Sian Hansen is Chief Operating Officer of C|T Group and sits on the board of the Almeida Theatre in Islington
There is nothing to match the communal experience of watching a live performance in a renowned venue. It drives culture and brings society together whether that be live sport, music or theatre.
At this time of a national lockdown in the face of a terrifying pandemic it is easier than ever to connect to people but harder than ever to connect with people.
Video calls, remote communications and social media enable us to function and maintain our work and activities, but they do not allow us to share experiences, or empathise, or lift our souls and spirits.
I am COO of C|T Group, a global organisation that integrates research, strategy and communications tools to execute winning campaigns, and we run a regular Leadership Insights Tracker measuring public opinion and attitudes on a range of different issues.
Our Tracker shows that currently two thirds of adults are spending more time online and watching tv whilst there has been a substantial decrease in people’s spending on live entertainment as lockdown measures continue.
That is perhaps unsurprising, but it also shows that people yearn for a return to live entertainment. In the UK a fifth of all those consulted in our tracker – rising to a quarter amongst females – say that live entertainment such as music, theatre, or cinema will be one of the first things they will spend money on once the pandemic is over.
There is already been a growing consensus that the return of live sport would provide much-needed positivity and lift the national mood. It is reported that the government is in favour of football’s return and that Premier League executives have responded by drawing up a plan called ‘Project Restart’.
I also sit on the Board of the Almeida Theatre which exists to launch the next generation of British artists onto the world stage. As a small and unique 325 seat theatre in Islington, it is a world away from the Victorian and Edwardian theatres of the West End. For over forty years we have always made a strong argument for theatre as an essential force in an increasingly fragmented society and pride ourselves on presenting brave new works.
The most important thing we can do at the present time is consider the wellbeing of our employees, performers and supporters but we also have to prepare for a difficult future.
Theatre needs its own Project Restart.
Returning to the C|T Group Tracker the lesson from Hong Kong is that even now that lockdown restrictions are being eased and people’s spending on live entertainment has begun; the spending on theatre, cinema and music remains the furthest away in all areas of a return to normal. We can expect a similar pattern in the UK when isolation and social distancing measures are loosened here.
Despite a fifth of the population here hoping to spend money on live entertainment post-isolation only 3 per cent actually see it as a priority industry for being brought out of lockdown compared to other industries such as manufacturing (37 per cent), education (34 per cent), and energy (31 per cent). Further almost half of respondents support an “every other seat policy” in venues like theatres after lockdown.
So, there we see our conundrum. Theatre and the arts are valued by the public but are not seen as essential like heavy industry, which is seen as vital to drive the economy and growth through uncertain fiscal times.
Yet the UK’s arts are a huge draw to overseas visitors, bringing with them much-needed tourist dollars. London’s theatreland alone contributes £765 million to the London economy – with figures as high as £14.6 billion when taking into account the ripple effect in long-suffering restaurants, bars and cafes.
We have seen in Hong Kong that taking an international holiday is now the top priority for 43% of Hong Kongers. We are likely to see similar trends in other markets as they come out of lockdown. So how in the post-pandemic tourist rush does the UK – consistently in the world’s top ten tourist destinations – ensure it is the destination of choice?
And how can we utilise the insight that people are yearning for a communal experience in an age of isolation and look forward to experiencing live entertainment again after months cooped up?
That is the challenge to be addressed. Theatre will need all the encouragement it can garner if it going to emerge out of the other side of coronavirus in good shape.
Furloughing staff will already have saved jobs in the longer run and saved some of our most loved theatres.
Now we need to go further. We need our own theatrical ‘Project Restart’ given that theatres will open after other activities with reduced capacities and casts.
How will our theatres survive in such circumstances given that they rely on audience income? What will the audience find acceptable in terms of new arrangements and how can we ensure the experience is as memorable as can be enabled? What can we do to attract the public back as quickly as possible to our theatres?
Project Restart should begin to look at the theatres coming back.
Solutions to maintaining social distancing and protecting audiences should include only every alternate seat being used but with a rise in prices to compensate. There could be two performances a night to half full theatres and smaller productions.
We need to protect and assure audiences and so face masks may be provided for everyone and there should be a ready availability of hand gel which can be used before entering the auditorium.
Such measures make it likely that it will be the nimble low-cost fringe theatres which are more likely to get back up and running quicker than the big venues. The plan must be for a staggered reopening of our precious theatres.
As we prepare to welcome the public slowly emerging with blinking, square eyes from their isolation and home entertainment, let us bear in mind the words of Noel Coward: “I will accept anything in the theatre…provided it amuses and moves me. But if it does neither, I want to go home.”
The arts need their own Project Restart – Project Restage – because the show must go on for our arts and for our economy.