My possibly-at-some-point-in-the-future daughter-in-law is a teacher. Her Year 8s (top class of primary school in old money) have had their class arbitrarily divided into two ‘bubbles’. Indeed, each class in the school has undergone similar societal surgery. At a (socially distanced) Fathers Day gathering, my possibly-at-some-point-in-the-future daughter-in-law recounted how their playground is now split in to two sections, separated with something resembling police ‘Do Not Cross’ tape as a somewhat ambitious border control. These segregated minors are, in some cases, artificially estranged from their best friends and don’t know why. Playtime activity, therefore, consists almost entirely of children chatting to each other across the partition and culminates in a uniform and heartfelt chant of ‘Burst the bubble! Burst the bubble!’
We can all empathise with these little ones’ distress and the tantalising feelings of being so near and yet so far from their pals. We can also understand their frustration at a system which simply does not make sense to them. Why can they be close to some classmates and not others, particularly if the other group counts amongst its number their best friends?
In the theatre we are seeing other businesses reopening and taking cautious steps towards a return to normality. (Or, in the case of pubs, incautious, drunken lurches to hasten a seemingly inevitable second wave.) In some cases it is clear to see either the need to prioritise businesses and, in others, that the low risk of spreading the virus further makes their continued closure non-sensical. There are some anomalies though that leave us scratching our heads and harbouring similar feelings to those schoolchildren. Close proximity to others, because of transmission through airborne water droplets carrying infectious pathogens, is a reason for not endorsing certain environments. So, why are we allowed to get on a plane, sit for hours in an enclosed cabin space where social distancing is impractical and air-conditioning notorious for spreading infections and not be able to go to a theatre, sit for less time in a space where social distancing is easier to achieve and in which the slightest form of air-conditioning is notoriously absent? Although we are all concerned for the well-being of our teams and our patrons, government ministers have signally dodged the pertinent question about the scientific evidence behind these distinctions. Indeed, Oliver Dowden was at such pains not to answer the question that, in his scurrying for cover, he mumbled some nonsense about social distancing endangering social distancing and that we all wanted pantos to return so that we could hear the familiar audience cry, “Is he behind you?” I am not sure what either audience or actor would do with that, but maybe it just indicates what we all suspect about poor Oliver: that he has never actually been inside a theatre. Indeed his big news which he, presumably, thought would get all luvvies onside, was that we could now begin (in a socially distanced way of course, like in pubs and on airplanes) to rehearse indoors. Er, great, Oliver. Small question: rehearse for what, exactly? The lack of understanding about the very obvious basics of our business is profoundly staggering. Depressingly however, it is not very surprising.
All our actors, musicians, writers, directors, designers, producers, technicians and other highly talented people who are acknowledged and respected globally, started out as youngsters inspired by watching live shows and films. Make no mistake, if the industry’s plight is not taken seriously, we risk losing an entire generation of practitioners and, with it, our place in the world. If the magic of film and live performance, the sheer wonder of storytelling and its power to elevate, ennoble and teach us more about ourselves and each other than anything else on this planet, does not move you, then know that the Arts & Culture Industry in this country is worth £10.8billion a year to the UK economy. Such a number may have little meaning to you or I without context, so it is instructive to note that the Premier League contributes £7.6billion; over £3billion less. Although I suspect that the desire to get elite football up and running had less to do with comparative safety and more to do with giving the people something popular to cheer the government for, it is a business model which, due to TV revenue, can survive without a live audience. Not so live theatre and music.
A rescue package has been announced and it has received a cautious welcome. We still have no detail of how it will be apportioned and there is no workable plan in place to open our venues in a way that is safe and financially viable for all parties. Many are worried that larger organisations will successfully lobby for the lion’s share and that small venues and independent producers will miss out. Indeed, Dowden’s words about how important the West End was to London and that it was vital to protect ‘The Crown Jewels’ indicated again how little he knows about the whole business and worried many in the regions that they would be left behind
We need to find imaginative ways of getting our audiences back safely into our theatres. In our ingenious industry, many ideas are being discussed. I wonder whether we could look at bubbles being a part of this solution. Tim Richards, who founded and owns Vue Cinemas, has been talking about their experience of keeping their Taiwanese venues open during SARS outbreaks between 2002 and 2004. By controlling folk entering and exiting the buildings and by booking in groups who are then sat apart, he claims that they managed to run right through these previous pandemics and, in Europe, have applied this model to see a much shorter period of closure than in this country. I was minded to think about a more enlightened application of the social division inflicted upon my possibly-at-some-point-in-the-future daughter-in-law’s little charges.
Complete sell-outs are the exception either than the norm for most shows. Both venue and producer, therefore, budget to operate at a certain percentage of capacity. If we ask our theatre-goers to book group tickets within their chosen social and familial bubbles and, for the time being, we sell no tickets to individuals, couples or any less than the agreed group number, it could be possible for many shows to achieve similar figures. It won’t work for every venue or every production, but it might be worth exploring as one way to encourage our audiences back. We all like group sales, not just because of greater revenue, but also because of the potential party atmosphere created within the theatre with large numbers of friends and family coming together to have a good time. As these bubbles would be self-selected rather than imposed, we wouldn’t need police tape and I am sure we would hear no cries of “Burst the bubble!”
Nor, indeed, “Is he behind you?”