How Can Theatres Survive In A Post-Covid World?

Wednesday, September 30, 2020 West End, London

On average, a theatre needs to hold performances at 70% capacity to break even. If it costs more to perform a musical to a socially distanced crowd, than to not bother at all, how will London’s famous theatre industry survive?
On 16th March 2020, a week before lockdown officially began, theatres across the country closed their doors, with no one knowing when they would re-open. As each month went on, more shows were cancelled, more runs postponed, and then postponed again. Eventually, some of the West End’s most popular shows, including Les Miserables and Hamilton, announced they would not be reopening until 2021. The industry seemed doomed; it’s difficult to socially distance an audience, but even more difficult to distance a large ensemble cast, in a musical jam-packed with energetic dance numbers. The idea of bringing these shows back while social distancing remains the norm may be hopeless. The time and effort required to rehearse a show revamped for social distancing measures, along with a highly reduced audience capacity, would lead to a greater loss than not performing at all.
Despite this, early attempts were made to adapt the theatre industry for social distancing. Back in July, Andrew Lloyd Webber organised Beverly Knight’s performance at the London Palladium, trialling an audience sat several seats apart and wearing masks. However, renowned stage producer Cameron Mackintosh described it as a ‘disaster’, with Webber himself commenting that the distanced audience was a ‘sad sight’. Venues are designed to be packed; a quarter-full audience does not have the same atmosphere, nor does a masked audience have the same cheer. Is it really possible for the industry to adapt to our new normal?

It’s worth remembering that turning off the lights of the theatre industry doesn’t just affect theatres alone. With over 15 million tickets sold for shows at London’s West End every year, theatres are at the heart of the capital’s tourism. The influx of theatregoers increases spending on other industries including travel and hospitality; many restaurants in Theatreland have a dedicated pre-theatre menu, demonstrating their reliance on show-business.
So, how can theatres survive? The government announced a £1.57 billion support package for the arts industry, but for many this seemed to be too little, too late. This money will go towards buildings and institutions that house the industry, but not the freelancers that make up its majority workforce. Instead, the theatre industry has had to adapt to the situation with creativity, turning the focus to the online world. From the comfort of their homes, theatregoers are switching to digital content, with many shows being streamed online. The National Theatre’s At Home series streamed some of their most popular plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire, for a free limited period on YouTube. With a similar approach, The Old Vic used streaming as a way to boost revenue, streaming a performance of Lungs starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith, with tickets starting at £10. A digitalised version of the theatre industry could carry on into the future, as this makes performances more accessible to all, even if it's not in the traditional theatre as we know it. 

Contrary to Webber and Mackintosh's initial disappointment, physical theatres are now beginning to be adapted in accordance with social distancing guidelines, in order to kickstart the industry again. I visited Wembley's Troubadour theatre for the first large scale socially distanced performance - the musical Sleepless, starring Jay McGuinness and Kimberley Walsh. With an audience sat in bubbles and a cast tested daily, it became a prototype for what we may see in the future. With Nimax theatres announcing socially distanced runs of shows such as the popular Six from this November, it looks like we might be beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Will theatres return to their original glory? I certainly hope so. Socially distanced seating plans might not be the perfect long-term solution, considering the heavily reduced capacity and its finanical effects, but I'm happy to get used to the extra space and leg-room for now and wait out the storm until I can see my favourite shows again. 
Have you experienced a digitalised version of theatre during lockdown, or perhaps are planning to attend a socially distanced show? I'd love to hear!

EG x

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