After Digital is an agency powered by arts and culture and we work with many clients across the globe, from museums to galleries, as well as quite a few theatres. We’re proud to work with iconic names like The Donmar Warehouse, the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago and the National Theatre of Scotland, so the impact of coronavirus on the theatre industry has been constantly on our minds.

As a digital agency who are invested in the arts and culture sector as a whole, the COVID-19 outbreak has certainly been an unforeseen spanner in the works for 2020. As a company (and as individuals within the said company) we are incredibly passionate about the industry and have been following the evolution of the current crisis closely and with worry – particularly when it comes to theatres.

1. What has been the impact of coronavirus on the theatre industry?

2. How has the theatre industry adapted to coronavirus?

3. How is the theatre industry approaching life after the pandemic?

4. What does the theatre industry need to survive coronavirus?

5. Government Support Update

What has been the impact of coronavirus on the theatre industry?

Currently, the doors to theatres are closed in line with the current lockdown phase and it’s likely this will be the case until at least early July. However, reopening, in general, will depend on a few things; namely if theatres can pass Government tests to be declared "Covid-19 Secure" and if the audiences are willing to come back. The Stage has been releasing survey results that give insight into the feeling of theatre audiences during the pandemic and ahead of reopening. In their most recent survey, these were some of the key findings:

  • The number of UK theatregoers and arts attendees actively booking tickets for post-lockdown shows has dropped in the last month and is now at only 15%
  • 43% of survey respondents said they wouldn’t be booking tickets for future performances for at least 4 months
  • Only 19% of respondents said they would be comfortable returning to venues as soon as they are allowed to reopen
  • 80% want theatres to limit the number of attendees for performances
  • 68% want the seating to be socially distanced – spaced 2 metres apart

However, the survey also saw an increase in interest in on-site health monitoring, such as temperature checks, for when theatres reopen. And, 52% said they would be happy to attend large outdoor performances – an increase of 3 percentage points since their first survey. There is definitely a desire from audiences to get back to seeing performances but, ultimately, they are still hesitant to return to venues and it’s likely that wariness and hesitancy will be around after restrictions lift. in fact, the number of people booking events up until October has fallen, with the only increases in ticket sales being seen for events from January 2021 and onwards.

It’s clear that the impact of coronavirus on the theatre industry is still ongoing and with this hesitancy from the public, those within the industry are worried about where it will end up. It has been reported that 70% of theatres across the UK could run out of money by the end of the year, with giants like the National Theatre losing 75% of its income with concerns that it will have to shed 30% of its staff without extra government support.

the globe theatre is struggling during coronavirus

Inside Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

London’s collection of rich, varied theatre shows generated £133million in VAT alone to the Treasury last year, theatre isn’t just a luxury – it’s a key part of the economy. Huge losses in the theatre industry would have knock-on effects on other businesses that thrive on its success. It also goes without saying that even some of the venues alone are a draw for tourists – one such example is Shakespeare’s Globe. A historical landmark in its own right but also an operating theatre which has been just as badly impacted by current events. In fact, the Globe is claiming it will have to close its curtains for good before the end of 2020 without additional support from the Government. With theatres as established as Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre struggling, it’s not difficult to imagine the larger-scale effect COVID-19 has already had on theatres as a whole.

Despite a bleaker outlook, some theatres (and arts and culture organisations) have done their best to adapt to the changes coronavirus has thrown at them, offering new and exciting online elements and even remote access to performances, to ensure they stay top of mind during the lockdown.

How has the theatre industry adapted to coronavirus?

At After Digital, we have been keeping tabs on how the arts, culture and attractions industries have been adapting to the pandemic around the world. With such easy access to different online video platforms and social media, it’s not hard for organisations to stay in touch with their followers and fans.

For example, many attractions have taken to using social media in weird and wonderful ways to keep their audiences engaged – one particularly interesting instance is The Sumida Aquarium in Tokyo, who have been asking people to video call the organisation’s 300 garden eels, and with great success too. A less weird, but still amazing, example is one of our clients, The Royal Academy of Dance, who started up their [email protected] programme when lockdown first kicked off. This programme offers online dance classes for people of all ages and abilities and, on its launch day, it resulted in a 1,650% increase in site traffic when compared to an average day.

It’s been great to see arts and culture organisations offering engaging content for people quarantined at home and the theatre industry is no different – many theatres have been offering online streaming for their past performances for people to enjoy at home. This is a great way to keep your audience engaged with you and your content and it’s even opening up this medium of entertainment to people who previously wouldn’t have attended a theatre show; whether that be out of interest or affordability. But, overall, it shows potential attendees that you value them and want them to enjoy your content – with 74% of theatre-goers missing the buzz of a live performance, it scratches that itch a bit and it will also keep you top of mind for future performances.

We have already mentioned the National Theatre in this blog and they have been running their National Theatre at Home campaign during the lockdown, allowing people to watch full performances of renowned shows like Frankenstein (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller) and Coriolanus (starring Tom Hiddleston) completely for free. It’s been a huge success, the number of people who have watched past productions on the National Theatre’s At Home service would fill its three auditoria for 11 years. And, though this service is free, the homepage does encourage viewers to donate what they can to support the theatre – which is a great way to give back whilst also asking for much-needed support.

NTS online screenshot to show how the theatre industry is adapting to coronavirus

Another example is our client, the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, who are doing a number of things to keep their audience connected whilst apart. Their series, At Home With the Auditorium, uses Facebook Live to stream live performances every Sunday from talented singers, dancers, and musicians from their community right to their audience’s homes. They also have a diverse range of interviews from ‘arts professionals, experts, and star performers’ which they post on Wednesdays for their #AudTalk series. On top of both of these, they are also encouraging their audience to take part in Facebook parties to remotely enjoy, chat about, and share performances live with one another.

On top of theatres’ own efforts to keep people engaged, culture news outlets like WhatsOnStage, Timeout, and more are keeping their readers informed about online performances they can watch from home. And, it’s clear these online performances are of interest to the public as search results piqued when quarantine began.

Though we appreciate you may have limited resources during this time; both for sharing and spending; streaming online performances, hosting themed quizzes and even conducting Q&As and interviews with people in the industry are great ways to stay in touch with your audience. It’s old news now but if you have an idea, it’s always worth a try – especially as a way to get your audience reinvested enough to encourage a donation. 79% of theatre-goers would support the ability to donate, so let your audience know you intend to be there at the end of the pandemic and don’t be afraid to ask for their support in ensuring that happens

How is the theatre industry approaching life after the pandemic?

You may have seen the images of the Berliner Ensemble, a German theatre company in Berlin, who have recently made drastic changes to their seating arrangements to ensure the audience are socially distanced.

example from how berliner ensemble are approaching adapting to coronavirus

Berliner Ensemble: image taken from designboom

As you can see, seats have been stripped out to ensure their government’s required 1.5m distance between attendees is being met; taking their 700 seating capacity down to 200. On top of this, the theatre will also have no intervals to ensure there are no queues and congestion during the breaks, instead, they encourage attendees to go to the toilet when they need to during the performance, and some doors will be kept open to ensure the air keeps circulating. These are just a couple of things the Berliner Ensemble is doing to adapt their venue to life after COVID-19, other measures include keeping the front row at least 3 metres away from the stage and removing plays that feature kissing scenes, but it’s an interesting look into how theatres could adapt once restrictions begin to be relaxed.

However, looking now specifically to the UK, social distancing measures have been eyed with pessimism. It’s generally felt that theatres could reopen under social distancing rules – but, not for long. To meet social distancing measures, like the Berliner Ensemble above, theatres would only be able to sell 10-15% of their seats and many claim that they can’t even break even without selling around 60% of their seats. The feeling of the majority is that removing seats and sitting two-metres apart just isn’t ‘viable’ in the long-run.

Another option being explored is regimented hygiene measures and temperature checking. Andrew Lloyd Webber has claimed that he will be using the London Palladium as a trial venue to investigate the best course of action for keeping audiences safe in a contained space. LW Theatres’ chief exec Rebecca Kane Burton explained the process:

“There is an infrared camera at the stage door, your temperature is taken remotely as you walk in, and a great big dashboard flashes up [to indicate] whether you can come in the building or not. As soon as it does, the airlock releases, the door opens, and you go in. You put on a face mask, sanitise your hands, and keep a two-metre distance because we have markings around the building.”

– Rebecca Kane Burton, Chief Executive, LW Theatres

Other leaders, like Lloyd-Webber, have encouraged arts organisations to look to other countries for inspiration on how to handle reopening – for example, South Korea’s trace-and-test method which has proven successful. But, overall, it appears that the jury’s still out on what will be the best course of action when it comes to the theatre industry opening its doors after coronavirus. Regardless of the method, it takes a considerable amount of time for theatre shows to get up and running in the first place. Renowned theatre names like Cameron Mackintosh, best known for his work on Les Misérables and Hamilton, are concerned that theatres won’t properly open at all until 2021 – at the moment, it appears things are still up in the air and unsettled. However, we are just as excited as the industry and the patrons for doors to open again – whenever that may be.

What does the theatre industry need to survive coronavirus?

Venues across the country say that to open up with social distancing in place would leave them ‘unable to open economically’ – the Royal Albert Hall claims it won’t last past April 2021 under the current circumstances and the Royal Opera House claims it won’t last beyond autumn with its current reserves. At the end of the day, revenue generated through ticket sales from a social distanced audience wouldn’t be enough to cover the costs that go into hosting and running the production in the first place – the theatre industry needs financial support to stay afloat.

image of the royal albert hall in london, another venue in the theatre industry struggling during coronavirus

The Royal Albert Hall, London

The Society Of London Theatre and UK Theatre have submitted a paper to The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) calling the government to support the theatre industry by sustaining the workforce through an extended furlough scheme; supporting their recovery through investment, tax relief and donations to assist in health and safety measures; and safeguard the industry through providing additional Emergency Relief Funding and the creation of a new Cultural Investment Participation Scheme. You can read the summary of the paper here.

“I am not going to stand by and see our world-leading position in arts and culture destroyed… Of course, I want to get the money flowing. I am not going to let anyone down.”

- UK culture secretary, Oliver Dowden.

The Government is currently in talks about supporting the industry financially and during a virtual summit with leaders of the West End creative, leisure and hospitality industries, it was raised that the Government must invest ‘a figure of around £300 million per three months that venues are closed’ in order to save the UK theatre industry. Aside from this, other key recommendations were raised to support a recovery plan:

  • Allowing venues to implement other methods of safety aside from social distancing – strict cleaning regimes, sanitising and heat testing upon entry
  • Ensuring that social distancing isn’t the ‘new norm’ but instead a temporary fix
  • Investment into the industry through arts bonds
  • The announcement of a timetable to bring big events back in time for pantomimes at Christmas

However, a high-level cash injection can’t be actioned until the government comes to an agreement and, as a digital agency fuelled by and passionate about the sector, we want to do what we can. So, with this in mind, how can attendees and supporters all do a little to help the theatre industry during coronavirus?

The majority of the income used to fund the theatre industry comes from its ticket sales, so to get fully back on its feet, the industry needs to be able to do that once more. However, in the meantime, if you have tickets for a performance in the coming weeks that has had to be cancelled, providing you can comfortably afford to do so, why not consider foregoing the price of the ticket? Alternatively, you can get in touch and request a voucher for future performances as opposed to requesting a refund – doing these things will help venues keep money in the bank. You can find out other ways to help on the Official London Theatre website.

screenshot of site asking audiences to help the theatre industry during coronavirus

But, the method that is the most obvious of all is a donation. If you have the means to donate, many theatres are accepting donations through their websites and if you’re a regular who values their productions, donations are more valuable to their future than ever.

Government Support Update

Since publishing this article, the government has revealed their plans to support the arts & culture sector through the pandemic with what was described by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak as a "rescue package". The emergency investment is announced to amount to £1.57bn. 

Although we still need to know more details around the allocation of this sum across the different areas, a few things are already clear.

Firstly, we know that there will be an £880m worth of grants available through to April 2021, supplemented by £270m worth of loads. These funds will be shared between galleries, museums, theatres, music venues, heritage centres and more. Additionally, there will also be £100m worth of support for English cultural institutions and the Heritage Trust, and £120m to help the construction of cultural sites.

And while it still remains to see what the exact funding mechanisms will be and whether this amount will be sufficient, we are pleased to know that the government recognises the importance of the arts & culture sector and is ready to invest in it.

In the end, every industry is facing uncertainty during this time and it’s likely that the coronavirus pandemic will have long-lasting effects on how we live, work and socialise. However, theatre is a huge part of the UK’s arts and culture scene and it plays a big role in the UK economy – to lose any element, no matter how big or small, is a sad thought. Though its future is uncertain at the moment while Government discussions continue, here at After Digital, we are committed to helping as best we can. If there is a way that we can assist your organisation digitally, please feel free to get in touch with us.

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