Love Theatre Day 2021: Brave new world?

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Happy Love Theatre Day, everyone! This year I actually feel like marking it, not because all of London’s West End theatres are now back open for business (though that is obviously excellent news), but because I’m just about working out where theatre of all kinds fits into my peri-pandemic routine – note that I’m not saying post-pandemic because HELLO, the UK’s figures are still appallingly bad. (I hope peri-pandemic makes sense – it does to me, anyway.)

I’ve not made a secret of the fact that, just prior to the pandemic shutdown, I was getting a bit tired of the whole thing; the arsehole audience members who stick in your memory, the journeys home ruining the show experience, finding time to write properly, the late nights, etc. I didn’t miss the act of theatregoing, rather I enjoyed the enforced break – though not forgetting that the whole arts sector was basically under attack through lack of funding. The digital theatre revolution (spearheaded by The Show Must Go Online) was the perfect antidote, as it allows you to have as much of the in-person theatre experience as you want, without any of the annoyance attached. That this branched out into livestreams from various auditoria was a great bonus; just like the quashing of the argument that office staff working from home wasn’t possible, this proved that theatres could do more to increase accessibility without too much difficulty.

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Nevertheless, I have been glad to get back into theatres over the past six months; I definitely preferred the social distancing, as it was so nice to know that you weren’t going to be squashed in between people (I’ve longed for more patron-friendly seating for years, this isn’t an effect of the pandemic), but at least with full capacity performances coming back it does take the pressure off audience members – it always felt like you needed to overreact so the sound of applause, etc. didn’t sound a bit pathetic.What I never thought I’d enjoy was masking up in a theatre, as I have quite an expressive face and like to use it (even though it’s probably not visible to anyone onstage) – masks are great for hiding a yawn, boredom & mild annoyance, plus you do feel like you’re a little bit hidden away. I just wish that theatres didn’t need to be so desperate to flog food & drink to bolster their income, as it might help convince a few more audience members to keep their masks on for a helpful amount of time.

It’s been interesting to see the whole ‘theatre etiquette’ debate roll around in this brand new context. Firstly, just stop using the word ‘etiquette’ fullstop, as it’s ridiculously fucking elitist. Secondly, for once I don’t think people’s behaviour is worse than before the pandemic – it’s just more noticeable as we haven’t had to put up with their arseholery for quite some time, plus there are extra parameters (such as masks & social distancing) to consider now.

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I was curious to see what other people thought, so dumped a Twitter thread of polls on my unsuspecting followers yesterday morning to try & get some actual data! It’s not going to be statistically significant in any way (especially when you realise that five times as many people saw it as actually bothered to respond), but it’s interesting to see how everyone compares. For example, most respondees have been into theatres, but the overwhelming reason why some haven’t is that they don’t feel safe or confident in those environments as yet. Of course for some it’s an enforced absence, due to quarantine restrictions still being in place.

The majority of respondees have experienced both indoor and outdoor shows, as well as socially distanced and full capacity performances; I really did think I’d only be able to manage outdoor & reduced capacity performances, but it’s remarkable how the pull of a particular show or bit of casting will manage to convince you otherwise – in the end, I think I spent more time outdoors at the cricket than the theatre. Most people do seem to be fairly happy with the COVID security of theatres – I know I definitely felt more confident knowing that people would be masked up (much more visible in May, June & July than now) and having had my jabs. Talking of masks, though, responses were overwhelmingly in favour of mask mandates and active enforcement (obviously excluding those who are genuinely exempt) – I find it incredibly embarrassing that the UK is behaving so childishly & selfishly over the small matter of covering the nose & mouth for a couple of hours. Moulin Rouge! The Musical recently announced that patrons would have to be masked up in order to gain entry, but it appears that may be where staff intervention stops, judging by a tweet following the first preview:

On the whole I haven’t really missed much from ‘the before times’, though now that Wise Children are back on the road with Wuthering Heights I do wish I could tell them all personally how much I’m loving the show – as well as catch up with some of my favourites, in this show and others. But for most respondees, it’s clear they wish we could be back living in a maskless world. I don’t blame them – and I certainly do feel the same way on the odd occasion that my glasses misbehave.

I was slightly comforted to find out that other solo theatregoers have felt that things are worse for them now than before the pandemic, if aggrieved for all of us. Though I understand that it may have been easier to have set group sizes (generally ranging from one to four people) on ticketing systems, it became incredibly frustrating to discover that many venues weren’t keen on giving individuals as many options as groups – why these places couldn’t adopt a dynamic booking system, as implemented by cinema chains, I really don’t know. Other than the very few theatres that rearranged their seating plan & temporarily removed a load of their seats, this should not have been a problem at all. I’d also like it if more booking systems, now we’re back to full capacity everywhere, could allow for individual seats to be left; after a while it does become difficult not to take these slights personally.

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I’m pleased to see that many people are hoping to take advantage of any digital theatre that comes their way, even with the option of in-person theatre becoming more & more widely available; though it’s not the same thing, it is a great way of getting an idea of how a script can translate into an actual show – and, with organisations such as the National Theatre granting access to their archives, it allows you to catch up on things you may have missed. What I am disappointed to see is one person saying they don’t want the livestream/on-demand revolution to continue; though I do like the feeling of exclusivity that attending an in-person performance brings (for no two shows being identical, rather than it being some sort of status symbol), having a handful of shows broadcast live won’t spoil that experience for me.

It could only really be done for new productions with limited runs (West End stalwarts couldn’t necessarily risk the effect on ticket income), but that’s still far more than has ever been offered in the past – and is clearly the most exciting collection of shows, however much you might love one or more of the long-runners. If the Young Vic can make a commitment to it, why can’t others? It’s some bonus income for financially ravaged organisations, and a boost in accessibility for theatre-lovers all around the world.

Digital theatre, livestreams & other on-demand video offerings are also excellent value for the viewer – something that has to be taken into consideration when you start to scrutinise the cost of tickets to in-person shows. Sure, there are still the cheaper options available (exploited by marketing), but on the whole these cheap seats continue to be the crappier ones, and the expensive tickets just get dearer. Cabaret is a case in point. I can understand why there would be some super-expensive tickets, as they are basically in the middle of the action and include all sorts of extras – but when you’re looking at £200+… I’d have loved to have treated myself to one of the fancier options, but that’s a splurge too far. Especially when you consider that Nimax had £20 tickets for rows at the front of the stalls for Constellations – I saw all four different casts from close quarters for under a hundred quid (and that’s including a programme).

One final thing that I wanted to cover was the topic of casting. It’s always amazing when someone who you’ve only ever seen as a big film or TV star gets cast in a stage show – I won’t judge anyone in the slightest for getting excited about that (as I am as guilty as the next person), but there are times when big name casting starts to feel like it’s getting out of control.

That time, for me, is now. This isn’t data-driven at all, but it’s just as bad to feel as if there’s an issue or emerging trend. It was to be expected when theatres reopened, as having a famous name (or two, or four) is a guaranteed way of getting bums on seats – and can also serve to justify bumping up the prices. Given the unprecedented nature of the closure (in modern times, at least), it may have been easier to get these well-known names on board, whether due to diary changes or an increased desire from the star to do something different – whatever the motivation, it has made for some interesting company announcements. I just worry about all the non-famous actors who then fall by the wayside, as they’re elbowed out of contention by household name after household name; I’d much rather the trend was for the stars to be dotted across shows instead of arriving in clumps (see both casts of 2:22, for example), and not necessarily taking the biggest role.

It’s not as if having a famous lead is a guarantee of success – and, conversely, a lack of success if you’re without one. I suppose I’m biased in my own way, as I want to see actors from previous shows in new ones – other than companies like Wise Children and places like the Globe, this doesn’t seem to be happening an awful lot.

Anyway, I’ve probably rambled on enough. The conclusion being that a) I am glad that theatres are back open, b) I’m still not a big fan of people, and c) there probably isn’t going to be the change we hoped for after all.

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