VIEWS: #BackOnStage – the comebacks – and the dilemmas

So, the London biggies are back. PHANTOM, LION KING and several others have joined HAIRSPRAY and LES MIS: THE CONCERT in taking the plunge and are now #BackOnStage, open for business, to capacity (or near) audiences (Scotland opens to capacity from August 9th). And their audiences are responding emotionally, understandably. It’s great to have them back.

But in many ways, things are not the same. We have seen shows switch theatres due to colliding incomings and rental expiries, shows cancel performances due to Covid positives in the cast, big shows taking on extra performers to cover Covid-related absences, and so much more. The ever-changing impact on the financials is almost incalculable. It must be like trying to build a house on a trampoline. Currently THE PRINCE OF EGYPT is on an extended stand-down, planned to return on 12th August.

In terms of productions themselves, PHANTOM has a refurbished production, with stylistic alterations and a simpler, slightly less cunning set which is not as changed as some panicky social media lead people to believe. Further, it has had its orchestra almost halved (modern technology enables more pre-recorded tracks to augment and enhance the live musos). The theatre’s refurbishment of the auditorium has thrown up one surprise in that there are new, extra seats filling what was once a handy centre half-aisle in the stalls, adding a couple of dozen top (or near top)-price tickets to the capacity.

This has happened not only at Her Majesty’s, but also at the beautiful (and otherwise very positive) refurbishment at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where the stalls cross-aisle has gone. Both of these will be causing more problems for FoH staff trying to get guests and VIPs in and out as quickly as possible for entertaining (although granted at age 35, PHANTOM is unlikely to have many more VIPs (professional or paying customers) needing entertaining). And, it should be noted, reduced aisle space results in slower evacuation times in case of emergency. Perhaps ways in which VIPs are to be accommodated are changing too. It might be wise for them to consider this.

The story at Theatre Royal Drury Lane is more complex. The positive changes in the auditorium on each level have significantly raised the rake of the seating, enhancing sight lines which can only be universally welcomed, especially for the youngsters soon to be swarming all over FROZEN when its starts previews later this month.

Its not just large theatres who have battled with Covid. Small theatres such as the Turbine and Hope Mill Theatre have both had to cancel performances this week due to current draconian Covid isolation rules which further jeopardises their financials and future operations.

In the absence of across-the-board-government regulation, the West End has had to find its own way, still lacking any insurance system that would protect shows in the same way as film and TV production. Aiming to show some leadership, now we have confirmation that ATG Theatres and Delfont Mackintosh Theatres are now requiring Covid certification for attendees to their shows. Ah, but…. Except for under 18s, who can “just say” that they haven’t got Covid. Like the Scouts’ promise. Hmmm….And there is now the “suggestion” that you wear a mask inside the venue, not a requirement.

I wonder, how different would the death tolls on our roads be today if all those years ago, motorists had been “requested” but not required to wear a seat belt, and “advised” not to drink and drive?

This in comparison to New York, admittedly not yet back itself, but where last week the Broadway League announced all audience members must have been vaccinated before entering any of the 41 Broadway theatres, bolstered a few days later by Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a mandate requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination to gain entry to performance venues. Concerted action of the like we have yet to see.

Unlike New York, ours is not as robust a system of management; although I quite understand theatres have to be seen to be doing something. They are clearly in an utterly impossible position, sandwiched between the incompetence of the government and its “nicely-nicely” guidelines (which most will ignore without a second thought) and the cold, hard fact that a deadly, global pandemic is still raging amongst us. Yes, the case numbers have more or less halved – but so has the quantity of testing!

And in amongst all of this, let’s think about things from the point of view of those who make it all work – the audiences. After 18 months of fear and caution, it is unreasonable to expect audiences to simply snap back to acting (and reacting) the way they did pre-pandemic. Pandemic habits are the new normal for many millions of people, and that includes many previous theatregoers, and I suggest they will take many more months to adapt. Box office figures are very mixed right now, and it will take time for audiences to return to full confidence. Theatres that listen carefully to their audiences are more likely to succeed; those offering socially-distanced performances in their mix will help to encourage the anxious to return in a measured and compassionate way.

Audiences have their own internal dynamics, made infinitely more complex by Covid. Who has had it as opposed to those who have not; those who willingly wear masks against those who will not; those who are older as opposed to those who are younger; the potential for clashes are manifold.

Let’s remember that audiences come to theatres for escape. Sadly the one thing no-one can fully escape right now is Covid. And the connection between people’s innermost feelings of safety and security and their potential to be compromised in a crowded place where they do not feel fully in control will take a long time to play out.

Finally, an unfortunate piece of timing, I truly feel for parents, that in this month of Kidsweek, when kids are rightly longing to get back to normal, they are the ones who have to navigate all this confusion in a way that doesn’t disappoint their little ones and doesn’t also trigger their own anxieties and uncertainties. Added to the facts that a significant proportion of Covid is being spread unwittingly by youngsters who haven’t even had the chance of vaccination. And when you get to that theatre, at the appointed time, can you imagine going to and from your seats for ice cream, or to take that sudden trip to the loo you hadn’t planned for? I sincerely wish all you parents well, as well as the valiant front of house staff at all open theatres, who are doing a great job trying to enforce the unenforceable.

VIEWS: A time for focus

Well, I hadn’t expected for this to be a continuing series ,but things are changing quite quickly so I felt it was important to take a few moments to make a few observations.

Since the West End (and other shows) have reopened, albeit piecemeal, it has been a turbulent time. Some shows have realised that it will take longer to get back to pre-pandemic audiences, and have consequently postponed or cancelled national tours, adding further uncertainty to the ever-shifting schedules of regional theatres.

In the West End, shows at the Coliseum , the Dominion and Royal Court have had backstage or cast members register a positive COVID-test, which meant that their show had to close down for 10 days while everyone isolates. Let’s compare this to a footballer, who tests positive but the team can continue training and playing. Level playing field, I think not.

While 10 days closure seems very cautious indeed, what we must also remember are the knock-on effects of this. Hard-pressed Box Offices are beseiged with calls from customers wanting to reschedule their visits, not all of them happy or empathetic, with all the accompanying stress that brings (not all customers are lovely about changing their plans, believe you me!).

Further, you may not know but everyone who is forced to isolate receives no pay whatsoever. Can you imagine how precarious this all feels to a performer or backstage worker who was so elated at getting a job after 16 months, only to have the financial lifeline it provides pulled from under their feet. Requests have been made to adjust the quarantine requirements, but of course we see how slowly this government acts- if at all. This is a key impact of the Government not providing support in the form of an insurance-backed scheme to compensate producers for any losses due to Covid stoppages. Exactly the same sort of insurance coverage helped the Film and TV industry get back to work over a year ago. Why did the Government not help theatres too? You decide.

I am sure you can appreciate this makes no sense at all, but then why should we ask for sense from a government which clearly hasn’t a clue, with no concept of right or wrong, fair or discriminatory, compassionate or cruel. They just don’t care.

I have heard that performers in cancelled shows are receiving abusive or threatening messages via social media, which is utterly unacceptable. If any performers or crew member receives abuse, they should report it to the police immediately. It’s understandable that people are upset. A LOT of people are upset. But being upset at the wrong people is wrong – and no way to get anything sorted.

This COVID mess , if it is anyone’s fault, is the Government’s -from mistiming lockdowns and unlockings, to giving incorrect and confusing advice from start to finish which now leaves us back in the situation we were in at Christmas, with cases likely to soar to new heights, putting evermore pressure on our valued NHS.

Big shows like HAIRSPRAY at the Coliseum are taking on 12 extra performers to try to cover them for any future COVID- related restrictions, but very few shows (if any in this appallingly difficult time) could afford the budget to do that. And just imagine how that is cutting into the profit margin for what was already a tightly-forecast 12-week run.

Meanwhile, another change to contend with is that audiences are now sitting up close and personal to each other in venues packed to full capacity after the misleadingly-titled Freedom Day. My projection is that many will not feel ready for this after more than a year of separation – and that consequently, they will feel desperately uncomfortable, unsafe and unsure – they will reschedule where they can, others will simply not go and others wont buy tickets until they see the case numbers going down in a big way.

The Summer is usually one of theatres’ boom times, as tourists flock to our world-beating entertainment scene. The tourists aren’t here this year, so venues have to work even harder to get UK audiences in- and it’s not easy in a heatwave as we’ve had this last week, even in normal times. Theatres will be more than ever subject to last-minute booking which brings uncertainty as to their financial projections, and may certainly cause some producers to slash ticket prices in a panic to get any price for a seat. I hope this won’t happen, but rising case numbers and extreme weather make this more likely. I hope not, but,….

VIEWS: “So great to be back!” – West End theatres first audiences report…

If there’s anyone reading this who is feeling a little unsure about returning to theatre, let me assure you that you are not alone. Many people have contacted me over the last few weeks asking about how it’s all going, are the protocols in place working, how do people feel, etc. So this seemed like a good time to take a survey some of those who have already made their way into our West End theatres. So I did. And here are the major takeaways from what they all said. Respondents visited a sample of all the West End theatre groups which are currently open and showing work, and the feedback is intended to give you a general overview, as opposed to a theatre-by-theatre approach.

Did you have instructions when to arrive on your tickets? All respondents said that their confirmation email containing their e-tickets outlined when doors would open, where to enter, and what time they needed to be seated by.

What were your feelings of anticipation of returning to the theatre? The general response was that they were really looking forward to returning, particularly supporting the industry and enjoying a night out after so many months away from live theatre.

What were your feelings upon arrival at the theatre? One respondent responded they felt a little cautious, but the rest said they felt absolutely fine, and were eagerly anticipating their show.

Were there temperature checks/bag searches/any other entry processes? If so, were they conducted well? Anything they could improve upon? All respondents reported that Front of House processes were very well managed, and that there were separate queues, depending on where in the theatre one was sitting. There was unanimous praise for the helpful staff on hand to guide patrons to the correct queue. At all venues surveyed, our respondents were asked to scan the NHS Covid check-in QR code, but there were few temperature checks reported. All of the surveyed theatres were operating bag searches before entering the theatre, and hand sanitisers were noted as being widely available throughout all the theatres surveyed. Audiences were specifically instructed to keep masks on at all times when not drinking, and staff were reported as wandering the aisles throughout to ensure compliance. Some were reported as carrying signs to remind people about wearing masks.

Did you have any ticket issues? One respondent mentioned having trouble accessing her ticket PDF on her phone, and so she was redirected to the Box Office where paper tickets were made available. Respondent noted that the staff were very helpful and unflustered by this.

Re scanning the NHS QR code, did you each have to scan or could one person do it for your party? Each person had to scan separately. Patrons who didn’t have the app were asked to manually complete a form which were readily available on entry to the theatre.

How were the staff? Were there more than you expected or less of them? Staff were very friendly and helpful and clearly delighted to be back – but also very vigilant with ensuring mask compliance throughout. It was noted that staff were doing a great job, being firm but friendly and helpful. It was also noted that there were significantly more Front of House staff than previously seen around venues.

Any issues around queuing? One respondent had to queue to buy a programme, but was not fazed by this.

How was navigating your way around the building? Very easy, with clear signage. One respondent noted that “Pre-pandemic there was always a sense of rushing in the foyers, but this was all well-ordered and good-humoured”

Any problems? None reported

Any issues with your seats or surroundings? No issues, with appropriate seats blocked off to ensure social distancing at all venues surveyed.

How full was the theatre? Very mixed reactions to this one. The lowest was from a respondent who reported around 35% of socially-distanced capacity for their performance, albeit in the first week of reopening, on Friday. Several more mentioned varying percentages, up to 100% of socially-distanced capacity for a Saturday matinee in week two of reopening.

What was “the buzz” like? Several people noted the reduced numbers affected the “buzz” in the auditorium, but for several that was compensated by the excitement of those who were there. Very few reported any feelings of nervousness or anxiety, perhaps a sign that the Front of House teams are succeeding in helping people feel comfortable, by being so vigilant and friendly. All respondents described a level of “comeback high” at the end of their performance, a step towards normality that all were grateful for.

Did your show have an interval? Was it well-managed by the staff? Several shows had an interval and overall it was reported that they were well managed, with staff and patrons being mindful and kind.

Any issues around loos/queuing/bars/etc ? No major issues, with all mentioning that patrons were bring sensible and considerate, especially in queuing for the loos, still sadly an issue for the ladies. One respondent noted an issue at the bar – “restrictions meant only one person in each party could buy drinks from the bar to prevent crowding. A gentleman went to the bar to buy 3 mini bottles of wine/bubbly and was told he couldn’t take glass back into the theatre, and had to pour these into glasses before returning, however the glasses themselves weren’t big enough to hold the volume of liquid in each bottle, and he struggled to physically carry these back”.

Another respondent noted the strict queuing system for the bars at her show’s interval. “It was just like going to the bank!” she said, “personally, I think this is a brilliant idea that should be kept.”

Were there any issues with leaving the theatre? None reported.

What was your overall impression of the theatre’s handling of the safety processes and procedures. Overall we would say staff had been very well briefed and protocols were good

Would you recommend a theatre trip to others? “Yes, absolutely!” was the unanimous response from all those surveyed. One respondent mentioned “Although the theatre was relatively empty we more than made up for it in encouragement and appreciation of the performers, and it was such a lovely evening.”

Any tips on what to look out for? Issues to avoid? Nothing specific was noted by any of the respondents.

Conclusions My thanks to all the respondents for giving me their views and sharing them with all of us. It certainly appears that West End theatres are doing a splendid job of welcoming audiences back, taking sensible measures and enforcing them with a professionalism and warmth that the West End is famous for. I hope that these responses will help you make up your own mind about when and how you return to the West End – it has certainly helped me to feel much more confident about getting back to theatre, and Seeing It Safely!

VIEWS: Theatres under the microscope

Gary Donaldson, founder of Unrestricted Theatre, shares his hopes and concerns about theatre’s ultimate comeback.

So May 17th is the date from which theatres can reopen at 50% capacity.

I’m sure some trepidation is being felt in arts venues across the country right now. The venues may have all the pieces of the Front of House plan, but we will only know how they work when we see them in action. Staggered arrival times, multiple entry points, hands-free bag searches, mask protocol inside the building, temperature checks are all designed for audiences to feel reassured that they can “See It Safely” as the slogan goes, but how they might feel throughout the process is yet to be tested.

Undoubtedly a lot was learned by those venues who were able to open in the run up to last Christmas, but this will be an ongoing exercise now and it will be very interesting to see how audiences react, and how venues respond to the many demands that will undoubtedly be placed upon their long-suffering front line – their Front of House staff.

It’s all very well for theatre staff to seat an audience. How they control things after the show has begun is another matter entirely. The dynamic of an audience is an ever-shifting thing, and I am intrigued to see how Covid has affected audiences’ behaviour – which it undoubtedly will have.

Part of the key of a good night out is that audiences can relax and are “taken out of themselves” for a couple of hours. Will they be able to do that – or will they be looking over their shoulder at that person who coughed?

Often at this time of year in a normal theatre cycle there is some kind of promotion following on from Get Into London Theatre in January and preceding Kidsweek in August. It is certainly good to see that the newly re-elected Mayor, Sadiq Khan has announced a major domestic tourism campaign called LET’S DO LONDON which features London’s arts and cultural activities at its heart, although discounting appears to be missing from this raft of proposals, which have been needed even in pre-pandemic times.

The actual number of shows opening on May 17th are relatively small. One reason for this is the financials. Most theatres running at 50% capacity will be running at a loss. Most shows need to run around 70  per cent capacity simply to break even, and commercial theatre is a hard world even in normal times. A lot of the big shows have hedged their bets and have announced they will reopen in June, July, August – but they are all banking on the hope that they can run at full capacity from late June, which is by no means a given as yet. It’s never easy being a producer, but right now might be the hardest it ever gets.

How audiences will feel about this rapid change in circumstances- from 50% to potential 100% occupancy- will depend on many external factors which are out of the theatres’ hands.

Will audiences be put off by having to produce a Covid Certificate to state they they have had their jabs or that they have tested positive very recently. Personally, I doubt this will come into play as it’s way too complex a task to manage in the very limited timeframe to do it.

There are those people who will rush to see almost anything, for the experience of being in a live theatre situation again. There will be many more who are looking forward to going who will have anxieties about how long they remain in the same environment with a large number of people, some of whom will undoubtedly take their masks off – and the Front of House staff will never be able to manage that.

Research proves that social anxiety has rocketed during the pandemic, and simply “going back to normal” is not going to assuage that for a lot of people. Therefore Front of House staff will need to be incredibly kind, caring and diplomatic in the way they handle audience members who may feel agitated or overwhelmed by any aspect of the theatregoing experience. It’s going to be a more demanding job than ever- and I am sure our wonderful theatre staffs will do their utmost. But we also need to remember that those capable and talented Front of House staff have all been through their own experience of Covid, unique to them in their experience and response to it- and so audiences should ideally try to treat them with mutual respect and kindness. There are a lot of unknowns in this new equation.

Announced ticket initiatives too, with free exchanges up to 24 hours before the performance, will help audiences build back confidence in booking shows. But I wonder how much of this can theatres do? The running costs of a show in a West End theatre are huge, and whether the ticket sales can support all of this flexible activity remains to be seen.

Regarding the shows themselves, it’s notable that smaller shows will be leading the way back in the West End. Nimax co-owner and producer Nica Burns has taken the opportunity to promote a smart business idea in providing platforms for over a dozen young emerging producers to make their mark in the West End with small-scale, short runs of new shows which otherwise would not receive such a high-profile exposure. The turnover and small scale may help to reduce the risks involved for the producers and the theatre. If something were to cause a show to be pulled, then the loss would not be as great as pulling a larger show in a longer run. The difficulty is that the government has still not provided an insurance support scheme for theatres and productions affected negatively by Covid, scandalous considering they jumped to create and make available just such a scheme to film and TV organisations one full year ago.

Whether the audiences will turn out for these smaller-scale comeback shows will be very interesting to see, but Ms Burns has undoubtedly sown a lot of seeds of goodwill with the initiative which will also test out the audience management systems and provide useful intelligence as to how to move forward when the traditional, larger-scale, longer running shows resume later in the year, to larger capacities (assuming all continues well).

In practical terms the science has shown that surface contamination and deep-cleaning of auditoria are secondary concerns to the need for good ventilation. Thankfully, most theatres have good air-con systems which will no doubt be turned up full. As a knock-on effect, this may make your next theatre visit feel a little chillier than you might have anticipated – so take a woolly!

Whatever happens will be watched very closely by everyone with an interest in the live arts. Let us wish everyone well and a successful experiment. Because right now, we don’t know if it will work. All we can do is hope – but theatres’ futures depend on it.