A New Age for Theatre?
29th March 2021
The theatre industry has long been one of UK’s biggest success stories, both culturally and economically. In 2018, UK theatre box office income was a massive £1.3 billion. But the global pandemic has been a cruel sledge-hammer blow to the industry. Theatre closures brought business to a standstill overnight and then, once-reopened, social distancing rules meant an average reduction in seats of 80%. So what does the next 12 months hold for the industry? Has Covid presented any opportunities for new business or change? Will we return to theatres in the same numbers? We asked three industry experts for their take.
Kerry Kyriacos Michael, MBE
Theatre & Film Director
(photo: Helen Murray)
Executive Vice President,
Crossroads Live, Inc
Harbottle & Lewis
KM: Over the last 12 months, British Theatre has been a roller-coaster of drama. Overnight, our industry came to a grinding halt, like many other industries. And as with many other industries, too, there is now a considerable debate about how we are going to look as we bounce back. But some of us are saying “back” is not the direction we should be facing: this should be our time to rebuild, re-imagine and reconfigure.
Before the pandemic, many of us felt a change was just around the corner. British Theatre was reviewing its power structures and having difficult conversations about equality and race. And all that has been amplified tremendously by another remarkable global event: George Floyd's death and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The pandemic also reminded us that most creatives are freelancers, part of a delicate ecosystem and food chain. And going forward they need greater equity. While our larger venues and institutions, with some successful lobbying, received government bail-outs, millions of freelancers fell between the gaps in Number 11's recovery plans. How many freelancers will return, no one can know for sure. But what is clear, to me anyway, is that whilst the strongest and most resilient will return, the newer voices, the non-traditional and the Avent Garde, may not.
Having been starved of the thing that feeds our soul, that helps us make sense of the world as we see it; and, having had to grapple with practical, yet essential issues around insurance, social distancing and venue ventilation systems, we are so desperate to get the show back on the road - giddy even with the excitement – that for many it won’t really matter, too much, who or what that show is. And that’s where we will fail. We will miss the opportunity to be a more relevant sector. Yes, there has been innovation with hybrid forms that fuse live theatre with Zoom or live spectacles in car parks. However, the bigger gains, where we reimage our structures, with new voices leading the way, will not be the default position, as many well-intentioned, powerful producers and established venues take charge and declare ‘the show must go on’.
BE: A little over 12 months ago, West End theatres shut up shop to be shortly followed by the rest of the theatres in the UK. Nobody involved could know how long the shut-down would last but about three months was most people’s guess – little did we know!
So, what do we know about the coming year? We know there are significant numbers of theatre-goers who want to get back to seeing live shows as soon as possible: the brief re-openings last Autumn were all well attended and those shows planning to reopen at the earliest opportunity on 17th May are booking strongly. In that respect, theatre is very much alive and kicking.
During lockdown, a lot of producers and theatres started streaming live and recorded shows to keep audiences engaged and fill a gap. Streamed theatre won’t replace live theatre but it’s probably going to continue growing and developing, including as an art form in its own right, if the success of some innovative performances (Ratatouille The Musical, devised from scratch on TikTok!) are an indication. And, when things do finally get going again, there will be a renewed appreciation of live shows on both sides of the curtain.
HB: It’s hard to overstate just how challenging this last year has been for the UK theatre industry. As producers, creatives, actors, musicians and crew have grappled with cancellations (I’ve never been asked to look at so many force majeure clauses in contracts so closely before), furlough and redundancies, the impact on the sector – both financially and on the mental health of the people who make it tick – has been deeply felt across all levels. Despite everything that has been thrown at us, it has been heartening to see the resilience and creativity of producers and artists doing everything they can to make the best of a devastating situation – the remarkable burgeoning of streaming and filmed performances, which is here to stay in one form or another to complement the live experience and which has had the added bonus of allowing shows to be seen by a broader and more diverse audience base than ever before, is just one example. Twelve months later, there are now, at last, some glimmers of light at the end of what has been an achingly long tunnel. I think most theatre-goers would agree that there is something so visceral about watching live theatre – there’s a bond created by the shared experience, unique to every performance, between audience and company that can’t be replicated and that we’ve missed in our enforced isolation of the last year. Looking forward, I’m optimistic that we’ll see a real boom as theatres start to welcome performers, crew and audiences alike back after this unwanted interval. That’s not to say that we won’t see any changes – producers still need to ensure that theatres will be – and as importantly will feel – safe for everyone involved in the post-lockdown normal, and it’s likely that there may be some reasonable nervousness on all fronts in the short term as the industry re-adjusts to the practicalities of life both on- and off-stage in venues of all sizes. That said, it’s undeniably encouraging to see so many established favourites and exciting new shows, both in the West End and beyond, taking up the challenge and announcing their opening dates - I can’t wait to go back.