After all the heartache of the last year, and restrictions which have meant that theatres up and down the country have been unable to welcome audiences inside to see shows, you would think the prospect of no restrictions would have theatre dancing a jig. Particularly when its workforce has been so badly hit. Between January and March 2021, the ONS reported that job vacancies in the arts and entertainment sector were down 79 percent compared to the same quarter last year, making it the worst hit part of the economy, worse even than the hospitality sector. But, of course, as is always the case with these things, the situation is far more complex than it first appears.
The most immediate and pressing problem facing theatre are current self-isolation rules which mean that increasing numbers of shows are losing performances because a member of the cast has been in contact with someone who has tested positive. The Globe’s production of Romeo and Juliet was hit last weekend, the cast of Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner at the Royal Court has been off for a week, and Hairspray at the Coliseum has also been suspended to fulfil self-isolation requirements. Meanwhile, touring is in danger of grinding to a halt because of the uncertainty and the lack of a government backed insurance scheme. Culture minister Oliver Dowden keeps saying he’s working on it but he needs to deliver. Now. Just how serious the situation is indicated by the fact that West End producer Sonia Friedman said last week that the commercial sector was weeks away from collapse.
Indeed, as far as theatre is concerned, this may well be the industry’s most difficult and potentially catastrophic moment of the pandemic. Once a show is in production, or up and running, any interruption in that process has consequences, affecting everything from artistic quality to whether the show might break even. So while the repeal of restrictions including social distancing will please some such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, many theatre producers and artistic directors are wary.
It’s not just about whether they—and theatre’s workforce—will be safe (although that is paramount) but also about whether audiences feel safe enough to buy tickets. It’s why significant numbers of theatres have decided to stick with social distancing for the weeks or if not the months ahead. Listening to audiences on whether they would prefer social distancing and face masks to remain in place is going to be crucial.
So while Boris Johnson appears to have reached Stage 4 on his Roadmap, theatre is facing yet more uncertainty and negotiating the road ahead is going to be difficult. But theatre producers are optimists by nature and I’ve no doubt that many will find a way through. But we’re not out of the woods yet.