The West End needs to take the the Covid threat seriously

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American Actors Equity has set out a list of Covid rules that producers, venues & audiences must follow, so why have SOLT, UK Theatre & Equity on this side of the pond not done the same, ask @ShentonStage

American Actors Equity are requiring actors and crew to be fully vaccinated as a condition of work. Again, in the UK, SOLT and Equity are not requiring this. Regular testing is deemed sufficient.

I’m on holiday — or at any rate in hotel quarantine, before my holiday can actually begin — in Barbados, and I was determined not to write any columns while here. But given that I’m stuck in my room with nothing much to do, I am writing this, as it has been interesting to come away to somewhere that takes Covid safety really seriously — after weeks since “freedom day” in Britain have proved that the West End simply does not.

When social distancing was dropped and theatres were allowed to reopen at full capacity, SOLT and UK Theatres CEO Julian Bird hailed it as “a lifeline for the industry”. He expressed the hope that audiences would continue to wear masks, but it was not to be made a condition of entry. No rules were specified about what testing proof would be required, either: each venue made up its own rules about whether it would ask for vaccination status or a recent negative Covid test.

I have been to many shows in the weeks since. Some of these have been on opening nights, and it has been depressing to sit in packed houses, surrounded by theatre professionals — actors and producers — who are simply not wearing masks. I won’t name and shame here, but they have included some prominent figures. And if they won’t take this seriously, why should audiences?

But this week Broadway returned to business too. And audiences there are being bound by a series of rules they need to sign up to that include proof of vaccination and obligatory mask wearing.

The same applies on stage and behind-the-scenes. American Actors Equity are requiring actors and crew to be fully vaccinated as a condition of work. Again, in the UK, SOLT and Equity are not requiring this. Regular testing is deemed sufficient.

And it is inevitably igniting firestorms, on both sides of the fence, with libertarian, vaccine-denying (or just hesitant) actors refusing to be vaccinated, and claims that it is a matter of personal choice.

But keeping others safe is not a personal choice but a personal responsibility. No, vaccines don’t stop people catching Covid — but they seriously mitigate the effects of doing so. And basically it is all of our collective responsibilities to render this virus as ineffective as we can. Viruses will do anything they can to survive — hence the mutations. We need to do everything we can do to stop them doing so.

However, the West End and regional theatres have re-opened with neither audiences nor cast members required to do ANYTHING at all.

With COVID spreading rampantly through the community once again (see above for yesterday’s statistics on new infections and deaths), it is surely in the theatre’s collective interest to stop this — so we don’t have to face another lockdown. But it seems that SOLT and its member producers are more intent on keeping their theatres open today, never mind what is going to happen tomorrow.

But flying to Barbados proved just how well the airline industry has already adapted to the new world order. For starters, vaccination certificates and a current PCR test are required before boarding a flight — and these are checked BEFORE check-in (see above). So everyone who boards the flight is already known to be recently negative.

And once on board, you are reminded that it is a condition of carriage to wear your mask through the flight. Anyone who doesn’t may be denied future travel on the airline.

Finally, on arrival in Barbados, notwithstanding the negative tests we had before we left, the authorities re-tested EVERYONE; we were then despatched our hotels, to await the results in our rooms. During this time, we are NOT allowed to leave them at all. Food can be ordered via room service, which is delivered to your door (by someone wearing a mask, of course).

As I write, it is two days since we landed — and we are still waiting. Our neighbours, who by sheer coincidence include a young London theatre and film producer, who immediately recognised me when we spoke across the patch of grass in front of our rooms (we are both on the ground floor), arrived on Wednesday. They are still waiting, too.

This may not exactly be a way to encourage tourism to the island — but at least they’re taking the COVID threat seriously.

If only UK theatres were doing the same. Henry Filloux-Bennett, playwright and Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre,  insisted on Twitter:

I know the W.E. is at odds with regional theatre when it comes to masks BUT we surveyed our staff and (slightly older) audiences over the last 3 yrs: just 18% felt that masks were either very or slightly important to them. Which seems about right when you look at trains/shops.

— Henry F-B (@FillouxPastry) September 4, 2021https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

A conversation ensued in which he suggested that as a critic I have no right to an opinion here, even though as I’ve pointed out theatres are my workplace, just as they are for actors and crew. But according to him, at least, the theatres know best — and are doing everything to mitigate risks. Except, of course, actually mitigating them.

I think you’re on a really slippery slope when cultural leaders think they know better when it comes to public health what audiences NEED than public health officials and experts…

— Henry F-B (@FillouxPastry) September 4, 2021https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I’m saying probably critics should stick to reviewing shows and not public health advice – measures that each and every theatre across the country will have been and will continue to review on a regular basis as everyone tries to navigate their way through the pandemic.

— Henry F-B (@FillouxPastry) September 4, 2021https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

It strikes me that there has been a major failure of leadership here: SOLT have failed to take the lead and Equity have failed, too. What’s been sacrificed in the process is the safety of everyone — cast, crew and audiences alike.

The post September 4: Theatre’s maskless return first appeared on Shenton Stage.

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Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton has been a full-time freelance London-based theatre critic and journalist since 2002, and is proud to have co-founded MyTheatreMates with Terri Paaddock. He has variously (and sometimes simultaneously) been chief theatre critic for the Sunday Express, The Stage, WhatsOnStage, What's On in London magazine and LondonTheatre.co.uk. He has taught at ArtsEd London in Chiswick on musical theatre history since 2012. He was until recently President of the Critics' Circle, and is also on the board of Mercury Musical Developments and the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF). You can follow him on Twitter @ShentonStage, and on instagram at @ShentonStage. His personal website is www.shentonstage.com.
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Mark Shenton on FacebookMark Shenton on RssMark Shenton on Twitter
Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton has been a full-time freelance London-based theatre critic and journalist since 2002, and is proud to have co-founded MyTheatreMates with Terri Paaddock. He has variously (and sometimes simultaneously) been chief theatre critic for the Sunday Express, The Stage, WhatsOnStage, What's On in London magazine and LondonTheatre.co.uk. He has taught at ArtsEd London in Chiswick on musical theatre history since 2012. He was until recently President of the Critics' Circle, and is also on the board of Mercury Musical Developments and the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF). You can follow him on Twitter @ShentonStage, and on instagram at @ShentonStage. His personal website is www.shentonstage.com.

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