How is the second lockdown going to affect our theatres?

BY JAMES HADDRELL

As we enter a new national lockdown we are all approaching the weeks ahead with a much better understanding of what that is going to mean.

Supermarkets know how to manage their stock better, working from home has become more effective, we have started to use the internet in a new way for entertainment, fitness and business, and we have all learnt how to use zoom to stay in touch both professionally and socially.

The leisure industry – one of the hardest hit, as it is entirely built around people gathering together – has also learnt a lot.

At the time of writing I am running a theatre which has just entered its second period of closure due to the pandemic.

We returned to live performance in late September, and last weekend we hosted no less than five socially distanced performances with two nights of stand-up comedy in the studio, two family performances and a musical show celebrating the satirical music of Tom Lehrer.

In fact the Prime Minister’s announcement of the new lockdown came as people were arriving at the theatre to watch Richard Stott’s comedy show, Right Hand Man.

Having been told to close for a second time, we will now be postponing the events lined up for November.

However, with everything that the industry has learnt over the last six months and Covid precautions in place, a trip to a properly run theatre is not dangerous.

Theatre is a very regimented activity.

People’s movements around the building are limited to particular routes, and we have implemented a one-way system and multiple entrances.

Visitors sit in numbered seats so we are able to ensure that they are seated at least two metres apart.

Touch points are regularly cleaned, intervals have been removed from shows to avoid people gathering together in the bar or queuing for the toilets.

Masks are worn throughout the building unless seated to eat or drink, except for the performers.

Of course, as well as keeping audiences safe, I have a duty to protect my staff and my teams as well.

Backstage staff are working at least two metres apart or are wearing PPE and front of house staff are wearing masks, maintaining distance and working in bubbles to avoid the risk of broad transmission from anyone who is asymptomatic.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for me is to ensure that actors on stage are safe.

To date, since reopening, our programme has been built around solo shows or shows where the actors live and work in a bubble.

However, I am now embarking on preparations for our Christmas show.

Replacing our expensive annual pantomime, given the smaller available seating capacity, I will be directing a new production of the classic family story The Wolves of Willoughby Chase with a cast of six, a musician and a stage team of two.

I need to work out how my cast and crew can work safely in the rehearsal room, can stay two metres apart on stage throughout the show, can avoid sharing props – but all of this is possible, and some of the most exciting art is produced as a result of challenges or what appear to be limitations.

With this in mind, in a month’s time as we approach the end of this next period of lockdown, whatever the exit strategy looks like it should absolutely not include a statement from Government telling people to avoid theatres.

In March there were no measures in place and the gathering of people in theatres was dangerous.

Now, a trip to the theatre will be one of the few things that can be managed safely and contribute to people’s quality of life.

We don’t need to hide during and beyond this second lockdown – we need to recognise what is and isn’t dangerous, and protect our mental health and our world-leading arts sector by celebrating and encouraging the safe enjoyment of culture.

Main pic: Richard Stott was performing the evening the second lockdown was announced


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