Theaters in London Can Reopen with Social Distancing – But Will They?

Theatergoers attending a performance of "Leopoldstadt" at Wyndham's Theatre

By Anna Breuer on 17 July 2020
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After five months in lockdown, British theaters have been given a date when they may reopen. The date, August 1, is approaching but the reopening of the West End isn’t.

Theaters in London’s West End temporarily closed on March 16 “until further notice,” as part of a move to limit the spread of the coronavirus, a move that followed Broadway’s by four days.

Even before the announcement was made, several theaters had opted to close.  The Old Vic was the first, bringing its run of “Endgame” starring Daniel Radcliffe to a close two weeks early.  The Arcola, Turbine Theatre and Young Vic quickly followed suit.

Meanwhile, the fact that theaters may reopen doesn’t mean that their situation isn’t perilous. Broadway theaters won’t reopen until at least January 2, 2021.

“If you just look at the numbers, the threat is very vivid. Every theatre has faced a complete cliff edge in terms of its income,” said Tom Morris, the Old Vic’s artistic director, in an interview with the Guardian.  The Royal Opera House’s CEO said that the institution cannot last past the fall without additional government support.

As of May, the National Theatre was losing £4 million ($5.02 million) to £5 million a month, and the Old Vic was spending £350,000 of its reserves every month.  Even when closed, it costs approximately £30,000 a week to maintain each of London’s several dozen historic playhouses.

The road back is fraught with peril, not only for the theaters but for theatergoers and actors and actresses as well.

In Salt Lake City, the Hale Center Theater suspended performances of “Mary Poppins” after a second cast member tested positive for the coronavirus.  Even the tour for the musical “Six,” which was to be performed at drive-ins across the United Kingdom, was cancelled recently due to concerns over local lockdowns.

Producers and theater owners, however, are studying the means by which they could safely reopen.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is using the London Palladium, which his company, LW Theatres, owns along with six others, as a “test bed” to develop methods that could make theaters safe for audiences to return to.   He is experimenting with various technologies including infrared temperature scanners to identify “positive, proactive ways to get going again” once theaters reopen.

“There is an infrared camera at the stage door, your temperature is taken remotely as you walk in, and a great big dashboard flashes up [to indicate] whether you can come in the building or not,” Rebecca Kane Burton, CEO of LW Theatres, told the industry journal the Stage. “As soon as it does, the airlock releases, the door opens and you go in. You put on a face mask and hand-sanitize, and keep a two-meter distance because we have markings around the building.”

Elsewhere, the Vienna State Opera reopened earlier this month with an audience of 100. The 19th century Renaissance Revival building seats 1,700.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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