How Are Theatres Preparing To Reopen On 17 May?


The government’s announcement that both outdoor and indoor theatres can reopen from 17 May 2021 has spurred many to pre-book tickets. Undoubtedly, attending the theatre is going to be a very different experience than before, but just how much is theatre going to change?

Many theatres have since announced their plans for reopening, which signals an end to many beloved theatre traditions. The Globe Theatre recently announced its new COVID measures, including a reorganisation of their spectatorial space to enforce social distancing, placing seats where the groundlings used to stand. Sadly, I believe this may strip back audience engagement, participation, and involvement within the productions, all of which make up the Globe‘s popular and unique spectating experience.

More shockingly, there will be no more mingling at the bar over a refreshing glass of wine, or purchasing extortionately overpriced yet delicious ice-cream tubs, with the removal of intervals. This may seem like an age-old theatre tradition, however the Globe’s artistic director, Michelle Terry, claims that Shakespeare’s plays “were never written with intervals so we don’t play them with intervals.” Placing a break in the middle of a Shakespeare play certainly does disrupt the momentum and tension, however, I find the interval serves as a refreshing break from the action, allowing me to process what I have just watched. In contrast, theatre critic Lyn Gardener argues that intervals “destroy the world of the play,” merely allowing audience members to use the toilet and to spend money. She believes that removing intervals will give audiences the freedom to leave their seats as they please, paving the way for more relaxed performances and making theatre accessible to a wider range of audiences. Whilst this is important, I believe the freedom to leave the theatre at any point, in itself, destroys the world of the play, creating distractions and forcing people to constantly stand in their seats to let people exit. I would also fear missing a key moment within the play if I left, even for a minute. Thus, whilst I can see the benefits of removing intervals which lack artistic purpose, I believe that they will be greatly missed once theatres reopen.

Traditional paper tickets are being increasingly replaced by digital ones to prevent the Coronavirus spreading through shared contact. The National Theatre are one of many venues to have announced this, and there seems to be both health-based and practical benefits. The reduction of paper will have positive environmental impacts, whilst providing ease and efficiency for customers. Although, some venues have expressed that they are fearful of alienating those without access to internet or smartphones, particularly older visitors, and have announced that paper tickets will still be available on request. Given our current digital age, I believe that this transition was inevitable with or without the COVID-19 outbreak. Whilst I can appreciate the benefits of paperless tickets, as someone who loves collecting ticket stubs, I will miss the thrill of handling a glossy ticket. The loss of this tradition is certainly bittersweet.

Unsurprisingly, it will now be compulsory to wear masks throughout productions. Although audiences will not be permitted into theatres without a mask, this will be extremely difficult to police once the house lights go down. Many theatres have stated that there will be frequent announcements and signs to highlight the importance of wearing a mask, however, ultimately, it will be up to the individual to respect these rules. I do have doubts as to the comfort of wearing a mask in a stuffy theatre at the height of Summer, however, this is a compromise that I am personally more than willing to make if it facilitates attending the theatre once the industry reopens.

Throughout the pandemic, Andrew Lloyd Webber has expressed the dire need to reopen theatres due to the disastrous effects of the pandemic on the arts industry. After the government’s announcement that theatres can reopen in May, he has shown great determination in reopening West End musical production. He is due to open Cinderella in July 2021, in spite of his strong concerns over social distancing measures. The government have stated that theatres must halve their audience numbers, with a maximum of 1,000 people in indoor venues, and 4,000 people outdoors. Lloyd Webber, however, believes that due to the scale of musical theatre, it will be necessary to fill at least 80% of their seats to be financially viable, as “if we are stuck at 50% social distancing or something, we can’t operate. There’s no point.” He believes that attendance reduction measures could be avoided through using COVID-19 tests upon entry to theatre venues. However, it is unknown how likely the 17 May 2021 reopening date is, with many doubting the return to normality after 21 June 2021. 

Even after restrictions are (hopefully) lifted, however, theatres still must contend with easing audience anxieties of the virus spreading. For example, the Chichester Festival Theatre has announced that it will have a weekly performance of its production of South Pacific for socially distanced audiences, to accommodate those feeling nervous about returning to normality. Theatres not only have to stick to guidelines, but must also judge the best way forward to encourage people to attend.

Due to the disastrous effects the pandemic has had on the arts and culture industry, it will be a blessing to see them reopening, regardless of restrictions. After months of adapting to a ‘new normal,’ everyone will be prepared for adapting to a new form of theatre experience. Once restrictions have ceased, it should be up to each individual theatre to judge what their audiences feel most comfortable with and cater to this accordingly. Whilst I hope that theatre will one day return to how it once was, I can envision some of these new changes as long-lasting. Days of paper tickets, intervals, and over-priced ice-creams, may really be a thing of the past. Ultimately, I believe the show itself is of the upmost importance, thus, although I am sad to see the loss of some theatre traditions, I am prepared to compromise on some of these past luxuries. Theatres reopening in May marks the opportunity for theatres to rediscover themselves at long last.

The show, well and truly, must go on.

Words by Hannah Robinson.

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