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.


2 Replies to “VIEWS: Theatres under the microscope”

  1. Such a good article, Gary.

    I’m not sure of how I feel about going back to a full auditorium and I know I’m not alone. Very tough times for the Arts (still).

    1. Thank you for your comment, Angie. Always appreciate your input. You are definitely not alone! And you -and those who (understandably) aren’t yet sure about how they will feel- may be the difference between a show surviving or failing. I feel that in the industry’s (understandable) concern for its own safety and wellbeing that the mindset of audiences have been rather overlooked, which is why I felt compelled to write this piece. Follow up articles about the buildings and other facets of the recovery to come!

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