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A socially distanced trip to the theatre

Recent weeks have seen a number of English theatres beginning to reopen their doors for the first time since March. So, what might we see on a trip to the theatre in this new ‘Covid-safe’, socially distant world?

Firstly, and probably unsurprisingly, you’ll be queuing to get in. Theatre bars will probably not be open, and you might be given a specific arrival slot to minimise queuing at the door, where your temperature may be taken. You might be able to order snacks in advance with pre-booked bags of food left at your seat for when you arrive. You’ll certainly be given strict instructions not to show up if you’re experiencing any symptoms of Covid-19, in which case you’ll be allowed to rebook your ticket for another time. 

Covid-safe theatre will probably also mark the end of physical tickets. This might upset souvenir ticket-collectors, but was also probably only a matter of time – paper tickets aren’t great for the environment either. Instead, you’ll have your ticket on your phone or have printed it yourself to be scanned on your way in.

So once you’ve arrived in your designated slot, you’ll sanitise your hands on the way in, and be greeted by staff in face masks, or visors. Unless exempt, you’ll wear a face covering the whole time you’re in the venue. Cloakrooms won’t be open to minimise the number of people handling your belongings. 

Moving from the front entrance to your seat, there will be a clear one-way system in the venue, and you’ll be expected to maintain social distancing of 1m plus at all times from anyone not in your household or support bubble. In line with current government guidelines, you’ll be able to make bookings for up to six people from up to two households.

How you’ll be socially distanced once in the auditorium will probably vary from venue to venue. Southwark Playhouse have installed see-through screens in between every group, like the ones you might have seen on shop counters. Other theatres have chosen less intrusive methods, such as clearly demarcating which seats must be left empty. Of course, you’ll only be able to sit in your designated seat, even though capacity will probably be reduced by about 50 per cent. 

In all likelihood, Covid-safe theatrical performances will either have only one act, or won’t have an interval, to minimise the number of people wandering around the theatre. Whilst you’re in the auditorium, theatre staff will be cleaning touch-points. 

So, now that you’re sat down, what are you likely to be watching?

One of the biggest restrictions for what shows can be put on will be keeping the cast socially distant. Some venues have gotten around this by casting actors who are already in the same household. Chances are, it’ll be a long time until we see large-ensemble shows returning. Directors will have to be careful to make sure that singers aren’t so close to the front of the stage that they might spit on the people in the front row. 

Interestingly, given the government’s support for pantomimes to open this Christmas, shows which encourage audiences to shout or sing along are being strongly discouraged – no more booing or hissing to avoid potentially spreading droplets. Perhaps we’ve finally seen the end of bringing children on stage at the end of pantomimes too (not something I think many people will mourn).

Offstage, crew members, directors and stage managers will have to maintain strict social distancing. This will mean one-way systems backstage that might also make an actor’s exits and entrances less slick. Government guidelines at the moment also say that up-close face-to-face work shouldn’t happen if it can be avoided, so shows with insane quick-changes and ensemble members with multiple roles might struggle to make things work as they used to. 

As the show finishes, there will be no whooping and hollering during bows, and then you’ll be directed by staff to leave the auditorium in an orderly fashion that avoids crowding in hallways and entrances. If you’re the kind of person who likes to wait at the stage door, it’s probably going to be a long time until that’s allowed again. 

The Scottish government hasn’t released a lot of guidance about what a trip to a Scottish theatre might look like, so at the moment the Westminster government guidelines are the best we’ve got. Being on the Committee for the Edinburgh University Theatre Company has given me an interesting insight into how these guidelines might impact a trip to a student theatre too. So far, it’s looking like Bedlam will have a massively reduced capacity, strict social distancing on stage and backstage, one way systems and hand sanitiser, although no one is quite sure when we’ll be opening at all. 

This sounds like a lot of rules, but in all honesty, we’ve all done a lot of adapting to the ‘new normal’ in the last six months, and we’ve seen similar rules come into place in cinemas without the world imploding. As much as wearing a face mask might be annoying, anything that gets performers and theatre staff back to work has got to be a good thing. 

Image: Financial Times via Eyevine