March 2020 – British theatre’s shock shutdown, described by industry insiders
30th March 2020
On the weekend of 14th March following the closure of theatre on Broadway [12-03] it became clear that something overwhelming was about to happen to British theatre. I wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph that combined a sense of what that final weekend of West End activity felt like with the first reactions to the announced closures of the theatres, following the [5pm] 16th March quasi directive by PM Boris Johnson. These transcripts of phone calls with a handful of those contending with the impact of Covid-19 on the theatre industry give an indication of what has been going on behind the scenes in March… DC
Tom Littler, artistic director of Jermyn Street Theatre, looks back a month [17-04-2020]
March 16th was awful. That five o’ clock announcement from Johnson that we were supposed to close was so grim. It sounds really stupid but we genuinely hadn’t seen it coming. We opened The Tempest on the Friday. I was on the stage thanking the audience for coming and saying here is the latest guidance from SOLT and UK Theatre ‘it says and I quote ‘you are as safe in a theatre as anywhere else…’’ Then we all spent that weekend on the phone all comparing notes and strategising. What we were going to do was keep the shows that had the high advances. Bookings had just stopped but The Tempest and Relatively Speaking were basically sold out. Then at the end of that weekend it began to crumble and two or three theatres announced they were closing but we were still thinking – ‘Well, yes, they’re probably closing because they’ve got no money for those shows’. So we were thinking about reducing discretionary spending and maybe postponing some shows but we weren’t thinking of closing at all. It wasn’t an absolute imperative and then the phone began to ring immediately that Monday with other directors saying: “What are you going to do tonight?”
I made a pact with an unnamed AD, and we said we would both go on… I will you, if you will. It felt like the right thing to do at the time. I was actually on stage, which I’ve never done – because we had an actor who suddenly went into self-isolation. I’m terrible at acting – so that was weird but that weirdness distracted from the other weirdness. The next day, we came into work on the Tuesday, did an audio recording in the day-time and in the evening a video recording. We were still one actor down but now with an understudy so we got two recordings. I think it was the Tuesday when we came back in to do these recordings that the reality sank in. We shared video of Michael Pennington doing the audio recording of “these our actors … are melted into thin air…” that was almost unbearably poignant. But it felt good we were doing something that day. We had a lock-in in the theatre, Penny [Horner, exec director] opened the bar – and we thought: well, at least we’d achieved something and been able to say goodbye to eachother for now. We’ve left the set, it’s just standing in there, waiting for us to come back.
Josie Rourke, director, working on transfer of her 2014 Donmar production of City of Angels, at the Garrick 31-03-2020
The company [of City of Angels] are amazing. It’s a very strange feeling for them, it’s a very close company and loving and resilient one. Normally as a director you say “Don’t put me on the whatsapp group”, because it’s good for a company to have a forum where there’s no one senior on it, but I said “Put me on it so we can stay in touch”. And they’re so lovely with eachother, so thoughtful and kind, and it’s been very sustaining seeing how amazing they’re all being with eachother and how loving and how funny.
That Monday [16th] was so bizarre. I think that within the company there was a company member who is over 70, and there was someone whose partner was due to give birth. When a member of the company started to show symptoms, there was concern about that. There was massive confusion about when the government advice was going to come out. No one wanted to stop doing the show at all. I said to Nica [Burns, Garrick theatre owner and producer], ‘We don’t know what’s happening, but I think we’re in a good place, if you want to talk to the critics and say we will do an early press night – if there’s an open night in the diary, if you could get them, I could rally the company together for an opening performance, rather than the staggered approach’… So I was bracing to lock it all technically and do all the last bits of pieces, then on the Monday there was this rumour the government might be about to say something.
There was a company meeting, Nica was brilliant, everyone was great and supportive but obviously quite fearful for the continuing life of the show, let alone that evening. We found out that we were going to have a member of the company off. There was a weird sense of uncertainty but one of the things about theatre is that it’s a practical medium. Generally you can always go “these are the things we need to do” – it’s almost unheard of that you’d be frozen by uncertainty or inaction. It’s pragmatic and practical, people are so intellectually brilliant about how to progress and move things forward. We fetishize ‘the show must go on’ but at its best, it’s a world-beating form of crisis management. Everyone was “let’s do the show tonight”, we will go away and work out what to do tomorrow – and get a sense of priorities, talk among ourselves.
And so I was in the bar of the Garrick with a couple of the other creative team. Nica went back to the office to find out what was going on with SOLT. We got a text from the company manager saying ‘come to the auditorium’. And we were aware that Boris had started to broadcast. One of the sound technicians had put the Downing Street broadcast out through the show speakers – because they’re there to broadcast City of Angels which is very carefully mixed, there are a lot of expensive speakers in that auditorium. So we had this extraordinary high-quality audio feed of Boris Johnson as he did or didn’t close down the theatres. We listened to that collectively. There were about 50 of us in there. It was meant to be a working session for the show. So the creative team, all their deps, all the desk, all the stage management, the wardrobe, the wigs, all the crew, and front of house and the acting company were in this gilded auditorium. Some of us sitting, some stalking around, waiting to see what would happen.
Then there was a beat ‘does that mean, he’s closing the theatres now?’ A brief moment of confusion, which was not a great feeling. Nica came and said “I will speak to SOLT”. Then it became clear we were closing that evening… How did everyone respond? It was implosive as opposed to explosive. I think we were all anticipating it, that was what the conversation had been about that afternoon. There was a show, Our New Girl, a good Nancy Harris play we’d done at the Bush. I’d noticed they were reviving it in Ireland. A few days earlier, Nancy had posted that it had been closed and I remember thinking.. right. I could imagine what that felt like because I knew the play. I’d begun to process it the previous week. There had been a dawning sense… This meeting we had with the company, obviously people in that show, because it’s musical-theatre people, they’re naturally connected to Broadway. So that shutdown there had left them thinking “What does it mean? Is it going to happen to us?” I think we’d been hearing for a few days that something might be said and done. People had anticipated it but even so the feeling of it was so extreme.
Companies get very, very close over the rehearsal period and in the period toward opening there is a particular intensity of solving things and fixing things. It’s the end of the rehearsal process, you switch modes – as a director you slightly mourn the end of that. So the people and the show become incredibly precious. And it was very strange. Things were going well, questions I had about how to translate the show to the scale of the proscenium, and trying to get things to work that didn’t work last time had being solved. It’s a weird thing to say about City of Angels, it’s a very funny show, but there are a lot of sophisticated, sharp gags in it, and the company were nailing it in previews.
It felt that the government was asking audiences not to go to the theatre – irrespective of whether they closed the playhouses they didn’t feel people should be assembling in theatres. One of the things that had kept us going was that what you need to do as a civic duty is follow the advice of your government. It felt like even though it wasn’t clear that the playhouses were being closed, the PM was saying “Don’t go to the theatre”… That was that. I’m not glad that we closed on that Monday but I’m glad that we didn’t have that thing of going “this is our last one for a while”. What the company and everyone are holding on to is the idea of having made something, and for it to have its moment. It was the most bizarre experience but quite a unifying one. Theatre is quite a nostalgic medium, but it’s not a sentimental one. There’s huge commitment on the part of that company and Nica to find a way to bring it back. The set and the costumes still sit in the Garrick theatre, like the show is waiting for us.
Sasha Regan, artistic director of the Union Theatre, Monday 30-03-2020
Everything was shut on that Monday. I think we were hoping that – I was personally hoping – it would 1000-seaters plus, or 500-seaters, that the people would still be able to come to smaller venues. When Boris was on the radio I just became acutely aware that that was not how it was going to work. We called all the cast [of Peace in Our Time] and they came in on the Tuesday and collected their bits and pieces. A lot of people didn’t even want to come into London. Quite a lot of people were crying, it was quite emotional. They were having to go back to the families, in Scotland, Wales, wherever, knowing they wouldn’t see the life they’ve created in London for how long no one knows… all their relationships and friendships. My husband is in Mamma Mia! and he got sent home, so it felt like everything crashed down. From the theatre’s point of view, I’m trying not to think too much about the future, the only way to stay well and healthy is to concentrate on the day to day, while trying to fathom how the Union could re-open again. We’ve got a youth theatre, an agent based there, a musical arranger, a rehearsal room – that little theatre is home to so many livelihoods.
Network Rail have frozen our rent and that gives me a ray of hope that with the business rates being frozen we might be able to come out of this at the end. They’ve given us three months for now – which is fine, because we won’t be paying anything out. But we won’t have anything in the bank to pay the rent when we come back. That will be another discussion – the small businesses in railway arches will be saying ‘we need another three months to bring money in’ . We will apply for the grants Southwark Council are offering for the leisure industry. My main concern is making sure that all the people on PAYE are still paid each month – there are five in the theatre, and me, and the youth theatre employs people. I will pay everyone on the last day of the month, then we will apply for 80 per cent of the wage bill to come back. I’m alright this month and should be alright next month. I’ve said as long as we can that’s what we will keep doing until it runs out.
I’m on the board on the Turbine theatre. We’ve raised £50,000 – and were able to send £300 to 145 freelancers and front of house staff on Friday. James Graham donated £22k, Dennis Kelly donated £10k – all the other donations were from individuals. Amazing. I’ve been sifting through all those emails coming in from people – people have kids, households to support, there are often two people working in the industry and suddenly there is no income. Reading those emails has been horrific. We did manage to give some money to a lot of people who emailed in, which should help until Universal Credit kicks in or they find out more about the self-assessment scheme. I think it’s all those front of house staff and the people at the beginning of their careers I really worry about – they don’t have savings, they can’t necessarily go home to family. The people I’m talking to are often the ones stuck on their own in a flat, in their early twenties. Maybe if you’re older you can see your way through it, but you need mental strength to get through it. It’s a mental health crisis as well as an economic crisis – our industry is vulnerable at the best of times. What we always have is hope of another job – that lifts you up, and without that in sight what worries me is that people will get really down.
If I’m brutally honest, I’ve not wanted to think about it [the future] too much – we had a show opening up in Wilton’s [an all-male HMS Pinafore], we were going to Bath etc, a nice little mini tour. When that is taken from you something sinks. I’m trying to be practical – at home, enjoying being with my children. When I see people writing a script, or embracing culture, I’ve gone in the opposite direction… hopefully I will get my mojo back. What worries me is if it goes in waves… what we can’t do is re-engage for another few months, all the bills come back in again, people come off Universal Credit and then it all get shuts down again. I think that would kill everyone. If you know that in September theatres might open again, then people can get in a rehearsal room in August, even if it’s for a short rehearsal period. Whether it’s a room full of people reading scripts – just to be in a room together, that’s the romantic view .. it’s why we got into it in the first place, why we do it. If it fluctuates in and out of being open and closed, well, none of the big producers in town could afford to do that either.. In July the youth theatre is supposed to be putting their show on. All you can do is leave it there, until you have to move it.
We did a youth theatre Zoom thing yesterday, we had kids from four to 19 – and we must have had 50 kids on Zoom, doing this quiz and having a singalong. Seeing all these little faces in their bedrooms, it was quite emotional, actually – they were all waving to eachother and talking to eachother, it was absolute chaos, we had to mute them in the end! But they’re kids – they just want to come out and play. I think people are looking after eachother at the moment and we’ve got to keep it up and not get bored of it, I think that’s when it gets dangerous…
James Dacre, artistic director of Royal & Derngate, Northampton 27-03-2020
I’m just acclimatising to the new normal of trying to do everything by phone and Zoom as we all are. We shuttered up the theatre a few days ago, we’re making sense of it all at the moment. We didn’t have any performances that Monday evening [16th]. We closed on the Tuesday. We had five shows touring, so we worked to stop all of those, some we hope to be able to postpone or revive, others were at the tail-end of their run. We had two weeks remaining of Alone in Berlin which had a week in York and Oxford – we were able to honour our contracts through to the completion of that tour. We had Holes in its fifth week of touring. Wuthering Heights was about to go into rehearsals, The Last of the Pelican Daughters was early in its tour having launched at the Royal.
We were gearing up for what was going to be a busy spring. Today we were due to host the BEAM festival – which was due to see 650 artists all staying in Northampton and performing 10 – 25 minute showcases of new musicals; that’s a group of people we’ve supported for much of the last three years. We had to try and find different ways to digitally distribute that. It has been fascinating to host on Zoom and other online platforms read-throughs of new work we’ve been developing and clever ways of using technology to work through songs.
One of the things that has been heartening about an incredibly challenging couple of weeks has been the extraordinary solidarity we’ve found across the sector. And it’s been so nice to receive messages from people wanting to connect and so on. What is going to get us through an uncertain time is as much dialogue as possible. It’s a frightening and uncertain period for a venue like ours as it is for many. We’re quickly reassessing various different models we might have to pursue to guarantee our future. Every evening there’s a group of regional theatres that all sit within the same scale doing an hour on Zoom as a conference call. There have been 30 artistic directors and executives trying to battle out the same challenges. It’s completely unprecedented to have that regular level of dialogue. We’ve done that every day since Monday last, when the government first began to issue advice. That dialogue as well as regular dialogue with UK Theatre has allowed us to all keep communication channels open. What’s inspiring is that it has not just been the leadership of venues, it has been our company managers, heads of marketing, finance, heads of HR, having sector-wide conversations. If there’s one great outcome of this uncertain period it will be that kind of sense of solidarity has emerged from it.
It’s too early to have a sense of how we’re all able to respond to it in the longer term. It will demand a huge amount of collective effort across the industry and regional venues like ours in terms of thinking about how we’re going to work together on our programmes. But the touring market is also something we’re all keeping a very close eye on. If Edinburgh were to be affected by the crisis that would have a profound impact on an awful lot of the touring work we all so depend upon. So it really has been one day at a time. All of our focus has been with the welfare of our colleagues and the many artists and freelancers that are part of our extended family. It does feel like we’re all making very good progress understanding the government schemes available to us. For big venues like ours that have announced programmes for much of the year it is a case of us getting a clearer sense of what the days and weeks ahead hold…
We’re trying to remain optimistic about the public’s huge appetite and need for theatre in difficult times. And it’s very hard to anticipate the degree to which consumer confidence is going to be affected. That depends on how the restrictions will be relaxed. I can only hope and imagine that the power of the theatre we all believe in will bring people flocking back to our buildings when the time is right – and that the need for a sense of community and entertainment will be stronger than ever. For a building like ours 85 per cent of our income is ticket sales and secondary spend. That 85 per cent requires audiences to be turning up on a nightly basis – without that, the picture is stark for a venue like ours. We’re going to have to ask how we can do everything we can to welcome audiences back with the widest possible arms to ensure that we continue to stay financially resilient.
Once we’re able to open the doors and we feel confident that we’ve got a really positive uplifting programme in the works, that will, all things being well, capture people’s imagination. It puts a lot of responsibility on our programming to be very audience facing – to encourage the artists we’re working with to think about distinctive original brave art for the broadest possible audience and ensure that we’re advocating for being at the centre of our civic life. At the moment we are set to reopen on May 11th but we’re monitoring that day by day. We have announced a date but will respond to government advice. These are utterly unprecedented and frightening times for the country but I think that the way as communities we will get through them is by planning a future for our organisations that ensures we’re bouncing back as positively as we can – celebrating everything that inevitably people round the country are going to be missing at the moment. I’m sure this will change the conversation -society has never felt as vulnerable, certainly in my lifetime as it has in the past few weeks.
Paul Robinson, artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough 26-03-2020
I think we’re lucky. Over the last four years we built up a really good reserve for the first time in the theatre’s history. In some past years it looked like Alan [Ayckbourn] writing a play to bail us out but we’ve been more strategic in recent years. We’re in a good place so that when we had the conversation with our [Arts Council] relationship manager, in a good way we were not on the priority list. The emergency funding package to prioritise other people is absolutely right.
I think we were ahead of the curve, we seem to have been the first theatre in the country to start asking questions about this, apparently to the point where our relationship manager thought we were taking it too seriously. Two weeks ago we were at a point where in a fortnight we were going to spend a ton of money on our summer season – three big productions where we spend the majority of our money. We were bringing it to their attention as an issue – which led to us getting the board to sign off on us cancelling the season. I haven’t regretted it. As artistic director you think you’d be saying ‘we must be doing shows at any cost’. But I was the one saying ‘we can’t do this or it will ruin us’ – expenditure-wise that’s about 350k and we were about to spend 50-70k in that week. It was a no brainer for me. I feel the pressure of that season I guess more than anyone – the idea that that would mean that we would fold was just too much. It turned out to be the right decision but if the virus had gone full epidemic two weeks later it would have been too late – we would have had to cut our losses, and lost 100k.
The idea is that we postpone the whole season by a year – so that will be next year’s summer; meanwhile Alan is writing more plays. By the end of this period he will have four. I will never catch up in terms of those I can produce! I’m now getting into the old Theatre503 mindset of coming up with things quite quickly. We’ve got Two which was our co-production with Hull Truck, we can be ready to go with that in two weeks. We have a family show which is ready to go as soon as we’re given that green light but I don’t think we will see audiences flying back, I think it will be a gradual lift.
It is all gut-wrenching but I think it’s also about our community now – with the focus on how we can be there for them. That relationship with the audience is not just a deep cultural thing, it’s a broad community focus thing. You have to be there beyond the shows. We have also asked our audience whether they would donate the cost of their tickets – it hasn’t been a campaign because people are worrying about bigger things – but people who bought a fair amount of tickets are converting that into donations – we’re up to £10,000 in about a week, which is incredible. There is no date for when we might be back – I think we felt it was disingenuous because the dates will move. We’re hoping for September.
Kate Morley, head of Kate Morley PR 25-03
We sort of knew it was coming but I don’t think anyone appreciated the impact. We had that government announcement on Monday. SOLT/UK Theatres put out their announcement – they didn’t have time to communicate with all their members ahead of it so the first time that a lot of theatres heard about the statement was when it went out. You had companies in theatres not knowing if they were going on. It was the weirdest moment; then the Tuesday and Wednesday was fire fighting. At the end of the day the consideration was the welfare of people and protecting the business – we want something to come back to. I think it was Wednesday or Thursday that I suddenly went: ‘Oh my god, my business is now gone overnight.’ I spent the day crying. And then weirdly you go “Well actually it hasn’t gone”. What the past week has shown me is how much support there has been, how much people have cared and reached out. I know my experience is not the same as everyone’s.
I don’t think anything the government is doing is going to help me unless I furlough my staff. Which means I put people I care about into three months of doing nothing. I don’t think from a mental health perspective I want to do that to my staff. Hopefully we will muddle through. I’m planning on paying them [my staff of three] as much as I did before and this month I’m putting a little bit extra in because they’re working from home, and so they are incurring expenses. I feel I’m going to do my best to look after them. Not everyone can do that – other people have lots and lots of staff and it’s very different. I’m in the fortunate position that we are a small business. Some people’s income went overnight.
There are things still scheduled for May – and you think ‘That’s not going to happen’, but these things have got to be unpicked, it has to be worked through, it can’t just be a snap decision. With PR, we’re looking at ways of keeping theatre on the pages so that months down the line there’s still a commitment to coverage there.
In some ways because we’re working from home, we’re doing all sorts of things we haven’t done before. We’re starting a film club – each week someone will recommend something and we will have a video call and chat about the film. Another thing keeping our office going are the whatsonstage.com quizzes – when one goes live, we share it. We did all the messages of doom last week, I’m now ready for a good news, a welcome distraction. I think overall people are hoping for September as the date to start again properly. That would mean the industry ramping up from July … those are the sort of conversations I’m having. Whether that’s realistic or not, who knows? We’ve all had our dark moments. But I think: it’s not forever – we can get through it.
Paul Hart, artistic director of the Watermill Theatre, 24-03-2020
The press night of The Wicker Husband was on that Monday [March 16th] so by the time we’d got word, we were up and running. We shut the production on the Tuesday, and gradually over the course of the week diminished activity elsewhere. We had Hamlet in rehearsals, which we pulled on the Wednesday, and sent the cast home. Gradually as the week went on, we got staff to pack up their stuff and set themselves up to work from home. I live on site – the general manager lives across the car park. We’re the only people left.
It was an awful week and there’s the uncertainty of what happens now. What is the impact on people psychologically? Luckily the cast of The Wicker Husband managed to do five shows, we know people who hadn’t even got to that point. It was devastating. We had to cancel or postpone one of our youth theatre productions, our head of out-reach had to tell kids who’d been working on Goodnight Mr Tom for weeks that we wouldn’t be going ahead – that was awful. And then sitting down with the company of Hamlet, in the first week of rehearsals, when we were all excited about the ideas… it’s hard for people to bounce back from that, in terms of confidence. If you have it in your head that you’re doing something to have that taken away from you is hard.
There is nothing worse than sending two casts home especially when they’re living on the site – you get to know them. You feel your job as an AD is inherently about keeping a building open, we fight so many battles to keep those lights on – so, to get to a point where you have to close, that’s so antithetical to what we’re here to do…
We definitely didn’t anticipate that announcement. And for it to hit so quickly. We were planning for the worst-case scenario but there was a degree to which we were thinking “This is a 200-seater, we might be able to carry on longer than some of the others and it will be London that is hit first”. We didn’t anticipate it for it to all happen that fast and I don’t think anyone else did – that was the sense that I got. That Monday felt like absolute chaos – on the one hand you’ve got the government saying “We advise you not to go to the theatre”, but there was no advice to theatres and that was followed by UK Theatre saying “We think this means you need to shut immediately.” You’ve got advice saying that refunds will need to be available for any length of time, and there was no idea at that point how long we were talking about. The Arts Council were also saying – rightly – ‘freelancers need to be paid’. As a theatre you’re being hit in three directions and almost from nowhere all your income stream is being hit.
We had had about a 20 per cent fall-off in ticket sales and advance bookings had completely dropped – but most people were turning up, we only had 10 no-shows for the final matinee of The Wicker Husband. The resilience of this audience is amazing. A big proportion are in that older demographic and their attitude was “we’ve been through all this before we’re going to plough on thank you very much”. On the refund front, we have had an amazing percentage of people who either took the credit to use for another show, or donated the cost of the ticket back to the theatre, and a very small percentage of people who understandably won’t be able to make it. We had a group booking who donated over £400 – that’s someone’s wage for a week – so that goes a long way int terms of morale.
In terms of what is needed to take theatres back, it’s going to be different for each theatre in terms of what their audience will need, what message they want to be hearing at that stage. It feels so far away, in the planning of that. It’s so up in the air, in terms of the usual processes and how long we would have to sell a show. Our approach is going to need to be different and probably more commercial than how we would usually approach things. We’re going to have to tap into that loyalty of audiences who want to support the theatre as much as the specific show we’re doing.
I think in terms of the programme we will need to lean more heavily on what we think people will want – which presumably is going to be something fairly light-hearted. What would usually happen is that we have an amazing advance sale from people who still want the brochure dropping through their front door – but all that goes out the window if you’ve got a month’s notice to bring an audience in. Do I have a timetable? We’re looking at July. We’ve cancelled the initial 12 week period, to be reviewed. We are hoping we will be back up and running with Our Man in Havana which is the pre summer slot – but god knows at this stage. The set of Wicker Husband is still in the theatre. It wouldn’t be that much of a job to come back to that. Hamlet had done a week’s rehearsal, so would need a considerable amount of time to get that up and running, Our Man in Havana would need the same process which is starting from scratch basically. As an organisation that has been around for 50 years, to be plunged into a position of such uncertainty is very difficult.
We’ve been going through a process of building an emergency budget which covers as many eventualities as you can think of. Whatever way you look at it, it means eating into reserves in the short term. Also there is such uncertainty about the length of time this is going to affect us – there’s a degree to which we need to be thinking about income longer term because audiences aren’t just going to come back. The kind of capacities we were working with when this happened, which at the Watermill has been 80 per cent, that’s not going to happen straightaway. We need to look for the best ways to make sure our audience feel 100 per cent safe and ready for a theatrical experience they’re going to enjoy. We’re lucky that we’re small and lean and able to adapt in a way that would be more difficult for a larger organisation. The feeling is that people will probably want something completely unrelated to start with, we will get under the skin of it in the years to come. But a few people I’ve spoken to in the industry are applauding the NHS – and going “Is there an opportunity at the other end of this to say ‘thanks’ in some way and say what an extraordinary group of people have got us through this?”.
Frazer Brown, producer (Frazer Brown Productions) 15-03-2020
My main show in 2020 was going to be Night of the Living Dead. We ended up delaying it because there was another Night of the Living Dead production. We were due to open later in the year. But I’ve put the kibosh on everything. I work across different industries – med-tech, pr – we have 400 people working for us across four continents. We knew this was coming. We analysed it. We decided – ‘You know what? Theatre is going dark. If it’s not going to go dark in April, it’s going dark by June. It’s going to be a tough climb-back. Everyone is going to be clawing the other side to do stuff, let’s stop, let’s reassess in January’. We’ve kept everyone on wage and we’re basically waiting it out. By that I mean, my core production team. We were only at the beginning of talking to lighting guys etc – we hadn’t hired anyone, it wasn’t due to start until October-November time. I’ve got my core staff – about 10 people in all – staying on wage, and we are waiting it out.
I’ve always maintained that [theatre closure] should be pre-emptive and not reactive. [Covid-19] was clearly something the world hadn’t seen for generations – it’s clearly not a flu. There was even the suggestion it may be Disease X – the society-killing disease. I’m not saying it is – but it was clearly not a case of ‘take it on the chin and get on with it’. But that was the advice we were being given. My instincts told me that wasn’t the right thing to do. And I do believe morally that enticing people in is wrong. I understand why it happens, all these companies, these venues. You can’t stop money but it’s a safety issue I think. I think this is how it’s going to go – either people will stop going to theatre in next few weeks, as the panic kicks in, or the government are going to turn round and say “Stop” – like they did in New York. Don’t forget everyone in New York was saying ‘the show must go on.. it’s going to carry on forever’. Next morning – it was closed.
Up until two weeks ago, I’ve been mocked as paranoid and crazy. My staff were a bit perplexed but came round to it. From my wallet’s point of view I may have started earlier but I’m comfortable with that. I’m concentrating my efforts on working out ways of trying to get people supported, outside my company.
It’s going to move fast. Complacency is not a defence against the virus, it’s a virus with no cure, currently. The idea that we can just soldier through, I can’t see it…I’m the combination of pragmatic and paranoid. Perhaps I’m completely wrong – a few people get a sniffle – but nothing round the world is saying that. Most notably we’re the only country in the world taking a blasé attitude at this point. Nearly every country that has it is shutting down in some capacity.
Look, I think it’s coming next week. We will start to see shut-downs, whether it’s everything at once I don’t know. I think the decisions have been made. I think schools are going to close, theatres are going to close. I think what they’re saying about 70-plus having to stay in is going to happen. They’re doing it in in dribs and drabs for whatever reason to stop civil unrest or panic.
In terms of the paranoia of the disease, it’s asymptomatic so you have no idea who has it. Logic says: don’t sit in a big space with people who may have a virus that possibly may kill you. If you were to say to me, ‘my children will go into a building and there’s a 10 per cent chance they will get a disease that may or may not kill them’ – why would you allow that? Two weeks ago, no one was taking any notice of me. I wrote a prediction, pinned it to my Twitter account. Nobody would listen. It may be a British spirit thing, that’s great, the stiff upper lip and all that. I’m worried that we’re thinking about this too late. On Thursday everyone in the arts all started to panic at once. I think saying the show must go on is either denial or not understanding how bad it can get – or maybe they genuinely believe it.
Morally for me – if anyone came and died as a result of being in the theatre it would haunt me. I get [production funding] packs over my desk every week, people still planning stuff, ‘we are going to do this in August’. I can’t bring myself to get involved with it. I think we need to take stock, work out what we’re doing as a society then get back to it. That might only be for three months, it might burn out, we might be fine by August. But let’s say Broadway doesn’t open for another three months – in that time mass gatherings may become associated with disease- you start getting into that pariah society – leprosy, plague… I don’t know going forward is there even a world for shows like Night of the Living Dead in the theatre? If we have a pandemic on the level of Italy or Iran, are people going to watch miserable things, or are they even going to want to go to places associated with mass gatherings? It could have an impact beyond anything we’re even thinking. After WW2, we had 10 years of musicals on screen, people loved that uptick. I’d be happy to admit I was 100 per cent wrong, I have no pride in this.
Not only will theatre change but society will change – there may well be lost generations of people. It’s horrible to think about. Theatre has always existed, it has existed for thousands of years, it will exist for thousands of years in some capacity. So theatre will be back. Hopefully this thing happens, we quarantine, shut-down for a few months, it goes away, we go back to business as usual. I think we’re going to be in self-preservation mode as a society, as individuals and we’re not realising that right now. I don’t want to be the person who says that. It’s a horrible thing to say. I can’t see a way forward without regrouping and stopping this curve. Every country in the world is stopping the curve by closing down society. Someone joked the other day that the new cancel culture is literally cancel culture…
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Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice
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@domcavendish8 hours ago
I wanted to break free… https://t.co/yxGKZn7EXaView on Twitter
@domcavendish8 hours ago
Please yes. Enough pussy-footing https://t.co/2xjG4RpVizView on Twitter