100 days ago, all UK theatres shut their doors in order to combat the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19). In these 100 days, ‘Be More Chill’, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ UK Tour, ‘Beautiful’ UK Tour and ‘Waitress the Musical’ have announced that they will not be reopening when the pandemic is over. It is likely that more shows and venues will have to make a similar announcement as well. This has left hundreds of performers and technical theatre staff not only unable to say goodbye to their companies and beloved shows, but they also don’t have jobs to go back to once theatres reopen. Since then, thousands of performances have been postponed, both actors and technical theatre crew have not only struggled financially, but they have also faced the uncertainty of if their shows will survive the pandemic. This song, written by Vicki Manser, I feel sums up the situation faced by everyone working, or training, in Musical Theatre.
I do fully understand that the focus of each country’s plan to combat the virus is to save as many lives as possible. I understand that during the height of the epidemic in the United Kingdom, the main concern of our government was to prevent the virus from spreading uncontrollably and completely overwhelming our country’s National Health Service. I understand that then, when the virus was at its worst in the United Kingdom, there were more pressing issues than the Hospitality Sector reopening. But now, as Hospitality prepares to open on July 4th, why hasn’t anything been said about the reopening of theatres?
Yesterday, it was announced that the Theatre Royal in Plymouth is having to make most of its artistic team redundant. This is very sad news, as the Theatre Royal Plymouth is a beautiful theatre. How many more theatres will follow?
Last week, it was announced that Cameron Mackintosh’s productions in London (Les Misérables; Hamilton; Mary Poppins and The Phantom of the Opera) would not be reopening until 2021, with staff redundancies imminent in all 4 productions. Surely, the fact that a massive theatre group is evidently struggling should be seen as a plea for help from the whole industry?
100 days ago, I was watching the Prime Minister’s press conference where he advised people not to go to theatres, but nothing was said about theatres closing their doors. It wasn’t until just after 7pm when I was scrolling through Twitter and I saw this tweet from @westendcovers.
I read the replies, which suggested that Olivia Moore wasn’t playing Jenna anymore at that performance. I just assumed that she was unable to perform at the last minute, and that Sarah O’Connor (the other cover for Jenna in the company) would play Jenna instead. The next tweet that I saw said that theatres had been shut. Although I was shocked at this announcement, part of me did know that this was coming, after Broadway theatres had shut on March 12th. As the announcement about theatres closing was made just after 7pm, and evening performances start at 7:30pm, performers across the country will have more than likely been in costume, warmed up, mic’d up and doing any final preparations they needed to do before they took to the stage that evening. Maybe, somewhere, a swing was scheduled to be on a track that they hadn’t been on for in a while, or were maybe debuting in, and consulting their ‘swing bible’ (a map of where everyone is on stage at every point in the show). As described in this interview with Leanne Pinder, part of their show had to be re-choreographed, due to several cast members being unable to perform. But, around 7pm, all theatre cast and crew were sent home, as theatres shut their doors.
I assumed that in theatre’s hiatus, enough support would be given so that when they do reopen, everything would be as normal as possible, compared to when it left off. I knew that theatres, actors and technical theatre staff would be losing income. But I didn’t realise how much of a problem the lack of income was until I read this article, where it said that, unless the government intervenes, the Royal Opera House will have to shut indefinitely in Autumn, and the Royal Albert Hall will have to shut indefinitely in Spring. For me, this was when I realised that if two of London’s biggest venues may not last another year, how many smaller West End and Regional Theatres have closed their doors for the final time? The thought of the Royal Albert Hall, a stunning venue which I was incredibly lucky to perform at two years ago never reopening again shows how a lot has to be done to save our theatres. In London alone, theatre is worth 5 billion pounds. This is a massive industry that contributes so much to our economy. Throughout the UK, theatre accounts for 5.6% of jobs.
For me, there is nothing better than being sat in a theatre, and that feeling when the orchestra play the first chord, and you know that you are about to go on an amazing journey, watching an incredible show. When the pre-show announcement starts, telling everyone to put their phones away, and the few silent seconds before the orchestra start. That feeling at the end of Act One, when the final number sends shivers down your spine and you are buzzing throughout the interval for Act Two to start (obviously whilst eating an ice cream!). When it’s the bows at the end and you can see that people’s dreams have come true right in front of you. That is the magic of theatre, that can’t be replicated anywhere else. This is why our theatres need saving.
The most magical theatre experience I have been part of was definitely Alice Fearn and Sophie Evans’ last Wicked show on 20th July 2019. Nothing could have prepared me for how emotional that performance was – Sophie Evans’ songs and high notes were gorgeous, and her Glinda was especially funny in Act 1, which contrasted really nicely with For Good at the end of the Musical 😢. Alice Fearn provided every riff I could ever dream of in her last The Wizard and I; Defying Gravity and No Good Deed – I was left speechless. Throughout the musical I felt fully absorbed in the story and the emotion, which went beyond the musical at that performance, but especially at moments that you only get at a cast change performance, such as Alice Fearn saying ‘for the last time, I feel wicked’, Alice Fearn and Sophie Evans wiping away tears during their last For Good.Stage Dooring to meet them was also amazing, and I also was able to give them their presents (I crocheted them an Elphaba and Glinda doll).
As annoying and sad as it is for us theatre-goers that our theatre trips have been cancelled, it is even more annoying for each person working in the theatre industry. They will all have worked incredibly hard to get to the stage of their career that they are at now, just for their livelihoods to but put on hold by the virus.
Firstly, the performers. Their journey to where they are now with their career will not have been easy. I’m not going to even pretend that I understand the process of auditioning and booking shows, or what it is like for any of my favourite performers to be facing this uncertainty right now. I am just a theatre fan. But I can only imagine that it must be difficult auditioning for a show and getting jobs, when there must be hundreds of applicants for one role. Whether a performer is in training, a swing, in the ensemble, an understudy, an alternate, a dance captain, a standby, a lead, or currently taking a break before their next project, I can only imagine how hard they have worked to get this far. And what with being faced with the fact that their shows might have to close during this pandemic, this can not be an easy time for anyone working in the Theatre industry. So many performers have been working in their dream shows, in their dream roles, only to have these taken away from them by the pandemic.
Secondly, technical theatre staff. Everyone who works backstage at a theatre is an unsung hero. From the stage management team, to the orchestra, to the lighting crew, sound crew, dressers, hair and make-up supervisors, front of house, merchandise sellers, directors, box office staff and many more pivotal roles in putting on shows eight times a week, they are all so much more important than they ever get credit for. They will all have trained for their jobs, and worked their way up to where they are today. Just like performers, they will also be faced with the uncertainty of if they will have jobs at the end of this Public Heath Crisis.
In the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday, when he announced the newest changes to Lockdown in England (to be implemented from July 4th), it was announced that theatres can reopen, provided that they don’t put on live performances. This is like shops opening without anyone being able to buy anything or sports grounds opening without sport being played. Initially, the government guidance was that singing could not take place in theatres, which as annoying as it is, is understandable due to the nature of singing techniques, such as belting.
The only thing that I can see theatres doing now that they are allowed to reopen without live performances is opening their bars/cafes and selling merchandise, in a socially distanced way. Although this is not the same as watching a show, this would be a start, to provide theatres with some form of income until they can fully reopen.
The Theatre Café and Lambert Jackson Productions have teamed up to create a series on online concerts called ‘Leave a Light On’. This was where performers did their own online, virtually streamed concerts to the homes of their fans. Not only was this lovely as performers could do what they love, but it was also amazing for people who can’t always get to a theatre to support their favourite performers. The ‘Leave a Light On’ series has ended, but now The Theatre Café are doing a new series called ‘The Interval Act’. This is a mixture of streamed concerts and workshops. I watched Alice Fearn and Sophie Evans’ ‘Leave a Light On’ concerts in April and both concerts were lovely to watch, especially after watching their last show in Wicked last year. I hope that it won’t be long before they are able to do what they do best, shining on theatres’ stages.
As much as I would love to see theatres reopening, and performers doing what they do best, I understand that this can only be done in a safe way, whenever that may be.
So in this long break, please support performers, theatres and technical theatre crew in whatever ways you can. Whether you have signed petitions, put down your thoughts in a post similar to what I have done, bought ‘The Show Must Go On’ merchandise, attended a ‘Leave a Light On’ or ‘The Interval Act’, or done anything else to aid theatres in their time of need, you have done your bit to help theatres.
I feel like I have to say something on this issue. I can’t just let the industry that I, and so many others love, die infront of us all. I’m writing this post for everyone – for the performers; technical theatre staff; anyone training for musical theatre; theatre staff; theatre fans. Please, support theatres, they need your help more than ever.
The first performance when theatres reopen will be magical. But until then, keep supporting theatres in any way that you are able to and stay safe.