distancing measures by November, depending upon control of the virus, but with no guarantee.
Considerable risk remains for anyone committing funds to a production, along with the underlying threat of further local lockdowns. Crucially, this will all come down to the confidence of audiences, who must feel safe to return in the numbers needed to make up operating costs. The industry will also need government assurance that when we do reopen, insurance companies will protect us. Without either, the welcome news of reopenings will leave us vulnerable.