As both commercial and not-for-profit theatres deal with the devastating economic impact of coronavirus shutdowns, conversation has mostly revolved around when venues will be able to open their doors again.
This happens on a rolling basis: institutional organisations first shut down for weeks, then for the spring, and now, at least in the US, for the summer.
Broadway, representing 40 large New York theatres with that designation, first closed through to Easter, then until early June. But New York’s governor has already cast doubt on the likelihood of that second date being viable.
Even as workers at every level of the live performance field have had to deal with staggering layoffs and redundancies, the Holy Grail has been the day when theatres can relight and start trying to claw their way back to normality.
That ignores some of the predictions, which suggest that even with the widespread social distancing, shelter in place and self-isolating measures followed by many, the virus is not a one-and-done experience.
Reports featuring projections by epidemiologists and other medical professionals indicate that, not unlike the flu pandemic of 1918, it will take several rounds of infection before this viral strain burns out.
If antibody tests and vaccines start to mitigate the spread and permit at least partial reopening, there’s still a strong possibility that this scourge will be having an ongoing impact on entertainment into 2021. That’s even before the long tail of human and economic damage fully plays out and true recovery begins.
Consequently, planning needs to take place now for the ebb and flow of managing the virus’ effect on the arts – as if something as indiscriminate as disease can be managed. The central question is: is it better to reopen as safely but quickly as possible in the short term, only to have to close again in just a few months, or better to play a long game with an extended shutdown that means reopening only when the threat is genuinely passed?
There’s still a strong possibility that this scourge will be having an ongoing impact on entertainment into 2021
It may be heretical even to broach the latter option. However, at a time of vigorous debate about how the reliance on recorded theatre, or theatre artists writing for video-conferencing apps, may alter the field or fail even to approximate it, every eventuality must be considered.
Just as 9/11 yielded a profound change in ticket-buying habits in the US, could rolling cancellations result in making patrons even more averse to advance purchases?
Ticketmaster is infuriating customers by altering its policies (previously postponements warranted a refund, but now the company says only full cancellations will do so). The much smaller Brown Paper Tickets is inexplicably and worryingly holding on to sales money for performances that were given, further damaging cash flow to companies at a moment when any income is essential. If patrons cannot trust their money to be safe in the act of buying theatre tickets, even greater problems arise.
While giving in to pessimism won’t help matters, neither will irrational optimism. Like some sports leagues, we may have to consider the stopgap of having shows performed in empty theatres, so they may be live-streamed or archived until this period is at an end, safely sustaining employment for theatre artists who have recovered from or show specific antibodies to Covid-19.
The live experience will always be central to theatre, but we cannot rule out interim measures that sustain the form and those who make it.
There is no easy solution here. But we certainly cannot afford to expect that one day soon theatres can reopen to all, even if patrons have their temperatures checked before entering venues and productions hand out facemasks emblazed with show logos.
All kinds of businesses encourage thinking outside the box. In the case of the performing arts, we must now genuinely think outside the box, before we can safely, effectively and responsibly start bringing people back into the black box.