From being sprayed with sanitiser to having no access to bars and toilets, how social distancing could change a night out at Edinburgh's theatres forever

AT 5pm on Thursday 12 March the unthinkable happened, the coronavirus pandemic forced Broadway to close, a move that sent shock-waves through the theatre world.
Will Phantom of the Opera still sail into Edinburgh's Festival TheatreWill Phantom of the Opera still sail into Edinburgh's Festival Theatre
Will Phantom of the Opera still sail into Edinburgh's Festival Theatre

Less than a week later, the lights went out on London’s West End, those of regional theatres followed a few days later. In the Capital, The Playhouse was forced to cancel performances of Disney’s The Lion King, shortly after the Lyceum, Traverse, Festival and King’s had already begun to suspended their seasons.

With the lockdown in place, those initial closures have now been extended and are likely to continue into the foreseeable future leaving Capital theatre-goers wondering when they will get their next theatrical fix. The very nature of this pandemic makes it impossible for any organisation to say exactly when that will be, let alone what form any return might take when lockdown measures are eased. One thing that is certain is that whenever doors do open, a night at the theatre will prove a very different experience.

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With the likelihood that social distancing will remain in place until a vaccine has been developed, the landscape of live theatre will change dramatically. Everything from how we enter the building, to where we sit and how we interact will be dictated by social distancing.

Social distancing in theatre bars and foyer is almost impossibleSocial distancing in theatre bars and foyer is almost impossible
Social distancing in theatre bars and foyer is almost impossible

Theatre owners and producers everywhere are currently addressing the challenges of how to welcome audiences back while keeping them safe. It’s a daunting task. Even with reduced capacity (if the two metre rule remains, it would see the seat behind, in front of and either side of a single audience member removed from sale), those lucky enough to get a ticket would find themselves having to queue to enter the theatre at spaced intervals, much as you now do when visiting a supermarket.

Similarly, an evacuation procedure would need to be in place to avoid a rush for the exit at the end. An obvious knock on effect of that reduced capacity would be a curtailed financial return - one London theatre is already exploring increasing audience numbers by also selling tickets to allow people to watch the performance streamed live into the comfort of their home. Likewise, theatre bars, long a financial life-line for most venues, would require to be particularly well policed or closed completely as, by their very nature, most are small, cramped crush bars.

In South Korea, where theatres have reopened, audience members must show they are Covid-free via a testing app and be sprayed with sanitising liquid before gaining admittance.

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In Massachusetts, one American theatre planning to re-open in August will space audience members out by removing every other row of seats with another two vacant seats between each party. All patrons will be required to wear face-masks throughout and performances will run without intervals to prevent queues for the toilets.

Audience arrives at Edinburgh King'sAudience arrives at Edinburgh King's
Audience arrives at Edinburgh King's

Theatre owner and producer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has described the current situation as “devastating” and “decimating everything,” has even revealed he has ordered "as many self-sanitising door handles as is possible" for his London theatres. All are solutions Edinburgh’s theatres must be considering too, although our larger venues are staying tight-lipped.

Creatively too, keeping two metres apart will make it almost impossible to stage any production where characters are required to interact - even a hand shake would be out of bounds. That’s assuming producers will take the risk of staging productions in the first place. With insurance a mine-field and the reality that should just one cast or crew member become ill with the virus the entire company would have to be isolated for up to 14 days, few are likely to chance it. All of which is reflected in the current closures across the Capital.

However, while some are reluctant to comment on what the future might bring, others are embracing the challenge. A visit to The Playhouse website sheds little light on any plans that owners ATG may have in the pipeline, stating, ‘Due to the on-going Covid-19 crisis, we are sorry to inform you that all performances at Ambassador Theatre Group venues across the UK have been suspended until Sunday 31 May...”

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While that date may seem optimistic, over at the Lyceum, having cancelled the remainder of their 2019/20 season, they are preparing for all eventualities, as artistic director David Greig revealed this week. House Lights Up, a programme of activity to connect artists and audiences during the venue’s closure will invite theatre-lovers to express their passion for plays and performance. It will also see the likes of Val McDiarmid, Ian Rankin and Sam Heughan share their stories of life in lockdown.

Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum has developed an exciting online programme for during lockdownEdinburgh's Royal Lyceum has developed an exciting online programme for during lockdown
Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum has developed an exciting online programme for during lockdown

Greig says, “We are in a state of hibernation... We simply do not know when the day of re-opening will come and what kind of changed world we will find when we next take to the stage.”

Around the corner, at The Traverse, executive producer Linda Crooks stresses that the Cambridge Street theatre has managed to remain creative throughout the crisis. She explains, “Though our physical doors may be closed for some time yet, our virtual doors have never been more open. We have already released new short works from Rona Munro and are currently hard at work putting together a series of online events, which will continue to develop the incredible wealth of play writing talent within our local community and beyond.

“And when are able to gather safely in our spaces once more, we look forward to sharing brilliant new work and celebrating the creativity which can flourish in the face of such difficult times.”

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Hoping to be open in time for their ‘big show’, The Phantom of the Opera, Capital Theatres, the trust managing both the Festival and King’s, direct enquiries about their future planning to the statement on their website: “...we have taken the decision to extend the closure... until Sunday 21 June 2020.”

That Phantom of the Opera too may fall foul of the coronavirus pandemic was highlighted just this week when producer Cameron Mackintosh revealed, “... if the Government really means to keep social distancing then we can’t keep extending what we’re doing. We’re reaching a crunch point. Every day I count the growing millions this period will have cost me. After September it becomes untenable and the only way I can survive is to mothball my company.”

For cash-strapped theatres, the continued marketing of future shows that may or may not go ahead plays an important part in enticing possibly reluctant audiences back, while maintaining a cash flow.

“It will cost somewhere in the region of £250,000 to bring each production back to the stage, while the minimum marketing lead up to sell a show is at least three months,” reveals one theatre insider, “The show must go on as far as the marketing is concerned... even if the physical one doesn’t”.

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In private, the consensus in industry circles is that the current crisis is a game-changer possibly lasting well into the new year and beyond. For many, the hope is that such worse case scenarios err on the side of caution and that some normality will return, even if the science suggests otherwise.

Realistically, however, a night at the theatre will never be the same again.

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