On Monday 3 May, theatre producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh told the BBC that West End and Broadway theatres are unlikely to be able to stage musicals until early next year. Speaking to Michael Ball on Radio 2, he said it's impossible for theatres to plan for the future while social distancing is in place.
And certainly two metres of separation would reduce most theatres' capacities by about a third, making them uneconomic, particularly after a prolonged period of being dark.
Then there’s a worry that perhaps audiences will be wary of large gatherings. And even in “normal” times it can take a theatre some time to get back their audiences after a being closed for a longish period. In Newcastle, for example, Newcastle Playhouse and the Gulbenkian Studio closed in 2004 for major refurbishment and re-opened as Northern Stage in 2006 and it took many months to get the audience back into the routine of coming to the theatre.
Of course theatres are trying to keep audiences in the mood, as it were, by releasing, free, filmed versions of big hits online. The National Theatre leads the way on this but even commercial operators like the Really Useful Group are joining in.
Some small theatres are appealing to their audiences for financial support and attempting to give them something in return. The Customs House in South Shields, for example, is providing online entertainment over and above videos of past productions. The theatre’s panto comic Davey Hopper teams up with local celebrities such as comedian Jason Cook, Joe McElderry and Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall for a regular online quiz / game show (donations invited) and Melissa, 17-year-old daughter of Customs House director Ray Spencer has just shaved her head to raise almost £700 for the theatre.
But theatres, whether expensive West End real estate or small regional venues, are not Theatre. Let’s not confuse the two. Theatre is the work created by writers, director, actors and all the many people involved in the creation of a play or other piece of theatre—and that is not stopping, no matter how severe the lockdown or the fear the virus is generating.
Writers are still writing—one NE playwright just wrote (jokingly—I think…) on Twitter that the lockdown needs to continue until he finishes the play he’s working on! Others are finding it hard—my own creative (as opposed to journalistic) output has fallen to zero during the two months I have been in isolation, and other writers report similar problems.
However, there are those who are not only managing to write plays but these plays are being cast and directed and performed to the public online.
The Coronavirus Theatre Club of Newcastle is inviting submissions of 10-minute monologues from writers and volunteer directors and actors work on them (via Skype, Zoom or other online wizardry) and are webcast on their Twitter page and then stored on their YouTube channel, where you can see most of the pieces to date.
Novo Productions is giving NE graduating actors a chance to perform, online, a brand new piece of writing by North East playwrights and an accompanying speech that “celebrates the vitality of speech.” The playwrights are Aimee Shields, Elijah Young, Benjamin Storey, David Tuffnell, Reece Connolly, Paul Joseph, Louise Powell, Mhairi Ledgerwood, Philip Meeks and Peter Dawson, a mixture of the very experienced and young, emerging writers.
These, and many other initiatives like them, are organised, for no financial return, by local actors, writers and directors who simply want—indeed, feel the need—to make theatre. It’s the modern, digital age—South Shields-based Walton-Gunn Productions is doing something similar—version of the strolling players of history who had no theatre to play in so took over whatever space they could find, of the film “Let’s do the play right here!” cliché, of Peter Brook’s Empty Space.
Over the last weekend, GIFT (Gateshead International Festival of Theatre), an annual event, took itself online to huge acclaim, offering work from the NE, the UK and throughout the world, creating a triumph for its organisers who have been showered with praise by enthusiastic theatre fans.
These examples are from my area, the North East, but something similar is happening all over the country and will no doubt continue to do so until we get back to normal (whatever "normal" may be!) and may even continue beyond then if it proves, as it appears that it is, to be an effective means for young and emerging playwrights, actors and directors to ge their work in front of the public.
Theatre is not a matter of buildings but, as the old saying went, of “two planks and a passion!”