Theatres are closing all over the world because of the Coronavirus. Is this really the end of days or could the internet prove to not only be our saviour but the start of a necessary revolution? Sam Nicholls discusses.
On 10 March, a fake BBC News Twitter account (@BBCNewsTonight) spuriously announced that Daniel Radcliffe, the eponymous star of the Harry Potter saga, had contracted the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Within hours, the hoax tweet went viral, gaining over 300,000 impressions and earning Radcliffe the sympathies and support of many fans, before being deleted. However, amongst this influx of well-wishers, there was a minority wondering if they would have to change their evening plans…
Indeed, as Radcliffe is currently starring in the Old Vic’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, many questioned whether it would be safe to go to the theatre at all: even beyond Radcliffe, who else had become infected by coming into contact with him? Wouldn’t all the staff, cast and crew at the Old Vic need to be self-isolating? Does this mean the theatre would need to be closed for two whole weeks?
As of 15 March, the Old Vic has announced it is cancelling all remaining performances of Endgame as a result of Coronavirus: the situation seems to have grown past Twitter speculation and is affecting not just here, but many theatres in a dire way.
By all current understanding, going to the theatre is one of the riskiest activities to participate in during this outbreak. Large quantities of people consistently congregating in cramped spaces? Sounds like a recipe for a disaster… yet, despite this, ticket sales have remained relatively even. In fact, the only advice currently given by the Society of London and UK Theatre (SOLT) is that stage-door visits shouldn’t involve ‘engaging physically’, and that actors should sign autographs with their own pens. Moreover, SOLT has said that, following multiple consultations with government ministers, it finds there is no ‘clear rational’ for theatres to close unless a situation occurs at a specific venue and as far as they’re concerned, it’s ‘business as usual’.
Nevertheless, the tides are beginning to turn. With the Coronavirus expected to peak in numbers around early May, an online poll by The Stage noted that 54% of avid theatre-goers said they would put off going to the theatre until after then. Additionally, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new production of Cinderella announced it would be postponing its debut until October to account for this ‘global situation’, with many other productions expected to follow suit. Most critically, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has restricted gatherings of 500 people or more in the state until 13 April, which means that, in the face of Coronavirus, Broadway has gone dark, with losses expected to exceed $100m. How long, do we think, until the West End follows suit?
Thus, with the outlook worsening day by day, how can theatre keep open and keep afloat? Whilst larger productions have the privileged ability to postpone their openings, the same can’t be said for fringe productions, with many already functioning on the slimmest of profit margins, even before the calamitous impact of a world-wide pandemic is considered. You only have to read Richard Jordan’s economic assessment of COVID-19’s impact on touring theatre to realise how dire the situation could become. So, what’s the solution?
As ever, the answer lies at the very core of theatre: it’s ability to innovate and adapt.
Throughout history, when presented a Herculean challenge, the art form has always persisted and responded and evolved as a result. When cities were confronted with the SARS epidemic of the early noughties, regional theatres were bolstered, offering exciting and engaging productions safely away from metropolitan centres. When theatres found their funding was cut by the philistine Thatcher government, they focused investment in cheap new writing, sparking the creative explosion of the 1990s. Even in 1606, when theatre was banned outright in an attempt to curb the growth of the bubonic plague, playwrights self-isolated and produced some of the artform’s most celebrated work (it is thought Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Macbeth whilst quarantining himself). Whilst under pressure, it seems theatre doesn’t just survive – it thrives, and there’s no reason to think anything will be different now.
Already, there is evidence of theatre adapting and evolving in response to the Coronavirus. In Bucharest, when the popular independent theatre company, Unteatru was told that they must shut down until March 31, they responded by moving online and announced that they will be streaming their productions over the internet to ticket-holders, so they can ‘continue to play, without endangering spectators’. Moreover, although it’s still over five months away, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival has already announced its plans to ‘digitise events where possible’, allowing the plethora of fringe productions to move into the online sphere and remain accessible whether or not the three-week festival goes ahead. It would appear, much like how regional theatre was the saviour from SARS, the internet will be the emergency respite from the Coronavirus.
Perhaps then, even when the pandemic has been and gone, theatre-makers will continue to use the internet in this way to disperse theatre. Inspired by the strategies they used to survive Coronavirus, theatres will utilise online distribution in their usual practises moving forward and perhaps, we will ultimately witness the evolution of theatre.
Essentially, then, this is a time for caution, yes, but not for commiserations. Wash your hands, self-isolate if necessary, but be assured that the theatre has weathered similar storms before and, just like those instances, will emerge stronger and healthier than ever.