The last time I was in a theatre pre-pandemic was on the evening of 5 March 2020. It was Live Theatre in Newcastle. I’d had a cold coming on for a while, a cold which had been passed on to me by a friend who had caught it from another. On the morning of the 6th, I woke up coughing and sneezing and shivering. It had arrived!
By the 20th, I was beginning to feel human again—human enough, at any rate, to venture out of doors to the local corner shop to buy some milk.
“Great!” I thought. “Life can resume again!”
And then I got the letter! It was from the NHS and it told me I was clinically extremely vulnerable and should self-isolate for at least twelve weeks.
Twelve weeks? Chance would be a fine thing! It lasted rather longer than that!
In fact, my next time in a theatre audience was on 26 August 2021, over 540 days after that last visit. That was to see Free School Meals at Northern Stage. Then on 6 September, I was back at Live for Shine and, on 9th, at South Shields’ Customs House for Our Laygate.
It was brilliant to be back in all three venues—and it was a real bonus that all the shows were great too! Meeting people I hadn’t seen for 18 or more months—other reviewers, theatre staff, actors, regular faces in audiences—was wonderful, I felt—well, at home is the only way I can describe it.
Everyone was happy. There was a real buzz, a sense of excitement. We were all—punters, staff, performers—loving being back and together again.
But—there’s always a 'but', isn’t there?—talking to management people, it’s obvious that, the euphoria of these first openings aside, things are a very long way from being 'back to normal'. Yes, first nights and press nights are full (or pretty full) but advance bookings are down, even panto bookings, that lifeline for most theatres—I’ve heard recently that one local theatre’s panto advance is 6,000 seats down on this time in 2019.That’s 6,000 seats, not pounds. In cash terms, that’s at least £60,000 down!
And there are a number of theatres which have only been able to keep their heads above water because of generous donations from regular audience members. Friends’ schemes and restoration levies on tickets have never been more important.
There is much talk of vaccine hesitancy (although, thankfully, that seems to be on the decline) but without a doubt there is a very real theatre hesitancy, a hesitancy about returning while COVID is still alive, kicking and evolving.
I felt it. For days before my first return visit, my brain was manufacturing reasons why I shouldn’t go—I really wish my playwriting imagination were as fertile as the excuse mill in my mind that was working 24/7! And if someone like me, who has been involved in theatre for over 60 years, feels like that, is it any wonder your average theatregoer hesitates? Of course it isn’t, and it’s up to theatres not only to make themselves as COVID-secure as possible (and they have all made mighty efforts to do so) but to convince the punters that they have.
I screwed my courage to the sticking place; now that the ghost light is out, the industry must make every effort to convince others to do the same.