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  • Daniel Stoddart

Social Distancing And Theatre Don’t Mix.


At this point in time we have no idea what the industry-wide arts recovery will look like. My opinion, based on nothing more than a hunch in my Producer waters, is that it will bounce back stronger than ever. Although we’ll all be out for a few more months than anyone would like, I’m guessing that recession or not, people will be wanting to spend their discretionary income on experiences.


In the meantime, as the government appears to be favouring all other industries over the arts, it is frustrating and enraging to sit on the sideline as other industries open their doors with a socially distanced recommendation. Although the rules seem simple, it is worth a head-scratch when seeing NRL players run around a field enjoying the most intimate of contact; or snotty nose children in schools leaving germs all over anything they can get their grotty mits on. Since when did a night at the theatre become a hotbed for outrageous infection spread? We seem to have been thrown into the category of something that will fiercely wreak havoc on our society. Theatre experiences are much more edified and civilised now and not like they used to be back in the day when groundlings used to piss on the floor of the Globe.


Obviously, we’ve been sidelined because of the need for “social distance”. Whatever that means ( Insert eye roll here). Regardless of what I think, and how ridiculous it is that theatres are not allowed to open, social distancing is simply not conducive for the work we do in the theatre. Not for audiences and certainly not for actors. Restaurants or airlines might be able to operate effectively with reduced capacity and social-distance between seats, but not theatre.


For those playing at home, the simple economics of producing a show is frighteningly fragile under non-covid circumstances. Theatre in general has a model that is based around creative labour. Actor, directors, stage management, audio technicians, lighting operators, follow-spot operators, ushers, program sellers and the list goes on. We require hundreds of personnel to show up for each performance to make it happen. Unless those people turn up, nothing happens. And if nothing happens there is no product. There is nothing to sell. Most theatre shows play on average 5 times a week. Unlike the NRL, there are no other revenue streams other than ticket sales for the theatre workers to survive on. Performers are simply made redundant. The authors of the plays and musicals don’t even get a slice of the pie because there is no pie. It has been suggested that theatres may reopen as long as audience patrons are socially distanced. In a venue that normally would hold upwards of 1400 patrons, this means that a mere 200 to 250 maximum would be able to watch per performance. Imagine that for a second. The scenario would be worthy of the best Broadway farce. Without being boring with the gory financial details, a decent show would struggle to survive on 65% capacity under normal circumstances. Even if the theatre hire is significantly reduced the most thrifty of producers would still have trouble making the figures stack up favourably. Raise the ticket prices? Under this model 250 is approximately one fifth of a 1400 seat theatre, therefore we would need to charge 5 times as much per ticket. When an average ticket price is between $35.00 and $65.00 (including booking fees that the producers don’t get)...well, you can see where this is going.


Now, I know football is an exception in Australia and I’m sorry, not sorry, to keep harking back to the comparison, but football players are allowed to molest each other, share sweat, saliva and often blood on a field, so why is it even being dreamed of that actors would need to socially distance from one another. Actor’s would share dressing rooms just like footballers share dressing rooms. The backstage chaos during a show can often be like a tightly locked in scrum with set pieces strategically shifting, actors swiftly running for their entrances, stage crew quick-changing and problem solving. Sure, maybe we could logistically socially distance an audience, but how the hell do you socially distance backstage? And we haven’t even got to what happens on-stage. How do you successfully tell the story of Romeo and Juliet when Romeo and Juliet can’t touch each other? Oh yeah, by the way, the entire cast of Phantom of the Opera are now going to wear masks. Take your pick Christine. The entire experience turns into a farce and will affect the art with devastating consequences.


I’m sure you would have heard someone at some stage say, “You don’t want to miss this show.” Particularly in amatuer theatre circles where word-of-mouth is the key marketing tool. It is without a doubt the biggest motivator for ticket sales. You can have the most favorable reviews, the biggest billboards, TV commercials, social media campaigns, posters, fliers, but unless you have a friend say to you “You must, must, MUST see this show!” your bums on seats will be minimal. This word-of-mouth model only works when the experience is extraordinary. A major factor in what makes that experience extraordinary is a packed theatre. Have you ever been to a show that is only half full? It’s just not the same as going to a show that’s sold out. So, while audiences may enjoy a show that is 25% full, the experience won’t be enough to get them across the line and fire-up the word-of-mouth machine. Not only will the word-of-mouth from reduced houses be less passionate, those less-sold houses actually means fewer words coming out of fewer people’s mouths. In Newcastle a sold out opening weekend of Mamma Mia at the Civic Theatre saw 4,200 people on the streets talking about the show. A 25% opening weekend would have put 1,050 people in the streets. As a side note, this is one of the reasons why word of mouth takes longer for smaller fringe events.


Practically speaking, you could enforce social distance in a theatre. It could get some butts in seats to get a curtain back up, but it won’t take long for it to come crashing back down again into creative recession.


Theatre is meant to be a social occasion and unless you are rubbing shoulders with the person sitting on either side of you in a darkened auditorium laughing and crying in each other's close company you really aren't getting a theatre experience. Theatre was made for the jostling groundlings. Unless social distancing can be relaxed the question won't be, “To be in a theatre or not to be in a theatre?”, there won’t be a question. The simple answer will be, “Or not to be!”


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