Acting After COVID-19 Lockdown: What Do We Know?

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Photo Source: Berliner Ensemble / Ingo Sawilla

Although it’s part of a performer’s mental arsenal to roll with the punches, the pandemic is a pretty tough right-hook in the mouth of the performing arts. Getting together in big groups looks to be off the table for the time being, and although there’s been plenty of online theatricality (thanks to the National Theatre and many others), it’s clear our post-lockdown world might look very different. Here’s what we know – and what we don’t yet know – about life in the performance industry across theatre, cinema, and television as the world tackles the aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown.

Theatre

What we know
UK Theatres won’t be open for a while yet - it’s looking like 4 July at the very earliest. They’re part of the last phase of the government’s three-step exit strategy for reopening the country and we won’t even get to phase three unless the virus is kept under control. Crucially for theatres, venues will only be allowed to open if they meet guidelines on social distancing, so inevitably that’ll mean big changes.

Most theatre owners will be hoping social distancing will be temporary as it’s unlikely to be financially sustainable in the long run. Staggered audience seating is something being actively considered by many UK theatres, grouping people in households and then keeping at least one seat free between groups. It’s already being deployed in various countries including New Zealand and Portugal, and the Berliner Ensemble theatre in Germany posted a photo of their bold new seating arrangement on social media that could become commonplace, though it’s still a shock to see it.  

Online booking will be the norm, if it’s not already, and most venues are seriously upping their cleaning regimes, so expect the gentle whiff of Dettol to be a new but essential part of your theatre-going experience.     

The pandemic has been tough on actors, who often move from job to job and aren’t employed on a permanent basis. Without theatres opening up for business, actors aren’t being paid, and one thing we do know is that that’s not good news.

What we dont know
There’s been quite a bit of well-informed chat about the theatre sector shrinking in the post-Coronavirus world, and it’s hard to ignore. If social distancing remains in place then venues will have to sell less tickets which will mean less revenue unless they hike up prices significantly. The Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh has announced all jobs are at risk of redundancy, and the Nuffield in Southampton has already gone into administration as a result of the virus.

Theatre bosses are already warning about their future prospects. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre told MPs it was “critically vulnerable and at risk of closure in the wake of Covid-19.” Talking to the BBC, the boss of the Young Vic Kwame Kwei-Armah said he thought most venues would get to the autumn without government funding but no further: “It's almost impossible economically to socially distance a theatre. In order to social distance at two metres, we would lose three-quarters of our audience. And then we have to work out how you create safe space for the rest of the staff, backstage and in a rehearsal room, and then we have to work out what the public appetite might be towards coming back into a theatre.”

Uber-producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh agrees: “For major producers both sides of the Atlantic, the truth is until social distancing doesn’t exist any more, we can’t even plan to reopen,” he told the BBC.

They’re not the only ones feeling worried about the future. Playwright James Graham (Quiz, This House, Ink) told the PA news agency: “I don’t even know if there will be a theatre or film industry that we can recognise when this is all over. It’s a collective art form; you need people around you to see it and do it, and there is no middle ground now – if it’s going to survive in any form it will need an aggressive government bailout and you either do or you don’t do it, there is either theatre or there isn’t anymore.”

And if theatre is made to adhere to social distancing rules, might the whole traditional idea of theatre have to be rethought? For some people, the sharing of a communal cultural experience with a large group of strangers is theatre’s whole point – if you can’t get together and be in the same space, how does theatre work?

But on a more positive – and perhaps pragmatic – note, concert promoter Álvaro Covões, speaking of the new live performance guidelines in Portugal, said that although they are not sustainable in the medium term, it was important to work with the limitations and “play the game” for now: “Necessity heightens resourcefulness,” said Covões. “What we need to do is financial engineering.” And while Portugal has not been hit anything like as hard as the UK or US by Coronavirus, and is climbing out of lockdown sooner, the lesson is no less relevant to theatres here: do as much as you can, as soon as you can, as safely and innovatively as you can, and even though it may not be financially viable, it may just keep you in the game for long enough to survive.

Cinema

What we know
UK cinemas have been closed since mid-March and just like theatres, they’re unlikely to open until 4 July at the very earliest. Vue, one of the UK’s biggest cinema chains, has already set out its post-lockdown opening strategy and hopes to open mid-July, perhaps with the release of Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster, Tenet. With social distancing measures still in place, Vue plans to let families sit together, stagger screening times, and enhance their cleaning regime.

For those of us behind the scenes or onscreen, film sets have been in lockdown just like everywhere else. It’s hard to think of how a socially distanced film or TV set might operate in practice, but very slowly, production is starting to gear up and the hope is to get some UK productions back on the road by late June or early July.

The government has backed the British Film Commission (BFC)’s production guidelines issued on 1 June as a roadmap for how film and TV production might start up again. They cover everything from social distancing and personal hygiene to travel, catering, stunts, hair and makeup. It’s hoped UK-based shoots such as Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Warner Bros’ The Batman will return to Pinewood by mid-June. The Advertising Producers Association (APA) has also issued new guidance as to how ad-related shoots might resume.

Elsewhere, the Avatar sequel is reportedly filming once again in New Zealand, Tyler Perry is up and running in Atlanta, and Netflix is in production in Japan, Iceland, and South Korea, and is planning to do more in Sweden and Norway by July.   

Hollywood studios are certainly talking the talk when it comes to life after lockdown. Epidemiologists and other public health specialists are suddenly in demand on sets to provide practical ways of dealing with large crews who work in small spaces, and other issues like how to do makeup, how to even think about filming a sex scene, or a fight scene, and so on. Appropriately, Contagion director Steven Soderbergh has been asked to help create on-set guidelines for the Directors Guild of America (DGA). 

In general, industry figures expect smaller crews, hand sanitizer everywhere, testing, and lots of CGI for crowd scenes to become the norm once production properly kicks off. Sadly, it seems the heady days of grazing at the craft services table are well and truly over. Writing in the LA Times, Netflix boss Ted Sarandos called this new normal a “restricted reality,” and he’s not wrong. 

What we dont know
Still uncertain is whether people will physically go into cinemas, but one thing we do know is that the audience appetite for movies is still healthy. People want to watch films, though it’s possible the pandemic might prompt some big changes. When Universal couldn’t show Trolls World Tour in cinemas, it decided to release the big-screen blockbuster on streaming platforms instead. Cinema chain Odeon was furious, accusing the studio of “breaking the business model,” and it decided to ban all Universal films from its screens. The film did well despite not being in cinemas, so could this be a business model studios might be keen on in the future? Certainly, Warner Bros and Disney are sending their summer 2020 titles like Scoob! and Artemis Fowl straight to VOD platforms. Streaming could be one of lockdown’s big winners.

Genre-wise, might the pandemic and social distancing cause an increase in animation and green-screen work or CGI-heavy blockbusters, and a dearth of intimate, human dramas? Can we expect a constant diet of animated space dramas from now on? On the plus side, are we about to enter a boom time for voiceover artists? Only time will tell.

From a production point of view, it’s still quite unclear how it will work for actors, crew, and technicians day-to-day. Is social distancing practical on a financially pushed set? Big films might usually have 300-plus people on set and yes, they are all actually doing something – so can remote or staggered working really work long-term? Might that mean less jobs, more doubling up on roles? There are now plenty of guidelines but as actress Anna Kendrick joked, some look like they were written by someone who’d never been on a film set.

Television

What we know
Just as with film sets and theatre, TV production has also ground to a halt due to Coronavirus. Big, prestigious UK shows such as Line of Duty and Peaky Blinders were the first to close. Of course some television has continued, with self-shot innovations such as ITV’s Isolation Stories and BBC’s Unprecedented being notable, but on the whole there’s been a lot of repeats and not a lot else. You know it’s a crisis when both Coronation Street and EastEnders are forced to stop production (although both are set to return “within weeks”).  

Essentially, TV production faces the same challenges as being on a film set. It’s a collaborative business and involves lots of people working together in close quarters, which sadly is just what viruses love. Pact (the indie producers’ trade association) and the UK’s major broadcasters have joined forces to issue guidelines on how to get production going again. They involve actors doing their own makeup and staggered lunch breaks, where everyone has to bring their own utensils. Outdoor filming is preferred, the emphasis is smaller crews, and stars accustomed to being driven to locations may now have to drive themselves.

One final, positive note is that all the zooming and home-shot footage on our TV screens at the moment really drives home why we really need well-trained, talented professionals on and behind our screens.

What we dont know
As with the film industry, the television industry has been given the green light to get back to work, though it still remains to be seen how production will commence and thrive in the future. Will TV shows look very different for the foreseeable future?  Might productions – and therefore crews – be smaller? How will drama productions work in practice? Will older actors be affected by the guidance? Will actors generally be happy doing their own makeup?

Perhaps the critical ingredient is that for whatever problems television faces, demand is not one of them. And for that reason, it seems probable that the industry will figure out ways of making it work. And in doing so, it could unleash a new wave of technical and creative innovation.

More for UK actors? Check out Backstage.

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