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Coronavirus and theatre

The show goes on in the face of Coronavirus fears

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The world is currently gripped by fear over the implications of the widespread global arrival of Coronavirus, and just how prepared we are (or should be) for its presence. Face masks are becoming ubiquitous on the tube; some people have even been photographed sporting Tesco's shopping bags for protection.

The latter may be a disproportionate (and not to mention futile) response; but the wartime motto 'Keep Calm and Carry On' (at least until we're otherwise advised) is the best we can do, besides washing our hands regularly and avoiding getting them near our mouths. 

And yet the effects on the world of entertainment are already being felt, from drama schools to planned charity galas to future West End shows.  At the start of the week Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which is sited next door to the Barbican Centre, announced that one of its teaching staff members had contracted the virus, and according to an email from the principal Lynne Williams that was sent to staff and students, the teacher "was present and teaching in one of the ancillary school buildings on one day last week, came into contact with a limited number of students and we are working closely with those students to ensure that they receive urgent appropriate advice."

It was subsequently reported that on the advice of Public Health England, the school would close for up to 14 days as a precautionary measure and "to allow time for a review of the situation and for appropriate measures to be taken". That appears to have now been completed, with the school now announcing, "Guildhall School of Music and Drama will re-open on Monday 9 March, following advice from Public Health England."

READ: Should I go to the theatre during the Coronavirus outbreak?

Meanwhile, Dear Mum - a theatre charity night that was due to be held at Cadogan Hall on 16th March to benefit ovarian cancer charity The Eve Appeal - announced yesterday that it was postponing the event.  In their statement, they said, "A number of our supporters have expressed concern around attending the event in the light of the current outbreak, and the uncertainty surrounding this. We are very aware that many of our supporters and attendees will be at high risk, and as the safety of our supporters is of the utmost importance we take these concerns seriously and have been monitoring the situation closely. As upsetting and disheartening postponing this event is for all involved, the wellbeing of our supporters has to remain paramount." 

And last night Andrew Lloyd Webber announced a delay to his newest musical Cinderella. Originally due to preview from 28th August prior to an official opening on 23rd September at the Gillian Lynne Theatre, it will now preview from 9th October prior to an official opening on 28th October. In a statement, Lloyd Webber said, "The show will go on sale next week as planned, but in the current global circumstances the creative team and I feel that this later opening date is wise. Full-scale pre-rehearsals of Cinderella will take place with our leading actors, as planned, throughout this month."

This follows the news on Wednesday that the new James Bond film No Time To Die (a title that now has an ironic ring) has also delayed its opening  to November instead of next month, after what its producers called "careful consideration and thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace." As CNBC News reported, "As the coronavirus began to spread, publicity tours for No Time To Die were canceled in China, South Korea, and Japan. Its Hong Kong release was also pushed back. There are concerns that the coronavirus outbreak could hit the film at the box office, as some countries have banned or restricted large public gatherings."

This is obviously a fast-moving situation and these incidences are no doubt only the tip of the entertainment iceberg. Broadway is currently moving into its busiest season of openings for the year - the transfer of Girl from the North Country from London opened just last night, and between now and 23rd April, there are 13 more openings booked - including further transfers for West End shows like Six, The Lehman Trilogy and the Chichester-originated revival of Caroline, Or Change

I'm due to head over to Broadway myself in just over a week's time, and unless I'm physically prevented from doing so by a shutdown of air travel, I'll be going. 

And yes, I'm still going to the theatre in London, too. As theatre columnist Zachary Stewart puts it, "I still intend to go to the theatre every night, and will continue to do so until performances are canceled. Personally, I don't feel at any greater risk this year than I normally do. As Dr. Lisa Maragakis of Johns Hopkins points out, the flu will infect an estimated 1 billion people worldwide this year, resulting in 291,000 to 646,000 deaths. This happens every year, and it's not a new story, which is why so few reporters are writing about it relative to the coronavirus. Unless you want to live like Howard Hughes, wandering around the house with tissue boxes for shoes, there is a chance you might get sick this time of year. You always have to assume some level of risk when existing in the world — and that's a risk I'm willing to take to see theatre in New York. But should I die in the line of duty, feel free to link back to this story in my obituary. Hubris is, of course, the great fertilizer of tragedy."

Let's hope and pray it doesn't come to that. But meanwhile, it's best not to indulge in too much hysteria, but keep a sense of proportion. 

How to avoid catching or spreading the virus

- Wash your hands with soap and warm water often, and for at least 20 seconds
- Do this when you get home, to work, after eating and after using public transport
- Use hand sanitiser if soap and water isn't available
- Cover your mouth with a tissue with coughing or sneezing, and dispose of immediately
- Use your sleeve rather than your hands if you can't catch it in a tissue
- Avoid close contact with people who are unwell

The more urgent fear may be how it affects the timeline for future productions: earlier this week I ran into a prolific London Off-West End producer, who told me that she is lying low on all planning until the crisis passes; while another immersive theatre producer Frazer Brown announced on Twitter: "Effective immediately, we have decided to halt all non-essential work across our ventures moving forward for the net 6 months. We have coordinated with all of our management and across industries and continents who are all in agreement. In the current climate of uncertainty and the slim chance of public venues, transport, and indeed town have the potential to be  closed to the public in the coming months, we will be moving our proposed productions, business ventures and projects for 2020 forward to 2021. With no plans to produce o invest further in 2020 until a clearer picture emerges regarding contamination and the safety of audiences, employees, the public crew and casts."  

While the shows that are already in rehearsal or production may be on a runaway train that they can't easily stop, the bigger threat now is the knock-on effect it has on future planning.

Photo credit: Steven Penton (flickr)

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