When the National Theatre first opened its doors, artistic director Laurence Oliver set a policy that the front two rows at every performance would be sold as day seats at a heavily reduced price.
He called them “ripple seats” and there was a simple logic behind the name: that those who had queued early for the chance of bagging a last-minute spot would be the most excited and eager audience members.
As a result, their energy right in the front of the stalls would ripple back through the auditorium as well as up to the actors on stage. This ticket policy continues today and continues to be popular with audiences.
Last week, the New York Times reported that the Hesse State Theatre in Wiesbaden, Germany, had reopened its doors. It was a sign of hope, but reading the article, it was impossible not to be struck by the stark image of the auditorium layout in which this beautiful 1,000-seat venue was reduced to fewer than 200 socially distanced seats.
Interval drinks and concessions, meanwhile, were served from a cart outside the theatre to ensure no lobby areas were congregated by audience members. The performance was a concert by Austrian singer Günther Groissböck accompanied by a pianist and felt reflective of perhaps the scale of presentation that could be economically viable until audiences can sit together again.
It served to reiterate the comments of Cameron Mackintosh who last week scrapped his entire UK and Ireland tour of The Phantom of the Opera, saying social distancing in auditoriums would make the delivery of large-scale productions impossible.
It’s also a bit depressing if the immediate future of live theatre is going to be monologues and two-handers, with costs making it prohibitively expensive to do much more. Theatre thrives on the big and the small and funding must not lose sight of both. Nonetheless, Hesse State Theatre’s reopening was still a flag in the sand, and a small step forward.
Yet, looking at the live experience it offered and requirements to make it work, there is an inevitable question of exactly what this really offers audience or actors. Of course, many would say: “It’s better than nothing”, but do we risk more damage by devaluing the live experience?
If theatre is going to recover, it must look at how it can recapture the joy of watching something live together
Much of the joy in theatregoing, whether in a community hall or a large opera house, is the atmosphere and rippling energy from fellow audience members which often creates those thrilling ‘I was there’ moments.
If theatre is going to recover, it must look at how it can recapture the joy of watching something live together. Not only do we have to fight the virus, but the fear around it too.
In the US, producers are suggesting the city of Chicago as a possible centre to test drive the country’s own reopening of their theatres. It has a big concentration of theatres from Broadway road houses to store-fronts and a savvy local audience.
The city may be the ideal place to explore ideas, located away from New York and some distance from any other major city. This means time can be allowed for these ideas and experiments to be carried out. The successful results can then be applied to theatres around the country.
Concentrating first on one theatre community and getting this right would avoid the chaos of venues all over the country opening at the same time. These test runs would establish how best to tackle the many issues that will inevitably emerge both backstage and front of house.
Should our government support a similar model in the UK? Andrew Lloyd Webber, owner of the London Palladium, is already using it as a test bed for his West End theatres – and funding this himself.
Lloyd Webber is basing his potential models and research for reopening on what is happening in South Korea, where theatres have remained open during the pandemic.
However, few have the same level of funding or resource available to them as either Lloyd Webber or South Korea, and studies need to be conducted across a range of theatre spaces to develop realistic models and plans that are suitable and achievable for theatres working at all levels of budget.
Similar to the considerations being made about Chicago as a test centre for the US theatre industry, in the UK it may make more sense to trial these developments at a theatre outside London, such as Theatre Royal Plymouth or Norwich Theatre Royal.
Both these theatres have large main-house auditoriums and smaller venues, including Norwich’s Stage Two and Norwich Playhouse, and Plymouth’s flexible Drum Studio, each with their own staff, which would help make test projects manageable. Both are some distance from other big cities and boast strong loyal local theatregoing communities.
Much like the Track and Trace trial on the Isle of Wight, it would make sense for the government to look at tapping into test organisations like these to prepare venues UK-wide to meet reopening and delivery requirements for audience, staff and producers.
It is important during the lockdown that the habit of theatregoing is not broken. We must ensure that audiences feel safe to return, so their energy that fuels our industry continues to ripple through it as soon as the crisis ends.