During lockdown, with theatres up and down the country and around the world closed for the foreseeable future, I’ve been catching up with industry figures. Here’s Society of London Theatre’s chief executive Julian Bird.
Talking to… the Society of London Theatre
The government has announced five major task forces for the country around five major elements of the economy, one of which is called Recreation and Leisure. That taskforce is going to be chaired by the DCMS secretary of state.
The major question is that the majority of theatres cannot open with social distancing in place – it’s impossible, for economics, for the business case let alone the experience, it just doesn’t work. The big conversations are ‘what can we put in place as an industry to enable venues to open, for rehearsals to happen, to enable actors to be safe on stage?’, that is all the work that is all ongoing, akin to what you see happening in the sports world, where sports are gradually going to come back, sometimes behind closed doors but more and more they will have spectators as well as the year goes on. That is the best analogy I can give as to where we are in discussions at the moment, with vast amounts of work going on.
If you look to South Korea, which is the only real country that has got to this point, their theatres are opening up, The Phantom of the Opera is playing happily there, the whole auditorium is open – we are working on all those issues that surround all of that, so in a year’s time we would hope that every theatre in the country is open and thriving.
We need the government to sign off on a set of principles on safely opening and operating. The best analogy is the sports world, every sport is having to go through that, under an overarching set of principles. That is where we are. Can we get to an overarching set of principles, can we then work out how that applies to each type of theatre or each type of production? Provided we can get to that and then consumers buy into it, we will be there.
One of the single biggest issues that we face is the issue of insurance. Will insurance-writers write policies that will cover us? What happens if a member of a cast gets diagnosed, does that mean you have to close the whole production for two weeks’ quarantine – and who is going to cover that risk? Second, is the whole issue around liability and bringing audiences into venues or casts into proximity. We may well need the government to have some sort of government-backed insurance scheme to enable industries to get back on their feet, if the commercial sector won’t write the policies. So there are big issues which we are working through – it may be that we need the government to step in on some of that. We are not quite there yet but it’s a major issue that we have absolutely discussed with the government. And insurance remains one of the real roadblocks to reopening at the moment.
You get to (as I call them) trigger-points where people have to make decisions on opening/closing shows. [In terms of the autumn,] we’re not at most of those trigger-points yet, but as every week goes on, we get closer towards them, and different theatres have different trigger-points. But we’re not there yet which is why the work we’ve got underway in the next two weeks is so important – to go: can we get to a point where we can open our theatres again? I’m not going to lose sight of trying to fight hard to get to that, while I’m also a pragmatist and accept that there are a huge number of roadblocks in the way. But come on, we are a creative industry – with brilliant people working in it – let’s see what we can do. There are a number of people working on brilliantly creative, clever ideas in the open air, and all sorts of stuff. I’m sure creativity will come through, but that will be a small percentage of theatrical activity you would normally see in this country, that will not replace the majority – and what we have to fight for is getting that majority back up and open.
There are theatre organisations the length and breadth of the country that are months away from the same fate as the Nuffield, Southampton and what we have to do is try and fight to keep them all. I have to remain optimistic that we can fight for our world-leading industry – and I believe we have to do that with every bit of our being.
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