Theatres in New York closed one year ago yesterday and have yet to reopen.
The anniversary of this critic’s last visit to a theatre will be tomorrow, bringing back happy memories of a long but fulfilling day watching Robert Lepage’s epic Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National Theatre. At the time, everyone present was aware that the theatre was living on borrowed time but nobody guessed how much.
In March 2020, Prime Minister Johnson gave the nation a general impression that there would be a brief interregnum, possibly lasting a month or two. Indeed, he seemed very confident that the pandemic would be all over within 12 weeks.
Regrettably, Broadway has remained dark throughout the last 12 months, while the London cultural scene together with other theatres in the UK have, at best, spluttered into intermittent life between lengthy, depressing periods of closure with many staff laid off.
Without doubt, the last year has been a nightmare of the worst kind for creatives, with many forced to take jobs in logistics or retail to make ends meet.
Government funding for theatres has been sparse in most cases, while larger theatres have been obliged to borrow large sums of money from the public purse, admittedly on favourable terms, that will take a decade or longer to pay off.
In the meantime, a number of theatre-makers have found an alternative outlet by broadcasting plays. Some of these have been recorded in the past or using social distancing in theatres, while others are being produced using new methods, particularly Zoom.
While we are all bemoaning the loss of our beloved live entertainment, for many it is the least of their problems. Millions have died around the world and the UK death toll is approaching the 150,000 mark, while the toll of Long COVID is beginning to be recognised.
However, spring and hope are both in the air. The bright light on the horizon comes in the form of a series of vaccines, all of which appear to be relatively effective, although none offers a 100% guarantee of safety.
Once those who yearn to enjoy their favourite pastime at theatres up and down the country have received second vaccinations, many might feel that the risk of sitting in large audiences having travelled on public transport is manageable and begin to book tickets to enjoy old favourites and promising-looking newcomers.
It may take a considerable time for the sector to get fully up and running but, having waited a year, the prospect of a delay of a few more months might not seem that bad. Indeed, it is easy to forget that, only three or four months ago, there were no vaccines and the chances of any kind of recovery in 2021 seemed slim.
We all know that the theatre community is used to dealing with adversity. Think of those poor actors who often need to endure dozens of auditions and rejections before a golden opportunity to shine comes along. The bubbling optimism is best demonstrated in that what started as a small trickle of press releases announcing opening dates for shows, large and small but is fast gaining pace.
Having said all of that, one has to be realistic. It would be fantastic to know with certainty that all theatres will reopen on a fixed date this summer. Instead, we must accept that, for the next few months, the best hope might be outdoor entertainment playing to limited, socially distanced audiences with the prospect of restricted indoor stagings following not too far behind.
We must all hope that the remainder of 2021 fulfils many of those dreams and, perhaps by the panto season, theatregoers might actually be able to experience something much closer to normal.
If that is the case, then producers and those that they produce can begin to plan for a rosy future, and don’t we need it?