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Ralph Fiennes in Beat the Devil at the Bridge Theatre

How London theatres are keeping audiences safe during reopening

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

UPDATE: 2 December

West End theatres are now allowed to reopen from December 2020, after a national lockdown. From 1 August - 4 November, venues were allowed to begin indoor performances, albeit with restrictions like: reduced venue capacity and limited ticket sales to ensure social distancing, online ticket purchasing and e-tickets provided, to reduce contact and help with track and trace; signs to mark where audiences should go, limit mass entry, and space out queues via one-way systems; deep cleaning of venues - and performance times adjusted so that cleaning can take place between shows if they fall on the same day; and all performers, conductors, musicians and backstage crews observing social distancing wherever possible.

Find out which shows will be open across London's theatres in December 2020.

Outdoor theatre was allowed to restart on 11 July, although many venues understandably needed some planning time in order to mount productions. The Government also has heightened concerns about the playing of wind and brass instruments and about singing - although a recent study at the University of Bristol in fact showed singing doesn't produce substantially more respiratory particles than speaking at a similar volume, and that aspects like ventilation make a key difference, so it's possible that Government advice will change in due course.

All of these measures are designed, of course, to ensure that there is as little risk as possible to performers, staff, and audiences - but also to reassure everyone involved that coming back to theatre is safe to do in the current circumstances. As long as the rules are followed, it can still be a joyful communal experience, and that live connection between performer and viewer is just as palpable.

Here are some of the ways that shows are instituting safety measures in London.

Social distancing

One major change to theatre in the social distancing era is that venues are limiting capacity - usually by around two-thirds. For example, performances ofThe Last Five Years at Southwark Playhouse showed an illustration of their new seating, which included Perspex screens and 2m between each row. You can sit with people in your household bubble — or just on your own — and the screens will separate out those in different bubbles. Before the show, a member of staff will take one party at a time through to the auditorium, and afterwards, they'll escort you through the backstage area, rather than the bar, to keep the one-way system in place. 

It does have a major impact on how theatres can operate commercially, which is why the industry is keen for the Government to move onto its final Stage Five soon. A venue like Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, which staged a concert version of Jesus Christ Superstar, has had its capacity reduced from 1,256 to 390, while Cornwall's Minack Theatre has gone down from 700 to 250. However, the eager audience response certainly demonstrates that people are delighted to return to theatre, and it's likely that the assiduously employed safety measures are a part of that. 

Live broadcasts

One solution to the problem of accommodating everyone who wants to see a show, while maintaining social distancing, is to create a second viewing area. Regent's Park cleverly did this with its sold-out Jesus Christ Superstar, opening up a further 5,000 seats, priced at £20 each, to people sitting on its lawn and watching a live relay of the show on a big screen. It's still a very pleasant way to experience the production, along with the ambiance of this picturesque outdoor theatre, and it's a solution that other venues may adopt if they have the space, and/or if the British weather behaves. 

Pop-up outdoor theatres

There have also been creative ideas around temporary spaces, such as the Turbine Theatre's season on its nearby jetty. The Battersea venue offered everything from a revival of Hair to Shakespeare and family-friendly shows, with audiences offered pallet seats on the jetty or on deckchairs. 

We've also seen the emergence of new outdoor theatres like the Garden Theatre at Vauxhall's Eagle pub, currently hosting musical Fanny & Stella. The Government confirmation that outdoor shows could go ahead came a bit late for some venues to pivot their whole seasons - such as Shakespeare's Globe - so it's exciting to see these small, nimble spaces supplying shows to audiences in the meantime. We may well get even more pop-ups and mini festivals next summer.

Another fun addition is the musical theatre drive-in model, where you can be in the same space as live performers, but catch the show from the safety of your car. That's proved popular at the Troubadour Meridian Water, and there are more shows to come, such as a concert featuring West End Aladdin stars Trevor Dion-Nicholas, Matthew Croke and Hiba Elchikhe, and a magical gathering of Wicked witches: Alice Fearn, Emma Hatton, Laura Pick, and Sophie Evans.

Theatre installations

If there are difficulties around having performers and audiences in the same space, why not remove the former altogether - in the flesh, that is. The Donmar Warehouse innovatively reopened with Blindness, a socially distanced sound installation where audience members don headphones and are immersed in the binaural sound design of Ben and Max Ringham, with Juliet Stevenson as the guide to a resonant dystopian tale. The hourlong piece has a limited number of visitors, arranged 2m apart, but runs four times a day, increasing overall capacity. It's proved so popular that the run has been extended.

Livestreams

As an alternative to attending a show in person, some theatres have pivoted to presenting fantastic live performances that you can stream online. It's a good way around the issue of limited audience capacity, and might suit those who aren't quite sure about travelling on public transport yet, or are maybe shielding or being careful for a vulnerable family member. 

There are some great shows that you can watch from the comfort of your sofa, such as: Andrew Scott starring in Stephen Beresford's new play Three Kings, broadcast by the Old Vic; a 50th-anniversary concert production of Stephen Schwartz's Godspell from the Hope Mill Theatre, featuring Ruthie Henshall, Darren Day, Sum Tutty, Ria Jones, and Jenna Russell; and Emma Rice's Romantics Anonymous, streaming from the Bristol Old Vic. Check out how to get the best of British theatre into your home. 

E-ticketing

Surprisingly, not many theatres had adopted e-tickets prior to the coronavirus outbreak. The Old Vic announced its adoption of e-tickets in 2017, as part of a commitment to become 90% paperless by its 200th birthday in May 2018, and the Lyric Hammersmith and the National Theatre both offer the choice of e-tickets. However, the industry as a whole had yet to make the leap. Now, e-tickets are the best option: you can show the usher your e-ticket on a phone, rather than passing pieces of paper back and forth, and it's a helpful part of the theatre's track and trace system too.

Flexible cancellations and exchanges

Theatres ask audience members to be vigilant about any symptoms. If you do feel unwell, then arranging a ticket exchange or refund can easily be facilitated. While exchanges and cancellations proved more difficult before, now theatres and venues are keen to be as accommodating as possible should you exhibit any symptoms or need to switch dates for another reason. 

Covid testing

Likewise, the venue organisers - such at the Troubadour Wembley Park, which hosted Sleepless: A Musical Romance - did their part by implementing contact-free temperature checks. If your temperature is 37.8C or above, you and your party won't be able to enter the theatre.

The cast and backstage crew were also subject to stringent checks. Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh, the stars of Sleepless, were among those who have regular Covid tests, with nurses taking swabs and returning results within the hour. It means that any potential problem can be identified and dealt with immediately, and it makes all involved feel safe and well cared for - as well as confident that they can go out and entertain a keen audience. 

Wearing masks

Masks are a key aspect of theatregoing for the time being. All audience members aged 11 and above will need to fully cover their nose and mouth while in the venue. If eating or drinking, you'll need to ensure that you're at least 2m away from anyone who's not in your household bubble. It might feel a bit strange at first, but just as we've become accustomed to wearing masks in shops and on public transport, everyone will soon adjust - and it means you can laugh, cry, and otherwise react without any worries. Plus your hands are still free to applaud!

Contactless concessions

Since the priority is the show itself, not all venues will supply food and drink quite yet - best to check the website ahead of time. For those that do, there may well be new systems in place. At Southwark Playhouse, you can now book tables at their socially distanced café/bar online, giving your contact details for track and trace, while the Royal Court has created a pop-up space outside in Sloane Square, featuring socially distanced tables with hand sanitiser, wi-fi and charging points, a mobile ordering app, and contactless payment.

Other protocols theatres are implementing

Of course, we're all learning more about Coronavirus every day - and also about how the conditions in theatres can best be managed to ensure everyone's safety. Andrew Lloyd Webber led the way with his pilot show at the London Palladium in July (a concert starring Beverley Knight), demonstrating how particular methods might help. These included: socially distanced audience seating, enhanced cleaning, one-way systems, face coverings, temperature checks, e-tickets, in-seat service, cashless payments, hand sanitiser stations, and the use of anti-viral demisting machines. 

Many of these have since been adopted by theatres as they gradually reopen, and we'll likely see minor tweaks as venue operators and producers learn from performers, employees, and audiences about what works and what might be improved upon. Hopefully, this will mean a safe and enjoyable run of socially distanced theatre, until we can get back to live shows with full audiences again.

Photo credit: The audience at the Bridge Theatre for Beat the Devil, starring Ralph Fiennes (Photo by Craig Sugden)

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