‘It all feels very, very fragile’: theatres face summer of risk and chaos

Theatre is a house of cards. Over the past 16 months, it has repeatedly come tumbling down and been reassembled. The industry has grown increasingly jaded. We have seen forced closures and mass redundancies, overdue financial packages stymied in usual Tory fashion, roadmaps to recovery with no economic or, oftentimes, logical basis, and lockdowns and delays including the four-week postponement of “freedom day”.

Despite having taken many punches, the industry has kept fighting. But remove one freelancer and the house of cards comes tumbling down again. This has been no more evident than during the last two weeks, due to Covid-19 self-isolation rules. Will a seemingly innocuous phone “ping” muffled under a director’s script halfway through rehearsals, or a positive Covid test result from a cast member on the day of press night, be the sector’s final blow?

The government’s third step out of lockdown included the reopening of England’s theatres on 17 May. With the date circled so hard that it tore a hole several pages deep on the calendar, theatres were ready for a revival. Companies not only had to plan, prepare and stage work but do so in accordance with Covid safety policies. Meanwhile millions downloaded the NHS Test and Trace app, rapid testing became readily available and the number of Covid cases rose exponentially. A trend ensued: jovial show announcements on Twitter were followed by updates in the weeks, days or hours leading up to a show with the words “unfortunately”, “Covid” and “cancelled”.

On Monday, the press night for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella musical was cancelled and the show will remain closed all week after a Covid case among the cast. Jasmine Lee-Jones’s Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, at the Royal Court in London, had to halt performances for a week due to isolation requirements. Hairspray scrapped all performances for 10 days because a member of the production team tested positive. That was extended for five more days, as further positive cases emerged and members continued self-isolating. Two other West End productions, The Prince of Egypt and Wonderville, were suspended for a period because a member of each team tested positive for Covid. Glasgow’s Citizens theatre had five performances of its outdoor production of The Comedy of Errors – its first live show since lockdowns began – cancelled in its first week as members of the company tested positive during rehearsals. Stockroom and Manchester Home’s outdoor production of Alice in Wonderland was, sadly, cancelled altogether, as was Kenneth Branagh’s revival of The Browning Version at Riverside Studios in London.

“This summer may be the industry’s most challenging period yet,” says Lucy Davies, executive director at the Royal Court. “Everything is so stacked with risk – financial risk, morale risk, audience confidence and inclusion.” Davies says it was devastating to lose a week of the run of Lee-Jones’s play so soon after a triumphant opening. “From the actors to the ushers, from running a bar to the core staff – the whole operation feels very, very fragile.”

In all the above cases, the cancellations were due to a positive test result. Test and trace is crucial to curbing Covid, but an unchecked “pingdemic”, in which company members get an NHS Covid-19 app alert of a potential exposure and, despite being in receipt of a negative test, are consequently told to self-isolate for 10 days or be faced with a fine, is unsustainable. “The fear is, one single ping can end months of work,” says Jon Gilchrist, Home’s executive director. “It isn’t just the pinging of the app, it is our own testing regime which will pick up positive cases and cascade into contact isolation,” adds Davies. “All our Covid mitigations need to stay in place beyond 19 July to contain infection if it comes.”

From this week, theatres can open without social distancing, though they are encouraged to promote the general wearing of masks and to consider the NHS Covid Pass as means of entry. Track and trace rules still apply. With daily Covid cases rising to 50,000 and a prediction of a summer of 1.6 million “pings” a week, many more performances are likely to be cancelled – which is far worse than operating at reduced capacity. The requirement to self-isolate after a ping for those who have been fully vaccinated will be lifted on 16 August. However, “our sector, like many in the experience economy, is driven by young staff who have generally only had one vaccine,” says Davies.

Home stages its own shows and also receives visiting productions. “The impact on the touring ecology is devastating,” says Gilchrist. “If productions can’t get mobilised, there are venues across the country that will be starved of programmes. We’ll be feeling the impact of this hesitancy for a long time to come.”

Dominic Hill, artistic director of the Citizens theatre, says that the cost of a sudden cancellation is enormous – and not only financially. “If the government wants to keep this sector alive, then it has to realise that this is the way things are going – we need some kind of security.” The Comedy of Errors will finally open on Wednesday and run until Saturday. “What is the alternative if theatre stops?” asks Hill. “The good outweighs the bad, and the good outweighs the problems. Being able to do something live for an audience is what we’re here for and if we can achieve that then that’s fantastic.”

Last Friday, Equity, the trade union for performing arts workers, released a statement calling on the government to bring forward rule changes to self-isolation for the sector in England. It also called for fair pay for those who need to self-isolate, and a government-backed insurance scheme. From sport to hospitality, the government has taken a sector-specific approach, so why not for the arts?

“We’re lobbying alongside festivals and restaurants for changes to the isolation rules so that even those with one vaccine can ‘test and release’ back to work. The 10-day isolation where people have tested negative and are fit for work is really challenging for those artists and workers, as well as for audiences and for our financial resilience,” says Davies.

The pandemic is far from over – an arbitrary date prefixed with the word “freedom” doesn’t change that. If the industry somehow surmounts this hurdle, how long before it falls completely? “Theatre is resilient and finds creative solutions to problems. But fear of further waves will limit the amount of work being created or revived,” says Gilchrist. Davies believes that: “what this period proves is that we are in a long and complex ride trying to keep a steady, joyful, welcoming, sustaining theatre industry going, despite what the government does or does not do, and despite what the virus throws at us.”

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