Theatres can survive Covid-19—and not just by relying on streaming

As we emerge into 2021, there are opportunities aplenty for theatres to help revive our diminished public sphere
December 4, 2020

They pre-date democracy and for two millennia have survived the threat of pestilence, war and now, online streaming services, but when the lights come back on in theatres across the country in 2021, the situation will be historically perilous. Most buildings won’t have earned any income since March, and not all of them received government aid.

Those that did must spend it by spring, so the money is no more than a stopgap to get through the winter. Reserves have vanished and tens of thousands of freelance actors, designers and technicians have had to leave the sector, taking their skills with them. Then there’s the audiences, who will need encouraging back into physical proximity with one another.

But theatre loves a second-act redemption, and everyone from artists to chief executives is hell bent on imagining how we might rebuild differently from before—and we must.

I adore this industry and was one of those who engaged directly with government, pushing the begging bowl unashamedly and energetically on its behalf in the darker days of 2020. But while money is as essential for survival in this as any other industry, it isn’t enough to fix all of its problems—some of which the pandemic has cast in an intriguing new light. In particular, even before the lockdowns, inclusive access for everyone to enjoy plays and live performances wasn’t anywhere near as universal as it could have been. But in a belt-tightening age, shows become a little less grand and more rough and ready. All the more reason why, in the future, the barriers—financial, psychological, geographical—can be exploded.

The online streaming of plays proved hugely popular during lockdown, with the National Theatre and the Old Vic receiving millions of views across the world. Ironically, many who wouldn’t consider or be able to afford to travel to the capital—where inexcusably most major shows launch and then remain—got to see more world-class theatre than they might have before. Nothing can compete with being there but the remote experience can be the next best thing, and needs to be expanded and improved. It’s a great way to open up these often-impenetrable fortresses to a wider audience. The “live” aspect—theatre’s superpower—is the element to keep, so that you can watch the actors perform in real time, but from wherever you want in the world, and at a cheaper price. Logistically the technology and filming must move from an afterthought to being built into the production and rehearsal process from the off.

Back in the offline world, there will be fewer buildings and fewer companies, and those that survive will be making less work for less money, so this is an opportunity for theatres to learn better how to share. Theatres should co-produce work and move it around venues, reviving the touring circuit and allowing local audiences to enjoy productions from different towns, cities and communities.

And as virus economics threatens to infect our already diminished public sphere—with pubs closed, libraries gone, youth centres vanished—theatres can provide one of the last physical places to gather. Rather than just a nighttime venue for a 7.30pm show, these hubs at the heart of our towns and cities must fling open their doors all day long, to host events, talks and debates. They should be a venue for local bands to practice, businesses to meet, adult education classes to take place—for anyone to sit and read, or meet and talk, after being denied that basic human need in quarantine. In this way, theatres might rediscover their historic role within our communities.