In late May, on the day the McDonald’s drive-throughs opened, I had to take my dad to the hospital. We were caught in a traffic jam caused by cars leaving the outlet and could sense the joy of those in neighbouring cars who had bagged a burger. They held up their brown paper bags with glee. Asking the occupants of one car how long they had queued in the hot sun, they told me: “More than an hour, but it was worth every minute.”
Will there be the same level of joy when theatres reopen? Maybe from some dedicated theatre-lovers and those working in the industry itself, who will be rightly joyous at the prospect of future employment. But I doubt that most of the population will have really clocked the absence, and many may never notice unless the annual panto fails to materialise. The question is: what would the industry have to do (apart from flogging French fries) to be as essential as McDonald’s or football?
There is, of course, a difference between art and a burger, but as I wrote last summer about the silent disco phenomenon on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: “It was everywhere. All the time, and roundly derided and complained about as a disfiguring nuisance by theatre professionals. But look at the joy on those people’s faces. When I asked those serving me in cafes and shops if they had seen anything on the fringe, most said no, but if they had it was often silent disco. And they had loved it.
Perhaps rather than jeering the arts could learn from that. People like to do, not just watch.” The West End version of silent disco, aimed at musical theatre lovers, starts on August 1, long before the West End shows it celebrates will be able to reopen.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s experiments at the Palladium are welcome. But getting audiences back into theatres once they fling open their doors is not going to be easy. Several people have suggested to me that much of the data held by theatres about audiences is likely to be rendered irrelevant in the wake of the lockdown. Many regular theatregoers who bought pricier seats in the past may not just be reluctant to sit in a theatre, but also reluctant to get on public transport or risk using theatre toilets.
Then there is the fact that being a regular theatregoer is a matter of habit. I must confess I haven’t missed going to the theatre as much as I thought I would, but that is largely because there hasn’t been any on. For me, the habit isn’t broken. But for lots of people it will have been, just as the habit of buying a daily latte has been broken. Psychologists say that it takes about 10 weeks to make or break a habit. We have now hit 20 weeks of theatre shutdown.
Then there are personal levels of risk. A report by the Audience Agency published in 2016 found that the average age of theatre audiences was 52, and on the rise. In the absence of a vaccine or a cure, it will have to be something very special indeed to tempt an older audience back into the theatre. Clearly that is Sonia Friedman’s thinking with the cryptic Mark Rylance/Jerusalem announcement. But will it be special enough?
Much of the data about audiences is likely to be rendered irrelevant in the wake of lockdown
In the new world that theatre finds itself in, there is a more urgent need than ever to dismantle the barriers that make much of the population think theatre is not for them. There must be as much emphasis on thinking about the vast audience theatres do not yet serve, as in welcoming back the theatregoers of yesteryear who may prove resistant to enticement.
One of the things that the shutdown has demonstrated is that there is an appetite for theatre across more than one platform, and blended digital and physical models are likely to be the future. But unlike previous crises faced by the industry, which have led theatres to give their existing audience what they think they want, the way out of the current situation may require much more – rather than less – risk-taking.
This means more risk with form, including about how and where theatre might happen within and outside buildings, and about who makes it and why. More experimentation with content including different stories told by different people. Different income models that don’t turn every individual’s encounter with a theatre into a transaction.
It’s hard to be radical when facing financial meltdown, but maybe this is the moment to be honest as a sector and admit that the only real barriers to access are the ones we choose to keep in place. Dismantle those barriers and maybe people would be as excited about what their local theatre offers as their local takeaway.