Five-star ANYTHING GOES sails into UK cinemas for two nights only!

The multi five-starred new London production of ANYTHING GOES will be screened across the UK for two nights only after the end of its run at London’s Barbican Theatre (until November 6th).

For those of you (like me) who are taking your time to return to theatre, you can see it in more than 450 cinemas across the UK on November 28th and December 1st.

The show had been touted for an extensive UK tour after the London run but this appears to have been shelved owing to scheduling problems and the departure of leading lady Sutton Foster (off to do THE MUSIC MAN on Broadway), after the first delay in opening caused scheduling problems which necessitated the departure of originally announced leading lady Megan Mullaly (of WILL AND GRACE fame).

Scheduling problems for regional tours were thrown into utter chaos by the pandemic causing huge numbers of announcements, sudden cancellations and postponements, which has undoubtedly caused a lot of financial hardship to producers and receiving venues alike. I sincerely hope that the touring schedules are able to be maintained without too much interruption, as our industry- and the theatres they serve- depend upon it.

For cinema tickets to ANYTHING GOES, click here when they go on sale on Friday 15th October.

International screenings are to be announced at a later date.

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.

Society for Theatre Research announces new grants

Are you, or do you know, a theatre practitioner or researcher working through the pandemic and in need of financial help to develop a project?

The Society for Theatre Research has just announced they will be awarding twenty support grants of £200 available to help theatre practitioners and researchers through the ongoing problems caused by the pandemic. These grants are for practitioners working in the UK to facilitate British and British-related theatre projects.

The application is quick and closing date for applications is Friday 13th August.

You can find more information and application details here

“Persistent” buildings and persistent people – How heritage buildings can revive our High Streets

Those concerned for the future of the nation’s historic high street buildings were treated to a lively and informative online presentation from Heritage Trust Network and Locality on July 1st.

Can historic buildings save England’s High Streets?

In a lively discussion, expert panelists discussed the potential new uses of historic high street premises and the role of culture in town centres’ revival.

Speakers were David Tittle – CEO of Heritage Trust Network, Owain Lloyd-James – Head of Places Strategy, Historic England, Carol Pyrah – Executive Director, Historic Coventry Trust, Joe Holyoak – Trustee, Moseley Road Baths, Diane Dever – Chair, Urban Rooms Network and Claire Appleby – Architecture Advisor, Theatres Trust.

The mainly heritage-based audience were treated to much impressive factual information from regeneration projects around the UK, together with practical steps and advice when furthering their own high street heritage projects.

The discussion put the High Street in context, starting as a community focus, then often rebuilt to become more retail-focused, and now as retail is on the decline, accelerated by Covid, towns need to find new creative offers to encourage people back to their High Streets.

Owain Lloyd-James of Heritage England reminded us that High Streets are areas of greater footfall, which is why so many theatres, cinemas and other cultural buildings are on them or very nearby. He also noted that retailers were waking up to the idea that they had to offer “something extra” for people to visit High Street stores. This new form, dubbed “experiential retail”, has prompted awareness amongst retailers that historic and heritage buildings can add something special to a shopping trip. This has fueled an increasing amount of interest in repurposing older buildings to create stores with character and interest, as opposed to the bland Lego boxes that infect most of our Hugh Streets today.

Carol Pyrah of Historic Coventry Trust told us about the successes achieved by her group including participating in City of Culture this year, and how they have positively shifted visitors expectations of the appeal of the city through their many placemaking and arts-based projects.

Joe Holyoak, a Trustee of Moseley Road Baths, told us of this historic building’s impressive plan for renovation and renaissance as an arts centre and studios. He also, helpfully, reminded us that the word “monument” stems from the word for memory. And finally, he reached back through time to remind us that buildings which survive down the ages have often been called “persistent” buildings, which seemed a very apt title; and he celebrated not only the persistent buildings but also the persistent people who help to bring them back into life.

Diane Dever discussed the projects arising from the Urban Rooms project in Folkestone. Sadly, for me, her presentation slides were so dense that they became unreadable and undermined the detail of what she was trying to tell us. It was, however, heartening to see Folkestone’s creative quarter emerging, and to hear that the income from shop and flat rentals in the area were helping to fund creative events.

For me, the best was saved till last, as Claire Appleby of the Theatres Trust brought out the convincers – the financial figures. As well, Claire underlined the architectural importance of theatres, their memory-link to the local communities around them, and the wide social benefits of theatres and the activities that can be housed within them. Also highlighted was the flexibility with which theatre companies had lead the way in Covid help, being outreach workers, community hubs, food banks, vaccination centres, and so much more- theatres really showed their value to their communities.

An Arts Council of England survey found that theatres were highly valued, with respondents stating that they were willing to pay £13 a year per person to retain their local theatre.

Theatres’ effects on the local economy were great, with people coming into the area to see a show and usually spending more while they were in the locality. In the last, non-Covid year of research, UK Theatre found there were 34 million visits to theatres across the UK bringing a value of over £1.38 billion, that figure without the extra benefits of restaurants, bars, hotels, etc.

As mentioned on this blog, another survey found that theatre’s wellbeing impacts on audiences contributed to a saving of over £102million to the NHS annually, with 60% of theatregoers more likely to report good health than non-theatregoers.

Finally, Claire quoted a number of recent or nearly-completed projects, with Chester’s Storyhouse (a redevelopment of their old Odeon cinema) bringing a million visitors in their last year. Bradford’s newly refurbished ex-Odeon cinema is projected to bring over a quarter of a million visitors in the first year, with a projected boost to the local economy of £10million. The newly-refurbished Globe Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees projects 170,000 visitors in their first year, bringing an £18million boost to the local economy. (And just another example from my own experience- Walthamstow’s refurbishment of their Granada cinema into a mixed-use theatre space is projected to bring over £100million into the local economy over its first ten years of operation.)

A lively Q&A followed, and the event was brought to a close by David Tittle. Thanks to everyone involved for a highly informative, positive and optimistic view of heritage buildings’ futures on our High Streets.

Watch a recording of the event, which you can find here

Theatre archive; watch decorative plaster makers at work

If you, like me, have ever looked intently with pleasure at the beautiful plasterwork in many of our older theatres, then you will be intrigued to discover and enjoy this short film courtesy of British Pathe which details the process of casting elaborate plaster decoration for theatre walls and ceilings.

For anyone interested in, or wanting to know more about theatre plasterwork, further reading can be found in an interesting article by David Harrison here