As ‘Six’ + ‘Jamie’ Return to West End, Others Face Oblivion. How Is UK Theatre Adapting?

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Photo Source: Arts Theatre / Idil Sukan. Pictured – the cast of Six the Musical

UK theatre currently finds itself in a painful state of limbo. With coronavirus infections continuing to rise, and a second wave looking increasingly likely, it is difficult to feel optimistic about the chances of full performances resuming anytime soon, whatever the culture secretary may say.

With unemployment in the sector spiking and as many as 70% of theatres estimated to be facing closure, these are gloomy times. However, green shoots are starting to emerge, with a handful of major productions including Six The Musical, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and The Play That Goes Wrong announcing they will resume in the coming weeks with social distancing in place.

In a statement, the producers of Six said: “We accept that with social distancing it is unlikely to be economically viable, but we hope to entertain many thousands of theatregoers who have been starved of live entertainment since March. We hope that opening Six will help build audience confidence and bring business back to the local economy.”

Several figures, including Andrew Lloyd Webber, have urged the government to name a date for full reopening. “We are now at the point of no return,” the composer told a recent parliamentary committee, quoting his own song from The Phantom of the Opera. “Britain is the leader in world theatre in my view, in many, many ways, and we really, really have got to use this opportunity not only just to say that we want to get our sector open but to demonstrate to the world how it can be open.”

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has launched “Operation Sleeping Beauty” with the aim of making theatres safe in time for panto season. He says he will rely on “emerging technologies,” including mass saliva testing and air purification systems – trialled by Lloyd Webber at the London Palladium – in order to achieve this.

But with the government recently restricting social gatherings to a maximum of six people, the idea of filling theatre auditoriums to capacity by Christmas feels like a long shot. And with no promise of any further support for freelancers or those in permanent employment once the furlough scheme ends in October, the workforce is reaching crisis point. As the Barbican Centre’s CEO Sir Nicholas Kenyon told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is going to be a huge gap between the end of the furlough scheme and the moment when audiences can come back in full numbers. The economics are so challenging.”

The impossible economics of socially-distanced theatres 
Those challenges come down to the simple fact that most productions require at the very least a 50% capacity to break even, while indoor audience numbers are currently restricted to 30%. In a reversal of the usual economics, it is larger venues that are struggling the most. The iconic Royal Albert Hall, which requires 80–90% capacity to turn a profit, recently launched a £20million fundraising campaign to avoid it becoming mothballed.

Meanwhile, smaller and outdoor venues, which usually exist on the theatrical fringes, have found themselves at the vanguard of the industry’s fight for survival. The Southwark Playhouse in south London is staging an autumn season that includes a return of its production of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. At the Actors Centre in Soho, specially-commissioned new work Sunnymead Court will premier later this month, incorporating digital elements and social distancing to make it as safe and accessible as possible.

Fringe theatre at the vanguard
Written by Gemma Lawrence, who was under commission on another project when lockdown started, the play centres on a relationship between two women who communicate from their tower block balconies. Producer Jack Holden says the economics of staging it are extremely tight – “This isn’t going to be my Miss Saigon.” But an Arts Council grant will at least ensure they can cover most of the costs. He tells Backstage: “Our capacity is only about 25 people per performance – we are either going to lose some money or a lot of money; fortunately [the grant] means it will be the former.”

Staging work safely amid a pandemic is no mean feat. Though audience numbers may be reduced, the logistics are vastly more complicated. Government guidelines have created about “50% more to think about,” says Holden. “There’s a whole level of safeguarding and health and safety procedure, over and above anything you would normally put in place.” The company have all stayed distanced throughout rehearsals, and masks are worn at all times apart from when the actors are performing scenes. Holden says such measures are critical considering the implications if a member of the company contracts Covid-19: “If someone in our team goes down it will be really, really disastrous. We all know the responsibilities we each have to take, because we all want this play to happen.”

A boom in outdoor theatre
As well as fringe venues, large-scale outdoor work is also booming. English National Opera is about to present its first-ever drive-in opera at Alexandra Palace, while The Greenwich and Docklands International Festival opened successfully at the end of August, having been rescheduled from June.

Festival producer Ellie Harris said the decision to postpone rather than cancel was an act of faith. She tells us: “We couldn’t be certain it would go ahead until the regulations changed [to allow outdoor performances] on 9 July. So we then had to pack around six months of work into five weeks to get the festival on.”

The programme had to be adapted to accommodate social distancing, with a greater emphasis on installations and smaller-scale community work. “It’s still spectacle, just a different kind of spectacle,” says Harris. “The response has been really good from audiences. There’s been a real need for live arts for such a long time.”

Like Holden, she describes the logistics as daunting. “The risk assessments we’ve had to do this year are just off the scale. Although the events are smaller in capacity, each one needs special attention to make sure it’s safe and managed properly.” She says they have gone “above and beyond” to keep audiences safe, insisting on mask-wearing and two-meter distancing. “No-one has complained” about these measures, she adds.

Does she feel outdoor, socially distanced performances are a tenable model for the foreseeable future? “I think it’s a good foundation, and I hope other people in the industry will look at what we’ve done and think it is possible. Already we’re seeing people exploring new ways of delivering work, and expanding into outdoor arts.”

The need to keep going
Such examples demonstrate that while staging live performances in the age of coronavirus is extremely challenging, it’s not impossible. But when the economics are so difficult, why risk it?

Holden says he feels it’s important to “keep the pulse” of the art form alive, which is why he believes the government’s £1.57 billion arts bailout should also be given to producers and artists making work, rather than exclusively being used to stem the losses of big venues. He even thinks the industry can learn valuable lessons from the crisis: “We usually think of health and safety as a bit of a pain, but it’s there for a reason. Having to interrogate how we look after our staff and our audiences will be a very good thing in the long term.”

Ultimately, though, the risk of putting performances on is worth it because not doing it is not an option. As Holden says, “We just need to make work, for whoever we can in whatever way we can. It’s going to be expensive, but sitting around doing nothing is going to be more expensive.”

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