Things are looking up, but we can’t get excited yet

22nd July 2020

The news we’ve all been waiting for finally arrived last week when Boris Johnson announced that indoor live performances can resume from 1 August, with a socially distanced audience.

This of course is subject to the success of pilots and the implementation of additional safety measures, but it is a step in the right direction. 

However, is this something we can truly get excited about?

Over the past few months our industry has been through some highs and countless lows. We’ve seen a huge number of theatres having to close and others fighting for their survival, hundreds of redundancies and restructure processes, and freelancers not receiving the support they need. The Big Freelancers Survey, conducted by Stage Directors UK, Freelancers Make Theatre Work and Curtain Call in June 2020, it stated that from the 8,000 theatre freelancers surveyed, a quarter of them were not eligible for emergency income/support, and a third were thinking about leaving the industry. 70% of our workforce is made up of freelancers - that’s a huge and diverse skill set we are going to lose at any point if critical support isn’t given. The full report can be found here

Recently we’ve also read on The Stage online that from next month (August) offstage theatre workers ‘are being asked to sign contracts requiring them to repay employer furlough contributions from their wages once shows resume’. This is an absolutely appalling ‘plan’ that will leave thousands hugely affected financially. Again, it will make individuals seriously rethink their future in theatre and damage our industry forever.

With the fact we are missing a huge number of theatre staff who are central to putting on productions, is the industry really ready to reopen? Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber was the first to carry out a new pilot performance at The London Palladium on Thursday 23 July, to see how it would work. In an interview with the BBC, he states that “Theatres cannot run with social distancing. It is not financially possible. The average play needs a 65% capacity and a musical needs more.”

I totally agree. The cost of running a theatre and putting on a production to less than half an audience, is not economically viable. Plus, theatres are restricted to the type of show they can put on over the next few months and the number of audience members who watch.

We did a little poll on our social media stories to find out if our followers would watch a performance this year or would they wait until 2021. From the 15 voters, 10 said they would attend and 5 said they would wait. What would you do?

If the pilot goes well and other theatres follow, it may be that come November we will be able to reach the fifth step of the road map, as the Government last week said might be possible.

Obviously, November brings us into the festive period and our traditional pantomimes. These shows are absolutely vital for many theatres – particularly regional ones and their producing theatre companies – as pantos bring in a huge percentage of their annual income. Many theatres have already cancelled or postponed their Christmas plans, with many waiting until August to make their final decision. 

The future for outdoor theatre, however, seems a little brighter. Open air performances were given the green light on the 10 July, with many theatre including Regents Park and The Minack, already announcing performances.

Social distancing and other safety measures still need to be adhered to at outdoor performances, but these productions provide a totally different experience. These could be seen as safer spaces and at a lesser running expense. It is a great way to give creatives a role once again, an audience some much needed escapism, and the theatres alive! 

I certainly think we are moving in the right direction, but we need clarity on dates to enable us to make plans for the future. 

Sadly, it is still a waiting game. There are still so many unknowns and things totally out of our control. We need to be cautious and not rush into things, as much as we want to get back on stage, we just can’t afford to be shut down and have to start from scratch again. I don’t think I or our industry can do this a second time.