Return to theatres

Regents Park Open Air Theatre
A theatrical entrance

This week I went to the theatre. You read that correctly. Some six months since the coronavirus pandemic forced theatres around the globe to lower their curtains and close their doors, I stepped into Regents Park Open Air Theatre for a performance of their great revival, Jesus Christ Superstar.

The irony was not lost on me. This was the very same revival, in the same venue, with many of the same cast and musicians I watched some four years ago, while I was undergoing chemotherapy. I survived, and as I sat there amongst the socially distanced audience, engulfed by that same intoxication only a live performance exudes, I found myself utterly convinced that theatre will survive too.

Even though it was an outside performance, the same strict protocols you’d expect inside remained: facemasks throughout the performance were mandatory; audience members were mostly seated in groups of two or three with a pair of seats separating them from others; and people were staggered so that the seats immediately in front and behind them were empty. The interval had been removed entirely (and to be honest, wasn’t missed), and there were strict rules on leaving and returning to your seats. To our surprise, the bar was open, but ordering, paying and collection stations were separated to maintain social distancing.  Antibacterial hand lotion was at every turn and before we even entered, our temperatures were taken quickly and effortlessly. Thanks to the meticulous organisation of the venue, what could have been a worrying, stressful and altogether uncomfortable evening during a pandemic, became an utterly joyful, perhaps even life-affirming experience.

But it’s not all sequins and stardust. Venues still face an enormous battle. In order to abide by social distancing rules, the Open Air Theatre was forced to reduced sellable seats from 1,256 to just 390 per performance. The revenue loss was in some way countered by reduced salaries for the performers and a number of other initiatives, but this financial model is hardly sustainable for this venue, and impossible for the majority of others. Indeed, a number of venues such as the Nuffield Southampton Theatres (NST) have already stated they will never open again. London’s Royal Albert Hall remains on shaky ground, having been told it is ineligible for any of the government’s £1.57bn rescue package, and having already taken out £10m worth of loans.  Even the theatre-filling global phenomenon Cirque Du Soleil has filed for bankruptcy.

Pantomimes, unfailing in raising capital which support venues for the rest of the year, are now too being cancelled, and venues up and down the UK have ever-changing notices on their websites, stating when they are hoping to reopen; The Lowry states it is closed until ‘at least September 30th,’ Eden Court has cancelled or rescheduled all live performances ‘until December 4th,’ Edinburgh Festival was cancelled entirely, and powerhouse theatre group ATG have suspended all UK performances until at least mid-October, in doing so rescheduling ‘over 15,000 separate performances.’ The sheer scale of the damage, not just to the theatre workers, performers, and suppliers, but to the wider economy, must not be underestimated. In 2018, UK theatre attracted more than 34 million visitors. That is considerable footfall being brought into their surrounding areas.

So, what are other venues and organisations doing?

  • Scottish Opera are touring pop-up opera throughout Scotland in September. They are also putting on an outdoor, socially distanced production of La bohème at their Glasgow production studios. The latter almost immediately sold out.
  • Manchester arts centre HOME has also had all its theatre performances paused since March. It has announced it will be resuming live theatre performances from October, made possible by moving performances intended for their smaller, 150-seat studio into their larger 500-capacity space. The larger shows are postponed for now.
  • York Theatre Royal, famed for having one of the country’s greatest pantomimes, is one of the many venues to cancel its pantomime this year. In response, they have launched ‘pop-up on the patio,’ an outdoor theatre festival, designed by Yorkshire-based theatre and production designer Hannah Sibai.
  • But the National Theatre has announced they are remodelling the Olivier theatre for a pantomime production of Dick Whittington this year. The space usually holds 1,150 people, but will instead hold a socially distanced audience of just under 500. in the round.
  • English National Opera have uprooted to Alexandra Palace, for ‘Drive and Live,’ a live opera drive in, also featuring Puccini’s La bohème during September. Brilliantly, ENO have teamed up with Uber, to ensure audience members without access to a car or bicycle are able to book an Uber Box – ‘a static car which adheres to social distancing.’
  • A number of venues, including The National Theatre, Soho Theatre and the London Coliseum are streaming pre-recorded productions to audience homes, and many acts are doing the same, via a multitude of available services which also give them the option to generate income.

These are just a handful of examples of the UK theatre scene fighting back and adapting to the pandemic. So, while the immediate future of our theatres, venues, productions and their workforce may be uncertain, the creativity and resilience that defines this industry is doing its utmost to survive. By adapting quickly, embracing technology, and using the multitude of mediums available, performances are still taking place and the arts are prevailing. Whether any of these methods continue to be used once restrictions are lifted is anyone’s guess. But as I sat in the theatre on Tuesday night and looked at the audience around me, noticing that not even their face-coverings could hide their elation, I thought one thing is for sure: even when faced with a pandemic, live theatre is here to stay.

James Dodd

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