Last month, when the producers of Hamilton on Broadway announced their intention to reopen the production on 6 October, the announcement sounded more like hopeful bravado than reality.
New York has been at least as badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic as London and will suffer from exactly the same physical, psychological and commercial constraints as our own theatres over the next year.
Until the authorities can come up with either a vaccine, a cure or an artificial replacement for social distancing, it is difficult to see how any theatres can reopen.
Put simply, if producers need to keep a strict 2m (or even 1m) gap between theatregoers, then they are going to lose 85% to 95% of all sales. That does not work commercially.
Even if it did, the depleted London transport system will be completely unable to cope with an influx of those seeking entertainment, or even guarantee punters that they could get home after a show.
Given these limitations, the general assumption has been that theatres on either side of the Atlantic are unlikely to reopen in 2020.
Ironically, the best chance might lie with open-air theatres, since research has suggested that the virus is less harmful outdoors. The problem here is that by the time that the authorities deem it safe and managements get up to speed, we will probably be in September or October, just the time when it becomes impossible to put on performances outdoors in the UK for the following six months.
In this light, it came as a pleasant surprise to receive two press releases (plus a late third) this week hinting at the prospect of live theatre in the United Kingdom in the autumn.
First came a release from the RSC in which its Artistic Director Gregory Doran regretfully announced the postponement of all future plan 2020 performances. That was both realistic and unsurprising, following similar communications from most of his peers.
However, at the same time, he suggested that “the Company is currently actively exploring the possibility of re-opening the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) in the autumn with new events and re-scheduled performances of The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors.”
This might be pie in the sky but the idea that a couple of productions that were about to open when the pandemic derailed the live arts overnight may open is encouraging.
While the RSC’s plans might come under the category of “ambition”, a word now favoured by those trying to cover the kind of statement that could often be better summarised as “something that I don’t expect to achieve in a month of Sundays”, a press release from a different source is far more bullish.
The Great Gatsby is planning to re-open at West End venue IMMERSIVE | LDN on Thursday 1 October 2020.
Olivier Award-winning producers Louis Hartshorn and Brian Hook have taken some trouble to think through the implications of pandemic theatre and believe that they might have come up with a viable solution.
The duo and their company have re-imagined and re-set the production as an Art Deco Masquerade Ball, “with audience members wearing compulsory face coverings to complement their fabulous attire”.
The capacity of the venue will be significantly reduced to maintain social distancing, while the nature of the show means that audience members can choose where they stand and move throughout the performance.
This sounds good in theory although might prove tricky in practice, where audience members are naturally more interested in following an engrossing show than protecting their fellows, although we are assured that the actors will be trained to keep groups of audience following the story, whilst remaining at a safe distance.
Amongst other measures to ensure full compliance with government COVID-secure guidelines, temperature checks will be undertaken for audience and staff on arrival. The venue will be deep-cleaned before and after every performance, bar equipment sterilised and hand sanitisers available throughout the venue.
That point about bar equipment might be redundant, since under current rules, bars are not permitted and this may well still be the case in the autumn, particularly indoors.
The advantage that this company has is a spacious venue, combined with a show that does not require audience members to remain in fixed seating.
Time will tell as to whether either or both of these ventures comes to fruition, let alone anything else in the coming months.
However, given all of the gloomy news of late, it is good to hear of enterprising attempts to restore the stage, not to mention providing work and income for those so much in need of it.
As a more immediate alternative, you might think that somebody would have invented Garden Theatre, which could easily be commercially viable.
In that six suitably spaced people can now gather in a garden, surely some actor must be considering marketing a portable solo show. That popular, hour-long, Shakespeare’s / Dickens’s / Wilde’s Greatest Hits that went down so well in Edinburgh or above a city pub could be a nice little earner presented 2 to 3 times a day at £20 a pop for an audience of five.
A release from the Greenwich+Docklands International Festival arrived while this article was in draft and suggests that the organisers have had similar ideas. They plan a new initiative, entitled On Your Doorstep, which will bring family-friendly circus and street theatre to the heart of communities in Greenwich, Woolwich, Thamesmead, North Woolwich, and Eltham, whilst Dancing City, the Festival’s annual outdoor dance programme at Canary Wharf, is being reinvented with safe-distancing integrated into the performances and audience experience.
Larger-scale outdoor theatre pieces will also take place in more isolated locations, with reduced ticketed capacities and controlled entry.