At the moment, we have no idea when theatres on either side of the Atlantic will reopen.
Despite Lord Lloyd Webber’s confident belief that Cinderella can open to full houses in May, realistically, there may be limited opportunities in the spring but one must hope for rather more by the summer, certainly for venues like Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Even that relies on the efficacy of vaccines, limited mutations to the virus and the willingness of theatre managers to lose even more money in an effort to provide work for practitioners and entertain the punters.
Most theatre folk are idealists and have very firm ideas about the way in which the art form should progress. There is a general presumption that, in the best of all possible worlds, younger audiences should be encouraged, ethnic and gender diversity propagated wherever possible and productions be challenging and exciting, rather than safe and intrinsically unimaginative.
In theory, this should mean when that we finally get back to some kind of normality, stages will be littered with avant-garde performances that have little plot or text, feature artists from every kind of background, including those with disabilities, from ethnic minorities, LBGTQIA+ backgrounds and with at least as many women as men on stage.
I fear that the answer to anyone expecting this to happen is going to be “dream on”. If nothing else, theatres will be struggling for cash and, with all due respect, the way to make money is usually to head determinedly for the middle-of-the-road or somewhere even more lowbrow.
The best hope for artistic directors may well be to try and achieve a compromise. It is unlikely that many readers would be satisfied by a diet of low-cost popular musicals, TV sitcoms reimagined on stage and adaptations of movies. However, the general public might be and it is almost certain that commercial imperatives will be the order of the day at most theatres as they desperately try to remain solvent, many by then having been forced to close their doors for a year and quite probably even longer.
Over the years, artistic directors have become adept at mixing the sacred and the profane, balancing experimental new writing with old favourites that are guaranteed to provide full houses and a firm financial base. This will almost certainly have to be the business model going forwards at most theatres, assuming that they even survive that long. We may also have to accept that there is an even greater proportion of low budget populist work unless an unexpectedly large number of previously hidden angels materialises. If so, such benefactors will need to anticipate financial losses in return for little more than the warm glow that encouraging artistic endeavour can bring.
In these circumstances, it is hard to imagine that the idealistic dreams of the most imaginative theatre makers will be fulfilled in the next year or two but, as a group, they are generally born optimists who will look further into the future towards the great day when their goals align with those of financial types and the government.