April 7: There are still so many unknowns as theatre looks to return

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We are just over a month away from the cautious re-opening of indoor theatre venues from May 17, which will restore theatres to their pre-lockdown condition last December of being able to operate at 50% capacity, up to a maximum of 1,000 people. (Johnson has previously also roadmapped that June 20 could see all restrictions dropped entirely, when theatres could return to operating at capacity).

But though Boris Johnson announced on Monday (April 5) that pubs, shops, hairdressers and gyms can reopen from next Monday (April 12) — a move he said was “fully justified” by the success of the vaccine rollout and the drop in cases and hospitalisations from COVID — he wouldn’t commit to anything beyond that just yet.

According The Guardian,

Before the Downing Street press conference, scientists from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said next week’s reopening of venues, with outdoor service only at pubs and restaurants, was “highly unlikely” to overwhelm the NHS. But they warned that further easing in May and beyond could unleash a third UK wave as deadly as the one seen during the winter, when more than half of the country’s total of Covid deaths occurred.

Work by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, based on pessimistic but realistic assumptions about the effectiveness of the vaccines, forecast that a third wave could peak at the end of July or early August, with hospitalisations on the same scale as in January. Most other modelled scenarios showed a smaller potential third wave peak.

And according to a news report in the Telegraph:

Scientists said that while vaccines are having a major impact in cutting illness and deaths, they are not effective enough to allow a return to normal social mixing “without a big epidemic”. A senior Sage source suggested that some measures, such as social distancing or the use of face masks, may need to stay in place for another year as Britain eases out of lockdown.

I’m now keeping a running tab on shows that have set dates for their return or to newly open that I’ll update every Monday. (The first one can be found here).

But I’m pretty sure any producers reading those news stories yesterday will be trembling with new uncertainty: how realistic are the expectations that ‘normal’ service can be restored from late June?

Already some venues are making plans to accommodate a risk-averse public, with the “full” re-openings being offset at theatres like Chichester and Nottingham (where productions of South Pacific, pictured above, and Piaf, pictured below, respectively are booked to open in July) by designating certain performances as being performed to a socially distanced audience, even if the restrictions have been fully lifted.

So obviously they are building the lost revenue from those reduced-capacity performances into their economic modelling. But, as we know, theatres have said that opening at less than the opportunity to fill their houses at full capacity is not sustainable, especially with the large companies that some of the big musicals require, both onstage and behind-the-scenes. So many of those have delayed their openings (or re-openings) until after the not-before June 20 roadmap date for when that might be possible.

But we’re just over two months away from that date now, and with alarm bells already being sounded, where would that leave the industry? Properly on its knees, I’d hazard to guess.

And I have a wider worry: will all those audiences being welcomed back — or all the cast, crew and theatre staff that will be welcoming them back — be fully vaccinated yet?

By June all the vulnerable and those over 50 may be covered; but what about the younger generations we want and need to come to the theatre — and of course those onstage and behind-the-scenes that actually make it happen?

Would it be right to expose them to the risks?

Just as the PM wouldn’t commit to whether international travel might yet be possible this summer, I wouldn’t be surprised if a return to theatre — at least in its pre-pandemic state — was also viewed with wariness. Meanwhile, we’re all of us suffering from weariness, too. COVID fatigue and impatience is setting in. I just hope we don’t put the cart before the horse and expect it to take us places that we’re not ready to go yet.