Ladies and gentlemen, there will now be a long interval—theatre in the covid-19 era

The performing arts have an important role in the cultural life of the UK, as well as contributing to our health and wellbeing. Harry Brunjes looks at what it’s been like for a sector that has been upended by covid-19 and how theatres are adapting . . .

In the theatre world it certainly has been “the season of darkness” with a predicted “winter of despair,” but hopefully there will be “the spring of hope” for us all.

As a doctor and the chairman of English National Opera, it has been astonishing “in this strangest of years” to witness the unprecedented interface of “the art of medicine” and “the science of the arts.” Arguably, Irving Berlin’s greatest lyric is, “There’s no business like showbusiness, like no business at all.” However, since 23 March it has been updated, “There is no business like showbusiness, in fact, there is no business at all.” 

For eight months, restrictions to counter the threat of the covid-19 pandemic have meant that most theatres throughout the country have been dark—even the world wars didn’t require our theatres to shut for that length of time.  

Of course, even in normal times theatre life can be tough. It requires an understanding of what is called the three Rs: “resting, redundancy, and rejection.” Performers are accustomed to creative pandemonium, but not to a clinical pandemic. Throughout the culture sector, the ramifications are manifold, particularly when it comes to another time-honoured theatre expression, “no play, no pay.” Never has that cliché been more pertinent. So many singers, actors, musicians, and dancers are self-employed and freelance, with no company contract to offer some financial protection. 

As has been widely documented, there is financial help available, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) are working through the process of allocating a £1.57 billion cultural recovery fund to help save jobs, protect special places, and kickstart the sector. It is important to remember that arts and culture contribute £10 billion per year to the economy, while also having a positive community role in promoting health. It is widely accepted that the growing faculty of social prescribing can transform mental and physical wellbeing, and the value of the performing arts as part of this cannot be underestimated. The challenge is how to provide a safe environment so that live productions can continue going forward.  

Before the introduction of the latest national lockdown, theatres had started to find ways to open—albeit in a reduced fashion and dictated by social distancing regulations, which are at the heart of all planning. Probably for the first time in theatre history “health and safety” was considered in equal measure with “drama and music” when creating a show. 

The current DCMS guidelines meant that it was largely smaller shows that were able to stage productions again. DCMS guidelines advised that “Social distancing should be maintained at 2m as far as possible but this can be reduced to 1m where 2m is unviable and where other mitigations are in place e.g. audience members wearing face coverings.” For the major theatres, it is economically impossible to run with this kind of social distancing, and it has been documented that we are unlikely to see large West End productions until late spring next year. Even so, nothing is guaranteed. The only thing that can be predicted is unpredictability.

So that they can operate, many companies have divided into “two bubbles” that perform on alternate nights, doubling up to safeguard the production in case one bubble is struck down by the virus. Rehearsals are both a creative and disciplined environment, but there is now a third element: strict adherence to public health regulations. Besides the demands of learning lines, arias, songs, entrances, exits, cues, staging, and blocking, there are the added complications of a rehearsal room with square metre grids, perspex screens, temperature checks, masks, and sanitation. Performers are now answerable not just to an “artistic director,” but also a “covid marshal.”  

As an example of the kind of ingenuity many theatre companies are displaying, ENO’s recent production of La Bohème required exceptional creative flair. The trick at this drive-in production at Alexandra Palace was that each car became, in effect, its own bubble. Four people were allowed per vehicle, with smaller cars at the front and larger vehicles at the back. Sound was courtesy of the car radio FM87.7. Never before has an opera company taken its final curtain call to an avalanche of flashing lights and tooting horns. La Bohème was the perfect choice for such a brave production—with lead character Mimi contracting what was called (at the time) consumption, the opera had a clear resonance with current events for the audience.  

There are several theatres in the UK (like the London Coliseum) that have a capacity of more than 2000 seats. With the guidelines (prior to this second lockdown), an audience of just under 50% is achievable. However, any performance would have to be a complex operation from arrival to exit, with staggered entrances, contactless tickets, one-way systems, track and trace, and strict use of facilities. Each auditorium, for example, will require a preparatory deep clean and lifts will need to be policed. However, there are some upsides for audiences in the form of more legroom and bar service to your seats.  

Like all venues outside of people’s homes, theatres need to provide a clinical and caring environment, and apply our understanding of the transmission of covid-19 to every aspect of productions. The greater challenge will be doing this without removing any of the traditional mystery and magic of theatre—whether opera, music, dance, or drama. 

Medicine and the arts have come to understand that they have more in common than they knew. Both require determination, discipline, resilience, and talent. Their combined forces will be an important and pivotal factor in the health and wellbeing of us all as we collectively navigate through and out of this crisis.

Harry Brunjes is a physician and chair of the English National Opera and London Coliseum. He is also the chair of Premier Medical Group.

Competing interests: Harry’s role at ENO is a charitable commitment, while Premier Medical Group is a commercial commitment.