As theatres explore the realities of reopening with social distancing in place, it is understandable to think first about how things would work for the audience and front-of-house staff. Fewer people, however, are thinking about what it would mean for staff, both performers and crew, working backstage – where social distancing will be even harder to pull off.
Firstly, it would be virtually impossible to incorporate social distancing into the staging of many shows. How would a production of West Side Story work if the cast had to perform all of the fighting and dancing whilst maintaining a two-metre distance from one another? The issue goes further when you consider the fact that the cast and crew get even closer to each other in the wings than they do on stage.
Wing space tends to be tight, and there are usually a number of crew members – especially sound engineers, stage management and wardrobe – fulfilling important roles, with quick changes and cast members running between wings for their next entrance. Any complex show would simply no longer work backstage if social distancing was required.
Venue staff – including stage cew and wardrobe – are often also present in the wings. They are integral to the running of the show and undertake roles from lifting and setting of scenic items to assisting with costume changes. It is clear how the virus could spread quickly from the touring company to the local crew, and on into the local community.
Theatres all over the UK, including in the West End, struggle with space backstage. Corridors are narrow and dressing rooms are small, with very little ventilation in some cases. There are very few instances in which members of the company are not required to share rooms. Social distancing would mean that shows with large touring companies would not be able to visit many theatres as there wouldn’t be enough dressing rooms to accommodate everyone.
Another problem would be that, with advice in place to isolate should any symptoms of the virus occur, the capacity to cover cast and crew absences would be reduced very quickly, leading to an increase in show cancellations – a very rare occurrence in normal circumstances. If company members also had to isolate for 14 days, the tour would have to be put on regular hiatus until enough people could return to work.
One of the biggest issues facing the reintroduction of touring theatre is accommodation. When on tour, the vast majority of cast and crew members stay in spare rooms in people’s houses. People are unlikely to advertise their rooms while the virus is still at large, and even if they did, the risk of spreading infection from household to lodger, and vice versa, is high.
Without a substantial hike in touring allowance, hotels would also be out of the question. The allowance provided to cover food and accommodation per week rarely covers the costs for even the most budget-conscious among us. Hotels would make touring unreasonably expensive.
A touring show could easily spread the virus to all corners of the country
There are many risks posed to cast and crew backstage, especially on tour. By its very nature, a touring show could easily spread the virus to all corners of the country. Those planning the return of the industry must introduce stringent safety measures to ensure the continued health and safety of all and, crucially, they must not forget the people who work on stage and behind the scenes.