Last week, London’s Old Vic Theatre fixed a November date to reopen with its well-established seasonal production A Christmas Carol. In the same week, US publication American Theatre ran an article about how willing theatregoers will be to start seeing shows again after the coronavirus restrictions have lifted.
Of the 2,726 people polled in the Washington DC area, almost half said they would wait several months before returning. A quarter said they would go back immediately.
The survey also revealed that 27% felt they would attend the theatre less often as a result of the crisis. Health issues, rather than economic factors, were the predominant concern.
For 67%, an available vaccine would bring them back to the theatre, while 56% said a venue being cleaned and disinfected after every performance would influence their decision in attending, together with measures such as making hand sanitiser available and social distancing.
I believe theatre can pull off the greatest comeback of all time. It relies on theatres and producers putting a flag in the sand, but also being realistic in their approach and thoughtful about how their strategy is conveyed to the industry and the public.
You can’t simply flip a switch – it is going to take time to get any production plans back in motion. Even without a global pandemic and theatres who have furloughed many of their employees, this is complex. We will also need clear government guidance, which may not arrive any time soon.
The survey results from the Washington theatregoers could be applied to many other cities around the world that boast a variety of arts venues and vibrant theatregoing communities.
It clearly shows how crucial it will be to rebuild confidence among audiences and industry workers alike. The seasoned theatregoer may be less deterred from returning, but the infrequent attendee and family groups whose outings help bolster weekly grosses and book in advance – often at full price – will also really matter.
The Broadway League had announced the closure of its theatres until June 7. But the need to present the idea of getting ‘back to business’ as swiftly as possible is making the whole situation nonsensical. This was highlighted when New York’s own governor, Andrew Cuomo, publicly dismissed its statement outright, saying: “I wouldn’t use what Broadway thinks as a barometer of anything unless they’re in the public health business and have seen better numbers and models.”
He is right, and as news reports from New York tell of a city gripped by the Covid-19 crisis, what tourist is going to look at the date of a supposed Broadway reopening and say: “Honey, whaddya think... feel like visiting the epicentre?”
You can’t simply flip a switch – it is going to take time to get any production plans back in motion
Equally, are actors going to want to perform eight times a week in front of a bunch of potential virus carriers? What about the risk to backstage crews, orchestras and theatre staff?
Might it be better for the theatre industry to stop this speculation over reopening every few weeks, and say that, nationally, every theatre will work together on fixing an agreed date when they will all look to reopen?
Following the Old Vic’s lead, perhaps setting a date in late autumn just ahead of Christmas would be an obvious target, although a strategy needs to be drawn up about how any subsequent delay would be handled.
Theatres need time to plan. This is going to be the single biggest opening ever and it must go off without a hitch.
The industry will still face massive challenges when it restarts over how it balances the different needs of the audience, company, front-of-house staff and backstage crew, especially if this happens before a vaccine is made widely available.
William Sutherland, a University of Cambridge professor who is studying post-lockdown global measures in society and is advising on policy, has suggested that people may need to enter and exit public buildings through different doorways, and then follow a one-way system.
It’s a model that may work for some office buildings or shops, but many theatres would be unable to operate in this way.
It doesn’t consider issues such as toilet or bar access, concession sales, security checks and box office – and that’s if a small box office space would even be considered a safe working environment.
If masks were to become compulsory in public, would the cast have to perform in them too? There is also the question of social distancing. If a theatre must have every other seat or row empty, then productions are not going to make their weekly running costs. And it doesn’t solve the problem of audience members who will need to squeeze past others to reach the middle seats.
Conditions backstage are often notoriously cramped and many have shared dressing rooms and small orchestra pits.
The psychological effects of this crisis must not be underestimated. No union is going to allow its members back to work without ensuring their health and safety has been properly addressed. On Broadway, coronavirus hit the companies of Frozen and Moulin Rouge hard. It understandably makes colleagues worry.
This may raise the question of how realistic it is that theatres reopen before a vaccine is found, but we cannot lose hope.
It’s why all theatres working together towards a viable late autumn reopening date could help to provide focus and time to plan. It would also build and renew confidence for workers and audiences in these confusing and challenging times.