Is Live Theatre Back?
“When will theatre be back?” is the question on everyone’s lips. But we are wondering if we are already at the start of the return of live theatre.
Throughout this pandemic the guidance from government has been severely lacking. From a roadmap without detail to suggestions of musicals without singing it’s felt like an industry which is worth billions to the UK economy, plus many billions more in supporting services, alongside its cultural significance, has been ignored. But you can’t keep creatives down and the industry is finding innovative ways to move forward ourselves.
Last week saw Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber run a trial at the London Palladium to show that, with the measures he’s introduced in place, theatres are safe to open without social distancing. Despite an impressive performance by Beverley Knight the star attraction was the theatre itself with all eyes focused on if this will work.
The measures introduced were expansive, even including suggestions about travel in the tickets, advising driving and walking above public transport. People were given staggered arrival times to limit large groups forming and asked to fill in the track and trace forms. Audience members had to have printed their own tickets or have e-tickets to avoid contact with staff, temperatures were taken on the way in, one-way systems around the theatre were in place and masks were mandatory throughout, which the ushers ensured was maintained during the performance.
In the theatre itself, it’s chemically cleaned before the audience enter, has a ventilation and filter system which meets government requirements and doors handles had been fitted with silver ions which kill 99.9% of bacteria and viruses.
They also had contactless bars with orders being delivered to seats. I would question if, when having a full non-socially distanced audience, it is sensible for the bar to be open. If audience members are constantly pulling down masks to eat and drink it stops it being an effective mitigant. It also makes it near impossible for ushers to police this to ensure masks are staying on. That would need to be carefully considered.
They had antiviral misting machines but had agreed beforehand with the health and safety executive that they’re not needed. Although they’re not needed and wouldn’t be at every theatre I’d like to see them used as much as possible as any additional mitigant makes it safer for everyone.
The purpose of this exercise was to show theatres can be made safe without social distancing. But at the time social distancing still needed to be maintained. So every other row was excluded with gaps of 2 seats between each household leaving the theatre at 30% capacity. This was emphasised with “X”s placed on seats not being used. While this makes it slightly surreal I don’t believe anyone cared. At the start of the show Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber referred to the audience as Guinea Pigs, a role they were more than happy to take on to help theatre get back up and running.
It’s now over to Public Health England and the government to determine if this was enough or if more tests are needed, potentially with less distancing. Let’s hope this time it won’t be ignored.
But it’s not just Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. With the government saying socially distanced performances can resume many theatres and productions are trying new ways of doing things.
“The Mousetrap” has been able to negotiate a lower rent for St Martin’s theatre and lower royalties meaning they are in the fortunate position of being able to survive on low capacity. They plan to open again in October on about a third of normal capacity. I wonder how many shows with small casts would be able to take this approach?
“Sleepless”, reuniting Jay McGuinness and Kimberley Walsh, is due to start at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre on August 25th. They are selling tickets by area and then allocating specific seats on the day to ensure social distancing while maximising capacity.
And Regents Park Open Air Theatre is selling seats in pre-allocated blocks of 1-4. Obviously this makes it difficult to get all groups at all price levels but they are working hard within the restrictions they have and should be praised for doing this, it can’t be easy.
So as we sit here listening to the Heathers soundtrack we wonder, maybe soon we can get back inside theatres, hear the orchestra warming up and feel that excitement as the overture starts and curtain rises. With the positive attitude and innovation we’re seeing this may well be the case.
Remember, the discussion here is about large west end and regional theatres and the measures they can take. These may be unavailable or too expensive for smaller theatres, particularly pub theatres. We should remember these when theatre open. This is where the talent is grown and we should ensure we support them when they are able to open too.