Britain’s theatres are in trouble. Can South Korea save them?

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In South East London, Bromley Little Theatre has staged productions for as long as most locals can remember. The 113-seat theatre, which was once a converted Victorian bakery, is known for its vibrancy – but since March, its rows of red auditorium seats and its stage, which once boasted performances of A Christmas Carol and Goodnight Mr Tom, are empty and gathering dust.
“We have postponed our entire programme of productions probably for the remainder of 2020, at least,” says Keith Jeremiah, the chair of trustees at Bromley Little Theatre. “As an amateur company, run entirely by volunteers, we have no staff to furlough or make redundant, but still have outgoings for rent and other fixed costs.”


As pubs, restaurants and hairdressers reopen, the future of the arts and entertainment industry is still in doubt, as social distancing within some smaller theatres and concert halls is almost impossible — and not financially viable.
At the beginning of lockdown, arts management consultants TRG Arts reported that advance ticket sales at UK theatres fell by 92 per cent while nearly 93 per cent of musicians, artists and creatives within the industry told ITV News that their livelihood is under threat as a result of the pandemic.
Bigger theatres have been draining their reserves to stay afloat, with the likes of the Old Vic spending £350,000 every month to maintain the playhouse, while regional theatres may likely have to close down for good without Christmas pantomimes.
Last week, a £1.57 billion emergency support package from the government was introduced with an aim to “protect Britain’s world-class cultural, arts and heritage institutions”. After weeks of lobbying, industry leaders have welcomed the emergency investment to ‘save the arts’. But few believe it is enough.


“What part of the arts is it going to save?” asks Jessica Brough, the founder and director of Fringe of Colour, a grassroots project working to make the Edinburgh Fringe Festival more accessible to young people of colour through free ticket schemes, spotlighting people of colour performers and a new online festival, Fringe of Colour Films. “It’s come way too late as all of these arts organisations and companies have laid off people, some places have shut down and a number of venues and performers may not be able to come back from financial losses incurred by insurance fees suffered when they weren’t able to close their doors at the beginning of lockdown.”
The government has yet to provide detail on what sums are going to be allocated to more established national and regional venues as well as local and amateur-run establishments. All have been grossly impacted by the pandemic. The venues that can reopen need to find a way to do so safely, while adhering to Covid-19 guidelines — and breaking a profit.
So theatre owners such as Andrew Lloyd Webber have looked to South Korea for answers. When theatres around the world closed down, live shows were allowed to go ahead there with audience members wearing masks and staff using PPE. A 15-day quarantine restriction applied to any theatre if a member of the audience or company developed symptoms, and venues set up systems to quickly contact and test all attendees and staff. The world tour of Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, held in a 1,600 seat theatre, was one of three major productions that ran throughout the pandemic, shuttering its doors for three weeks in April only when members of the cast fell ill. Impressively, the company was able to quickly test its 126-member cast and company, as well as the 8,578 audience members who had attended the production between March 15 and 31.
The lessons learned on tour, such as putting the front row at a 5.2 metre distance to avoid spit flying from actors, could influence measures that Webber plans to test out at London Palladium, one of his West End venues. With almost 2,300 seats, the Palladium has the biggest capacity of the seven London venues in the composer’s LW Theatres group and will is one of the UK’s first testbeds for coronavirus-proofing theatre.


“They have thermal imaging cameras at the stage door and as you come into the theatre. These can identify if people have temperatures extremely quickly,” Webber told BBC Radio 4 last month. “Airlines are also developing this and we’ve also ordered it. We’ve ordered silver ion self-cleaning door handles for our little tests, these are completely effective against pathogens like coronavirus for a long period of time. Everybody going into the theatre is fobbed with the antiviral chemical, which lasts 30 days.”
But can this work in the UK? It’s critical to note that South Korea’s death toll stands at 287, pretty dissimilar to the UK’s count of 44,602, at the time of writing. “The physical measures proposed may serve to reassure potential audience members to overcome the natural reluctance to attend events,” says Jeremiah. “However, their effectiveness in controlling the spread of the virus and allowing full-capacity audiences is far more dependent on rigorous tracing and analysis of infection pathways which will take time to demonstrate.”
The problem is that there’s still a lack of evidence with regards to infection pathways within public spaces; data we may only be able to gather over time as pubs and other establishments slowly re-open.
Webber has cited thermal imaging as an option, which would be the least disruptive way for audiences to still attend the theatre in a similar way to before the crisis. But numerous scientific studies have found thermal cameras to be ineffective at preventing the spread of infections like Covid-19, with security expert Bruce Schneier going as far as to describe it as “security theatre”. He argues that “temperature is a bad proxy for having the disease” considering that the difference between a normal body temperature and one caused by Covid-19 can be just one-degree celsius.
In the aviation sector, infrared temperature testing is more advanced, but the European Union Aviation Safety Agency reported that “between one per cent and 20 per cent of passengers would be missed by thermal screening equipment” while one per cent to 25 per cent of passengers could be wrongly flagged as having a temperature — the margin of error is huge. Recent government advice on temperature screening and aviation also outlines that “the current scientific evidence does not support temperature screening as an effective method to screen passengers for coronavirus”.
Thermal imaging cameras are expensive, and can range from a few hundred for handheld devices to tens of thousands for full-blown kiosk-style systems. If they can afford them, installation within a small theatre would be relatively simple, just a matter of rigging up a small camera to a screen. The main issue, freelance theatre lighting and production manager Tim Kelly says, would be the cost of having someone monitor the system (as well as the equipment itself).
Alongside having the staff to run the systems, theatres would have to figure out where and when they record body temperatures because the powerful lights used within productions can heat up auditoriums. “You’d have to consider scanning people on entry rather than during the show because there’s a huge amount of heat that comes off those lights and it would be difficult to get an accurate reading,” Kelly says.
Theatres are running out of time to decide whether they are going to reopen at all this year (or ever again). Even copying other countries – German theatres have removed seats from the theatre floor and scrapped intervals – may make productions unviable in the UK.
Adam Penford, the artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse, told the Guardian that his team had produced 25 different seating plans, none of which made any economic sense. Pantos are in peril this year, as audiences shouting “look behind you” are no longer going to be an option in a post-lockdown environment. For regional theatres that have lost almost all of their income during lockdown, the lack of Christmas pantos would mean permanent closure.
This weekend was crunch time for venues, as the first outdoor performances and indoor tests took place across the country from July 11. Test events included the London Symphony Orchestra at St Luke’s Church, Butlin’s holiday parks — and the London Palladium, where Lloyd-Webber put his tech to the test in the hopes of creating a blueprint for other theatres to follow suit. “It’s been absolutely awful to see everything that I’ve loved in my life gone,” Lloyd Webber told the BBC. “The theatres are my way of putting something back into the business that’s been so good to me. I want to prove they can be open.”
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told the Guardian

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