How we can all work together to make theatres safe

13th January 2021

Knowing when theatres are going to open is the million-dollar question. We would all love an answer to this so we can plan our return, but of course it is very much an unknown. As frustrating as it is, we need to respect the rules and be prepared for the new ways we’ll be operating, creating and experiencing theatre.  

Some theatre owners and producers, including Nica Burns, have said the earliest they think they could reopen their doors is March. With Nimax Theatre’s having opened twice already, they know what to do. 

Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber is steaming ahead with plans to open his new show ‘Cinderella’ in April with a 75% capacity. Others are looking for mid-summer, while some have no plans to open at all this year.

For those hoping to turn the lights back on in a few months, one point high on their agendas is improving audience safety. 

We’re all learning more about Coronavirus every day, so the plans they make today may have to be tweaked or changed dramatically in the coming weeks. This might be the case, but reassuring patrons that returning to theatre is safe is crucial for the survival of not only patrons, but also our industry. 

Lloyd Webber carried out a pilot last July showing how performances can still go ahead safely, albeit at reduced capacity, with additional precautions such as: socially distanced audiences, paperless tickets, one-way systems, face masks, temperature checks and even anti-viral demisting machines.

Following this trial some theatres followed suit using similar ideas to improve their safety solutions and opened cautiously. For the few months that theatres could open, the audience came and kept on coming, with the majority giving positive feedback on their overall experience. 

In October 2020, UK Theatre and Society of London Theatre (SOLT) launched the ‘See it Safely’ campaign to help theatres prioritise audience safety when reopening. To be part of the campaign and display the ‘mark’, theatres must sign up to a code of conduct and demonstrate what solutions they have in place. This will most certainly help build customer confidence with the reassurance that theatres are taking their guests’ wellbeing seriously.

The Insights Alliance, made up of Indigo, Baker Richards and One Further, conducted its ‘Culture Restart audience tracker’ survey in October and November 2020. They spoke with over 11,800 people living outside of London to find out how they felt about returning to theatre. One quarter of those said they are waiting to be vaccinated before they visit theatres and arts venue. Those polled in November were more confident about returning and more likely to stream theatre at home, compared to those questioned in October. 

The survey also uncovered: "Advance booking demand into 2021 and beyond is strongest for musical theatre, popular music, and comedy". It’s a fascinating read!

The fact that theatre tickets are already being booked for show in 2021 is testament to the hard work that the theatres have done and are doing to make their venues safe.

Nica Burns said in The Stage recently that audience members booking tickets for her shows are "being patient and the majority are choosing to rebook rather than to refund".

This shows that there is a real appetite for getting back to the theatre. As much as we enjoy watching great theatre on our sofa, you just cannot replicate the experience you get when you’re there in person.

I believe theatres are doing what they can to plan a safe reopening during an extremely challenging and unknown time. Reassuring and attempting to appease audience’s safety concerns, when they are unsure of what will happen themselves, is incredibly difficult.  

Money is a huge factor too. These compulsory safety measures could come at a huge cost to the venue. LW Theatres are reportedly spending around £6M on implementing its new safety features. With theatres possibly re-opening to reduced audiences, they are going to take a big hit financially.

The roll out of the new vaccine, which the whole country is depending on, will hopefully aid us in getting moving again. 

Medical teams and scientists suggest that the impending ‘wave’ will be coming in a matter of weeks, meaning that things are going to get worse before they get better. It is hoped that with the vaccine things will have improved by spring. 

Having the vaccine is a major deciding factor for many as to whether they will be attending any type of arts venue. Interestingly, Nica Burns said in The Stage recently: "I assume the moment the majority of the population is vaccinated there will be some method of verifying that and lots of things are being suggested - a health passport, or a Covid vaccination number for instance. If the government is going to say you can open but only to people who have been vaccinated, there has to be something confirming that. I am speculating…"

It’s not only down to the theatre itself to ensure safety measures are being upheld, but it is also the responsibility of the audience members. I’d like to think that people have missed theatre so much that they will want to support the industry and abide by the rules, but not everyone will.

I’ve read reviews, blogs and seen posts on social media from theatre goers saying many people within the auditorium were not wearing faces masks during the performance (they weren’t eating) and would lift their masks to their face when an attendance walked past, and many other examples like this of flouting the rules.

It is logically impossible to police audiences when the lights go down, however should on the spot fines be given out by theatres to those who break their policies?

Wearing masks to a theatre has always been the case since theatres reopened after the first lockdown. It is something that I think will be around for some time yet, so I think we need to get used to it. 

The past year has made us recognise just how important escapism and shared experiences are. In my mind it is imperative we get the arts back up and running - theatres can only do that with our help. If we return with knowledge and confidence that we will be safe in an auditorium and we follow the rules, we will be back to full capacity in no time. 

The longer venues are left empty, the less chance we will ever get back to the theatre we know and love.