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.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK is back, with free seats to under-18s

The legendary long-running mystery-thriller THE WOMAN IN BLACK will mark its return to the West End on September 7th with a wonderful offer which will spark your youngsters’ imaginations.

Free tickets will be available for under-18s, with one free ticket available with each full adult ticket purchased. Anyone under the age of 25 will also be eligible to buy £25 tickets.

There will also be £25 tickets available for selected venues on the show’s new tour, which starts in June at Cambridge Arts Theatre, and then visiting Bath, Guilford, Oxford, Malvern, Shrewsbury, Manchester, Brighton, Glasgow, York, Blackpool, Stoke and Edinburgh.

Budget adds 400million to CRF but still no support for freelancers

The Budget had some welcome news for some in the arts, but none for others.

The Chancellor announced an extra $408million to top up the Culture Recovery Fund which recognised that the road to recovery for arts venues and organisations will be slower and longer than earlier anticipated.

Let us not forget that the total amount allocated to the arts- just over £2billion – is about 6% of the total amount that the Government lavished on their failed disaster of a Track and Trace project, which produced no benefits – neither in the present nor in the future. In contrast, the arts as an industry produce over £110 billion of activity year after year. Perhaps we can all now get into perspective how little the Government really wants to “help” the arts.

Reflecting the politicians’ continuing lack of understanding about the arts world and how it functions, freelancers – one of the most vital groups who make the arts “work” – were forgotten yet again, in another infuriating slap in the face.

While its true to say that some theatres will be helped by the extension of the Job Retention Scheme and the extension to the business rates holiday until the end of June (followed by nine months of the rate being discounted by two thirds), smaller organisations are unlikely to feel much benefit.

Further, the VAT cut to 5% on leisure and hospitality sales which will stay in place until 30 September, (after which the rate will be 12.5% for a further six months) is a help to more venues but organisations still have to tread the long road back before seeing much impact of these measures.

The announced Restart Grants of up to £18k per premises for hospitality businesses, (including theatres) sounds more optimistic, but of course like all of these things the details are lacking and until the fog clears this may well be another case of Tory smoke and mirrors as we have seen too many times before.

A new Community Ownership Fund was announced, and it remains to see if this is actually worth the paper it is printed on, as we have no details yet , so although it’s a useful headline for the Chancellor, it’s just an empty promise for now.

What is so infuriating is that the most important item, a government-backed insurance scheme that theatres could rely upon in case of further restrictions along the road to recovery, is being stubbornly ignored. What is this Government’s agenda, we must ask, when such measures were introduced for the film and TV industry over nine months ago and yet refused to the theatre industry which so often feeds the film and TV industry. What is going on? Why are they hiding this obvious solution?

Let us also remember that a sizeable proportion of the Culture Recovery Fund was given as repayable loans and not grants, so organisations are going to find the next few years the hardest they may have ever had, should reduced audience numbers combine with higher overheads and debt, a toxic mix for any company relying on a shoestring to get them through another season.

It is becoming more and more clear that the Government has it in for the arts and seems to consider the crippling of theatre as a price well worth paying, while in public doing the bare minimum to allow the PR people to spin it as “helping”.

I don’t buy it – and neither, I suspect, do you.