I last saw a theatre production at the Royal Court Theatre on Saturday 14th March 2020. A friend's son was in 'Shoe Lady', a beautifully performed exploration of the costs of modern life and our reliance on objects to perform our daily rituals. Since then, following the initially half-hearted advice of the Government, that perhaps, theatres and other places of social gathering as a method to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, which was picked up and acted upon by Society of London Theatres and UK Theatre who advised the closure of venues. The Government's policy seems to have become more emphatic concerning the closure of venues. I don't work within the theatre industry but it is my major love. As an audience member, I seem to invariably attend at least, two productions a week. Importantly, I am not tied to any one venue or group, although I am a member of one organisation. As is the case with most people, I have favourite theatre groups and individuals whose work I will try to support. I do not perceive any radical difference between amateur or professional companies. For me, it's all about the play or production.
Now that the preamble is out of the way, this blog will probably be a bit jumbled and confused but as an audience member that's how I am feeling at the moment (honestly, I think everyone is feeling the same owing to the often conflicting information that we are being fed by the media etc about the Coronavirus. The stripped shelves in supermarkets are perhaps indicative of this feeling). Shortly after the theatre closures began, the emails began offering refunds, ticket exchanges, credits or requesting that people donate the ticket refunds to the theatres. Like many theatre attendees, I am looking at a lot of cancelled performances. I am aware from news broadcasts and from observation that enforced closure of theatres will be damaging for many venues. The Arcola Theatre sent out an email fairly quickly and explained how the suspension of productions for an indefinite period of time will be damaging for themselves and for other people working in the arts. The productions bringing in the capital necessary to put on future shows. But as they stated, the closure was necessary for the health of the public and their staff. They also requested donations.
Actually, this blog is probably a response to their email and the many emails, I have received since. At the moment as someone who loves theatre, it is hard to know what to do for the best. I have this horrible image that when the Coronavirus passes, a number of venues will close and a number of important groups and individuals will not continue to produce work. But as an audience member, I don't know how best to support the industry. I can't afford to donate the cost of the tickets to all of the theatres and groups, especially with the acute realisation that when the Coronavirus passes, the world economy is likely to suffer, which will impact upon everyone. At the moment, in some cases, I am accepting a credit and in other cases, refunds. I am making the decision based on my somewhat limited understanding of how theatres receive their funding.
From my limited perspective as a 'bum on seat', I understand that the majority of a theatre's funding or indeed, the livelihood of many companies is based on ticket sales. In real terms, there are potentially hundreds of theatres, festivals and groups in the UK that as an audience member, I can support by attending shows. Of course, I guess other revenue streams are also generated through programme sales, confectionery, drinks and other peripherals. The closure of the theatres prohibits these sources of income too.
At the moment, I have noticed various websites offering streamings of shows for a fee. Also at one point, I noticed that The Old Vic were contemplating offering access to a filmed recording of 'Endgame' for those who had paid to see the show, prior to its cancellation. As a short term solution, would it be possible to film more productions in closed environments (i.e. closed to an audience) and offering them via various websites online for a fee? In fact, would it be possible to make all existing recordings of shows available? I appreciate that there would be issues concerning royalties and obtaining performance rights but would it in theory, be possible?
I perceive that when the Coronavirus crisis ends, it may be a useful time to explore how theatres are funded and the wildly erratic ticket pricing. How can the West End theatres justify charging £170 for tickets for future productions such as 'Good' (okay, they offer slightly cheaper restricted view seats but £50 plus for an Upper Circle seat seems wildly out of touch if they want to attend more frequent attendance at the theatre). I think that will be the key to helping to support the theatre industry after the Coronavirus passes, making the tickets more reasonably priced and indeed, to refocus the audience towards the variety of shows on offer. Just because your favourite actor is going to be in a show doesn't necessarily mean that it deserves a high percentage of your monthly wage packet!
To close, I don't need to but I will, I want to make it clear that I deeply respect the work of Elf Lyons, Lizi Patch, Bryony Kimmings, Arrows & Traps, Kneehigh, Complicite, the Arcola Theatre, the Bob Hope Theatre, the South London Theatre, the Barbican and anyone who believes in the importance of variety. I want to throw out this question to everyone in the theatre industry, how can I support you all in the future? But also the bigger theatres who receive more in the way of funding from various organisations could be reducing their ticket prices. This can be a time of reflection and I feel sure that whether I like it or not, the theatre world will not be the same when this ends. Stay strong and keep being you!
Barry Watt - 21st March 2020.