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Photo credit: Covid-19 Vaccine (Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash)

How are theatres helping the fight against Coronavirus?

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

We cannot wait for the day that West End theatres reopen again. Even though it's not looking like it'll be for a little while yet, theatre owners are doing all they can to speed up the process and have us all in the auditorium before we can say "Coronavirus."

Up and down the country, theatres are being used as vaccination and testing centres, as well as prolific producers stating their support for all initiatives. Here's all the latest information on how theatres are helping the fight against Coronavirus. 

Which venues are currently used as vaccination centres?

Battersea Arts Centre: From 8 March, Wandsworth residents can book their Coronavirus vaccine slots to be administered at Battersea Arts Centre. BAC is the only arts venue in south London to be a Covid site. The Council Chamber room is being transformed into a clinical area, with creative contributions from the likes of Inua Ellams, visual artists, comedians and gardeners.  

Tarek Iskander, Artistic Director and CEO of Battersea Arts Centre, said: "Throughout its radical history our Town Hall building has always been a potent example of hope and refuge at times of crises... Everyone at Battersea Arts Centre is delighted to be collaborating with the NHS, Wandsworth Council and our brilliant local partners to be part of the response to these impossibly difficult times."

In an article from The Telegraph, several regional theatres have joined the NHS to act as vaccination centres.

The Lights (Andover): Prior to the pandemic, The Lights was a local venue for blood donor sessions. They became a vaccine hub on 22 December. Speaking to The Telegraph, director Heather Whittam said: "We're quite lucky - we have a large arena space... it was just a case of clearing that out so they could set up the stations for vaccinations... we put on music in the background, which is soothing for those who are anxious."

Thornton Little Theatre (Thornton-Cleveleys): Thornton Little Theatre was first approached in September last year to provide space for a flu vaccination programme for three local GP surgeries, beginning with the over-65s. Janet Heald events and front-of-house manager for Wyre Theatres said: "it's spacious, it's on a good bus route, and we've got great parking facilities."

Hertford Theatre (Hertford): Their spacious auditorium had already been used to host blood donations and flu vaccines, so they became a site for the Pfizer vaccine in December. Director Rhys Thomas said: "[theatres as vaccination centres] keeps venues on people's radars, keeps staff on the payroll, and keeps the blood coursing through the veins of the building. And it's important that theatres play their part - those that can. Obviously, some older buildings are quite compact internally or have bolted-down seating."

G Live (Guildford): G Live is now used as a vaccination centre, hoping to vaccinate around 8,000 individuals each week.

In an article from The Stage, even circus big tops are willing to lend their performance spaces as vaccination centres. The article states: "Circus Extreme, Continental Circus Berlin and the Circus of Horrors have all offered their touring big tops and equipment." What a fun place to get vaccinated!

Theatres are organising programming that's tailored to social distancing

In an interview with The Telegraph, the NT's artistic director Rufus Norris spoke of two potential future programmes for upcoming shows, one with social distancing and the other without. He said: "If there's another lockdown that takes us into a whole other world of woe, but I would say there is an air of cautious optimism. If we do open in June, then with a fair wind, I hope we should be building out from there. I'd hope that by the end of the summer, we're selling all of the Olivier's 1,300 seats."

Future plans for the National Theatre also include at least one big comedy and a musical each year. Jack Absolute Flies Again, which was due to open in April 2020 in the Olivier Theatre is ready to go. "I think it will be very welcome when it comes. We just have to wait to reconvert the Olivier back... but it's sitting in the workshop." 

Andrew Lloyd Webber has spoken about using theatres as vaccination centres

Arguably one of the leaders in restarting theatres, Andrew Lloyd Webber has encouraged the use of his theatres to support the pandemic. Throughout 2020, Lloyd Webber participated in trials and often spoke out in support of creatives. In an interview with The Telegraph, he would be willing to turn his theatres into vaccination centres for the foreseeable future.

"We've all got to double our efforts and not take our eye off the ball." said Webber, continuing to say that everyone "must continue to make our buildings as hygienic and safe as possible to complement everything else that's happening." If he's ever contacted to use his theatres, "we'll have our buildings ready." A confident, assured approach from Andrew Lloyd Webber is definitely a confident step forward.

As well as opening theatres and vaccination centres, Andrew Lloyd Webber has been vocal in testing chemical substances to speed up theatres reopening. In an article from The Independent, Webber has spent months "lobbying the government to test the chemical triethylene glycol (TEG)" but has been parked by governmental independent advisory body Sage as there's little evidence to suggest TEG can reduce airborne transmission of coronavirus.

Speaking to The Guardian, Andrew Lloyd Webber has stated that's he prepared to be arrested if authorities intervene with opening theatres at full capacity on 21 June. Cinderella will open at the Gillian Lynne Theatre this June.

Currently, Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals including The Phantom of the Opera and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will open this July. Find out more about Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals in the West End here. 

Could theatres be ventilated with Covid in mind?

Although British theatres are shut for the foreseeable future, important studies are taking place to keep theatres ventilated. In an article from The Stage, the Arcola Theatre is working with Imperial College London to explore how air quality in theatres can spread airborne viruses. Consequently, results about ventilated theatres will help guide the Arcola's new outdoor performance space. All work is done with the safety of theatregoers in mind, hopefully getting us back to the theatre soon.

A centralised Covid testing site will be set up 

Nimax Theatres have definitely paved the way for reopening the West End. Last autumn, all six Nimax Theatres were open again with new productions and returning shows. When theatres open again, a centralised Covid-19 testing hub will be opened for all Nimax Theatres staff and performers.

Speaking about full capacity theatres from 19 July, Nica Burns said in an interview with The Stage, "It's a setback particularly for producers having to make decisions about going into rehearsals - but what was encouraging is there has been a shift in government policy, in that, previously they talked about data, and this time they talked about vaccinations. The uncertainty has been desperate - so that is why I can take comfort with it, as I feel it's more certain that we can open on July 19 with full capacity. I am moving on on the basis that is what they said."

Nimax Theatres includes: Apollo Theatre, Duchess Theatre, Garrick Theatre, Lyric Theatre, Palace Theatre, Vaudeville Theatre

Boris Johnson has also spoke about the importance of testing audience members. In a press conference on 15 February, Johnson said: "What we are thinking of at the moment is more of a route that relies on mass vaccination...plus lateral flow testing, rapid testing for those bits of the economy that are the toughest nuts to crack, such as nightclubs or theatres." Check out more about vaccine passports and theatre here.

Could new theatres be built with social distancing in mind? 

Vertical Theatre (Photo courtesy of LD Communications)

With social distancing very much part of the "new normal", could theatres have to incorporate it as part of their building plans? That's what the Vertical Theatre has in mind. Hailed as a future-proof live performance venue, the Vertical Theatre will see audiences sit in groups and have built-in global streaming capacity. The Vertical Theatre Group founders have said they're "devoted to the vital importance of arts and culture... We are very excited to be able to bring this innovative new venue offering to the live entertainment world at this pivotal moment for the future of the arts." 

What could vaccinations mean for the future of West End theatres?

With the rate of vaccinations increasing exponentially, hope for a West End reopening is looking closer and closer each day. Currently, all West End theatres are closed due to a national lockdown, with no confirmed reopening date. It is likely that West End theatres will be given the green light to reopen once London is marked as a "tier two" area, but it is unknown when this could happen.

As stated in the Coronavirus roadmap on 22 February, theatres will be allowed to reopen from 17 May, as part of step three. In step three, theatres will have to be open under social distancing guidelines. In step four, theatres can welcome full capacity audiences, the earliest date for this is 17 June. 

Photo credit: Covid-19 Vaccine (Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash)

Article Updated: 26 April 2021

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