It is quite probable that since the first days that individuals appeared on stage before audiences, there has been a tension between those on the artistic side of the industry and the bean counters trying to balance the books.
These days, in larger theatres, organisations tend to have two bosses, generally regarded as of roughly equal status. The Artistic Director selects and masterminds the staging of the shows, while the Executive Director finds the money to achieve this and, in the best of all possible worlds, make a profit that can be put aside to protect against inevitable future mishaps.
Taken to its extreme, this divide could be summarised by suggesting that an adventurous Artistic Director might happily stage a 'perfect' production to an empty auditorium, while her Executive Director would spot a possible downside to even the most promising proposal and keep the theatre dark forever.
In the theatre, it is natural for ambitious directors of plays and musicals to believe in their theatrical babies and, sometimes misguidedly, have little doubt that the world will feel the same way.
Although they may be less steeped in theatrical history, those on the business side will realise that for every runaway hit like The Mousetrap, there are at the very least several dozen shows that sank without trace.
The very best companies have the ability to foster individuals who can recognise a hit when they see it but also understand how to limit the losses on something that doesn’t work.
They will also have the kind of corporate or individual contacts who are willing to act as angels and gamble significant sums of money that they know will usually be lost, in the firm belief that either they are supporting a worthy cause or will eventually find themselves sharing in the loot from the next Hamilton.
The problem with this dynamic has become even more marked over the last 5½ months while every theatre in the country has been dark, redundancies have been rife and the government has shown what many are now coming to regard as cynical disdain for the industry.
What feels like a lifetime ago, Sonia Friedman pointed out that unless drastic steps were taken, 70% of theatres would close permanently by the end of the year. This might originally have been a siren call but is beginning to look like a chilling prophecy.
In this light, it has been fascinating to observe the behaviour of many in the industry over recent months.
It is a given that most theatres need to play to approximately 60% to 70% of capacity in order to break even. Those numbers may have changed a little as a result of the cost of making theatres COVID-safe but only adversely.
At the other end of the scale, given the social distancing requirements to protect audience members and workers in the industry, maximum available capacity is around half of these figures.
As any Artistic Director could work out, let alone an accountant, this guarantees that there will be a big loss at every performance. Unless there are hidden reserves, and that is not a luxury that many theatres enjoy, any losses must feed through into the finances of the underlying company and either speed its demise or increase the number of redundancies that will be necessary.
Despite these basic facts, a number of London theatres have announced re-openings in recent weeks and it is far from clear to identify any commercial rationale.
Instead, laudably their directors have taken the view that it is important to remind theatregoers of the pleasures they are missing and also provide employment, even on a very short-term basis, to so many of those who are self-employed and receive little or no support from the government.
The problem is that, as shown above, this could all end in tears very quickly. Theatre must and will get through this pandemic. It has survived various iterations of the Plague and came out at the end of two World Wars alive and kicking, but what it will look like in a year or two is anybody’s guess.