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The next stage: UK theatres adapting to social distancing

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London’s West End is famous for its theatre district and draws fans from around the world, but producers are now trying to figure out how to allow the shows to go on. AFP

The next stage: UK theatres adapting to social distancing

London's West End has traditionally drawn people from all over the world to see its shows but theatres have been forced to reinvent themselves because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Fifteen million tickets are sold each year for performances including top attractions such as The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, a play that has been performed since 1952.

But the pandemic brought the curtain down on venues in March, leaving theatres facing an uncertain future where continued social distancing measures threaten their existence.

Louis Hartshorn and Brian Hook, co-founders of Hartshorn-Hook Productions, are among the first to adapt to the new reality, announcing the reopening of an immersive adaptation of The Great Gatsby to open in October.

Hook said: “The show will be re-imagined as a masquerade ball.”

Spectators are invited to wear masks, which they can integrate into their disguise, and gloves if they wish.

The audience will also be reduced to 90, down from 240 previously, and the schedule has been changed to allow for thorough clean-ups.

Hook said the good news is that tickets are “selling and people want to come back”.

But Hartshorn admitted that “we have to do extremely well in order to break even because the numbers are against us”.

Tourist trouble

Another immediate challenge is the lack of tourists, with hotels, restaurants and museums closed until at least early next month.

The introduction on June 8 of a 14-day quarantine for most travellers arriving in the country has also tempered hopes of a swift recovery.

Julian Bird, head of the UK Theatre lobby group, told a recent parliamentary committee: “Around a third of attendees in London theatres are overseas tourists . . . and for the moment of course there is very little prospect of having overseas visitors.”

Up to 70 per cent of theatres could go bankrupt by the end of the year, he warned.

Immersive experiences

The current crisis has left a £3 billion ($3.8 billion) hole in theatre revenues this year, a fall of more than 60 per cent, said a study by Oxford Economics for the Creative Industries Federation.

This estimate does not take into account the possible reluctance of the public to return when allowed, with the federation warning of 200,000 job cuts without government intervention.

To survive, some theatres are offering alternative products.

At London’s Old Vic Theatre, actors Claire Foy and Matt Smith, stars of the hit TV series The Crown, will perform the play Lungs without an audience, while keeping their distance.

Each performance will be filmed and broadcast live to the 1,000 people who purchased tickets at the usual prices of between £10 and £65, although all will enjoy the same view.

It’s a bold gamble when many other theatres, such as the National Theatre in London, have posted free online performances of plays filmed before the pandemic.

Hook said shows that involve audience participation could be the big winners.

“We were already on a boom for immersive theatre before this crisis . . . I think now might be a very positive time for that,” he said.

One Night Records will launch one such project early in October, taking ticket-holders on a journey through musical genres from the 1920s to the 1950s in a secret location called Lockdown Town.

Its general manager Tim Wilson said: “Because the venue is so large it has this special gift – which is territory, you know, space. That’s why we’re able to do it.”

But he, too, has had to adapt, selling tickets in groups of four and transforming the free stroll into a linear route.

Performance anxiety

In the traditional world of theatre, social distancing measures are a real headache.

With people having to remain 2m apart, under current rules, the Royal Shakespeare Company said it can only accommodate 20 per cent of its usual audience.

“With the furlough scheme changing in nature over the coming months and then coming to an end, that’s a moment of extreme vulnerability,” Catherine Mallyon, executive director of the Stratford-upon-Avon based company said.

“And how would we do the performances with social distancing? Romeo and Juliet 2m apart, it’s quite hard to imagine,” she said.


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