Pre-show nerves are hardly a rarity backstage in London’s Theatreland, but after seven months of lockdown, tension behind the scenes has taken on a new meaning.
Some of the world's most famous and historic venues closed in March and remain closed. An entire way of life has been devastated after strict Covid-19 social-distancing rules made reopening a hazard, never mind financially unviable.
A smattering of shows were streamed online with no audience. But only now have some venues forged ahead to make the alterations necessary for theatre lovers to return.
At the Young Vic theatre in south London last week, The New Tomorrow became its first post-shutdown live theatre with a small audience present and the show streamed online. It featured short commissioned performances and activist speeches that examined what the next 50 years may hold – highly poignant during such current uncertainty.
The main room was adapted to provide 79 single seats at least a metre away from each other for the lucky few who obtained a ticket via a ballot.
The rehearsal process was largely conducted online, says director Jennifer Tang, who visited the Young Vic’s stage only days before the curtains were raised.
"It was actually quite emotional walking back into a theatre space, actually into an auditorium, and seeing a stage that was ready to accept performers, that had lights, had sound. I can't quite describe just how magical that feeling was and it made me realise that during lockdown I've not really let myself feel how much I've been missing it," she tells The National.
“It was a really magical moment of coming back in and knowing that we are on the very slow, slippery road to bringing work back to audiences. That does feel like a responsibility but also it feels like a privilege. I feel very lucky that we’re in a position where we can be bringing work back because there are lots of buildings and organisations that might not be in this position and I really feel for my colleagues who aren’t able to do that.”
Tentative steps to tread the boards were made in recent weeks, but optimistic voices are few and far between.
Julian Bird, chief executive of UK Theatre, and the Society of London Theatre (Solt), leading collective voices for British performing arts organisations, believes only 22 per cent of venues have reopened. Of those, most have been able to do so at only 30 per cent capacity.
In July, the government announced a £1.57 billion ($2.03bn) Culture Recovery Fund, through a mixture of loans and grants. But amid stark warnings that as many as 70 per cent of theatres will run out of cash by the end of the year, most applicants will not find out if they have been successful until next week.
The theatre industry employs 290,000 workers, 70 per cent of whose jobs are now at risk, according to Solt and UK Theatre in documents submitted to a parliamentary committee.
Thousands of redundancies have already been announced, including at Ambassador Theatre Group, Delfont Macintosh Theatres and HQ Theatres, as revenues plummet.
The bleak picture is in contrast to what was a thriving enterprise. In 2018, Britain's box office revenue was more than £1.28bn, with 34 million tickets sold, Solt and UK Theatre said. Last year, 15.3m people attended Solt member venues, which includes London’s most prominent theatres, and a gross revenue of nearly £800m.
The programme ahead
Across the West End, some major shows and theatres have now announced plans to reopen. Six, the musical about King Henry VIII's wives, will start its run at London's Lyric Theatre from Saturday, November 14, while at the National Theatre, live performances return with Death of England: Delroy from Wednesday, October 21.
Nimax Theatres, which owns six of the most famous venues in London including the Lyric, announced that its venues will begin opening from the end of the month but will run at a loss because of social distancing.
The Show Must Go On, a concert celebrating some of the most famous shows that normally would be on in London, will be staged from Friday to Sunday, November 13 to 15, at the Palace Theatre.
The Royal Ballet, Britain's largest ballet company, took a leap forward on Friday after seven months of Covid-19 gloom. It held a three-hour live-streamed performance from the Royal Opera House in London with about 70 dancers mixing classics such as Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote with playful modern dance.
Despite the glimmer of hope, the industry is in a precarious state with the popular musical Wicked among the shows to postpone reopening.
The reality is that even for those that do reopen, reduced audiences mean shows will struggle to break even.
Solt and UK Theatre launched their "See it Safely" campaign in the hope people will feel more comfortable about returning. But the industry also wants to show it is capable of staging performances safely so theatres can return to full capacity. An enhanced tax relief for productions has also been suggested to keep them afloat.
Theatre not a priority
There was already a bubbling frustration that the arts sector was being neglected by the government when Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak was accused of overlooking the industry when he announced his winter support plan last month.
There are also fears that, with about 70 per cent of people in the sector self-employed, freelancers may struggle more than others financially.
Director Sam Mendes led a drive to raise nearly £4m for the Theatre Artists Fund, which gives small emergency grants for support, but concerns remain about the long-term situation for workers if venues stay closed or cannot open at full capacity.
Producer Katy Lipson had her musical The Last Five Years, at Southwark Playhouse, cut short in March – leaving "astronomical" losses – as Covid-19 spread in the UK, although a revival of the staging has since begun.
“The last six months I’ve been really trying to reopen the show and to talk regularly with the venue about how they would open if the government allowed with social distancing a factor,” she says.
The Last Five Years has since reopened, on October 5, and the venue has been reconfigured with dividers between households. A one-way system is also in place and extensive disinfection occurs. Only half the Playhouse capacity will be met, which Lipson says is unsustainable in the long run.
“Financially it’s very hard and it’s hard to get people to understand the risks you're taking and how this isn’t a normal situation where producers are making money.
“It’s a really big risk. At any point the show could close again and not only will I have lost all the money from the first time, we would have lost even more money this time.
“I do think we have to now start working together more, with representation, artists and producers, and understanding about getting the show on and giving jobs right now and giving people hope.”
It is impossible to predict the future but she says it remains uncertain.
"I'll be on the edge of my seat for six weeks praying that the actors don't get poorly and the show carries on and audiences come," Lipson says.
Tang says the hardest part of being a director was not being able to have face-to-face creative conversations with her team. She says it has forced her to really think and revaluate theatre-making.
“The thing I realised is that Covid is not going away any time soon and I think it’s really dangerous to think it will all just go back to normal any time.”
The effect of Covid-19 is also being felt by other entertainment venues. Last month, the English National Opera put on a drive-in version of Puccini's La Boheme for eight days at Alexandra Palace as it sought to redress some of the damage done during lockdown.
The Royal Albert Hall will open its doors in time for Christmas, but only 36,000 tickets will go on sale compared with more than 120,000 in 2019.
The world’s second-biggest cinema chain, Cineworld, announced this week it will temporarily close – putting nearly 6,000 jobs at risk in the UK – after the release of several blockbusters was delayed, with the postponement of the new James Bond film until 2021 proving the final nail in the coffin.
Last month, Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the most famous names in musical theatre, said the industry was at "the point of no return".
“We simply have to get our arts sector back open and running,” he said.
“My life is theatre," Lipton says. "I think it’s one of the most important things out there. Arts can help change people more than anything else. It’s the most incredible thing out there, it can represent so much, it can give so much hope, it can give so much joy and we will lose a lot of companies and buildings over this and we will not be the same.”
But despite the theatre industry's determination that the show must go on, the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus means its future is far from certain.