From 4 July, cinemas in England can reopen but in a limited fashion: social distancing must be observed both in the cinema itself and while queuing; the number of attendees must be limited to enforce that social distancing; every seat must be disinfected between showings.
So why can’t theatres do the same?
I don’t pretend to know what the government thinking is on this. To be honest, I’m not sure that the government does actually think if the ‘advice’ highlighted by Andrew Lloyd Webber after his conversation with the Secretary of State at the DCMS is anything to go by: it will be fine to open musicals as long as no one sings!
Such ignorance aside, there are good reasons why live theatre should not reopen yet and they have nothing to do with the safety of audiences (which is relatively easy to legislate for) but rather with that of performers and creatives, crew and techs.
So perhaps—or am I crediting the government with more understanding than they actually have?—this lies behind their much derided comment that theatres can open but not for live performances
Plays, whether musical or not, usually require moments or even long periods of closeness between performers. How do you play a love scene or comfort someone who is absolutely distraught while maintaining social distancing? And it doesn’t happen just once but of course is repeated at every performance—and goodness knows how many times in rehearsals.
And talking of rehearsals, they are usually intense, can run for hours (I once worked on a play where, after a full day of tech, the dress started at 19:00 and ended at 1:00) and early rehearsals at any rate are often in small rooms. There can be one-to-one sessions between director and performers and, in the case of musicals or even a simple play with music, with musical director and possibly choreographer / movement director.
Then there’s measuring for costume, followed by fittings. And we haven’t mentioned discussions between director and designers (set, costume, lighting, sound) and between the designers and those who implement those designs.
And all of this is before the actual performance when performers can spend a lot of time waiting in the wings, in contact with stage management and techs, and, unless it’s a very small cast play, having to share dressing rooms.
The problems, of course, are magnified if you’re doing Shakespeare (which usually means a large cast—whenever I’ve directed Shakespeare, the wages bill for cast and creatives has been by far the largest part of the budget) and the numbers grow even larger when you’re doing a full-scale musical with principals, chorus, orchestra and a whole range of crew shifting loads of scenery (even with computer assistance).
Social distancing and what the government is now called ‘mitigation’ (wearing masks etc) are next to impossible on- and back-stage. The risk factor is very high.
All theatre-makers are equally desperate to get back to work—it’s not just their living but their life—but until the picture changes radically, I think we just have to accept that theatres cannot open at any time soon.
Hopefully, the current suggestion that a vaccine may be ready by the end of the year will prove to be accurate. Fingers crossed!