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THE LOST BATTLE AGAINST THEATRICAL COVID SAFETY (AT LEAST IN ENGLAND)
I am finally and officially defeated. As regular readers will know, I have been actively campaigning for theatres, at least, to continue to operate safely, since COVID safety enforcement and mitigations were left entirely to the personal choice and responsibility of each and every one of us after all restrictions against gatherings and protections were dropped by Boris Johnson on “Freedom Day”. But it is not happening — and won’t, now, until we have another crisis that shuts theatres again.
Originally it was thought that the government would introduce Covid passports for (undefined) larger public gatherings that would require proof of vaccination or a current negative test, but even that wasn’t done; at least that would have required enforcement by government edict. Instead, in the total absence of leadership from SOLT and UK Theatres to protect audiences (or Equity UK to protect actors), every single theatre or theatre group has had to make up its own rules.
And that has stretched from whether or not to ask for proof of vaccination or COVID testing to whether or not to require audiences to wear masks. Some have at least paid lip service to this. ATG, for instance, DOES ask audiences to be vaccinated or to have proof of having taken a current COVID test — and there is checking by door staff on the way in. But when a friend of mine couldn’t access his NHS app at a recent ATG opening, he was simply directed instead to have his temperature taken.
Some theatres make pre-show announcements urging continued mask use, and have ushers patrolling the aisles with signs that remind audiences before the show and during the interval. When theatres reopened, SOLT/UK Theatre CEO Julian Bird stated, “We hope audience members show respect for fellow theatregoers and staff by continuing to wear face coverings when coming into our venues and moving around them.”
But in fact at show after show, I have seen no such respect being shown (Hampstead Theatre in London is a notable exception; as is Chichester Festival Theatre).
And visiting Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre yesterday afternoon, NOT EVEN THE STAFF were wearing masks.
I tweeted the following:
The venue’s Chief Executive Mark Da Vanzo, whom I also spoke to during the interval when I was told that masking was a matter of personal choice — for audience and staff alike — replied publicly as follows:
I replied to him by e-mail, saying this:
Good to meet you today.
I’ve seen your response to my Twitter thread, and as you’d expect, I don’t think it’s good enough or that public health decisions should be left to personal choice.
If and when theatres are forced to close again, I will be neither surprised nor sympathetic. But here’s the thing: the reason I am so passionate about this is that I *want* theatre to thrive and for this NOT to happen. Not just because it has been my job for the last 36 years (since leaving University), but more than that it has been my LIFE.
I care deeply about the theatre and its well-being. When theatres shut down in March 2020, I underwent a bit of an existential crisis: Without theatre, I was not sure who I was anymore.
I’ve spent the last 18 months finding out who that is. And if I can do anything in the greatly diminished world of arts journalism now, it is to agitate for change and hold the theatre to account.
Now that I’m entirely independent, too, I am no longer beholden to editors or publishers either.
At the same time, I also really hope that I’m wrong, and that things do not play out as I fear they will.
I won’t publish Mark’s private response to me, as it was not necessarily intended for publication. I realise that the theatre is grappling with public resistance, and isn’t being supported by the government, who have explicitly left the whole sorry mess to them to deal with.
But compare and contrast this position with the one less than hour away from Liverpool, in Wales — where as Tamara Harvey, artistic director of Theatr Clwyd in Mold, reminded me: “We’re lucky that the Welsh government has made it mandatory.”
Meanwhile, others on Twitter are telling me that if it’s such a problem for me, I can make a choice and choose not to go the theatre. But that means that my FREEDOM (and ability to do MY job) is being taken away by others who won’t respect a few simple protections, for themselves and others.
As it is, I now double mask — with a surgical mask first, over which I have a more attractive cloth one.
TODAY’S THEATRE BIRTHDAYS