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When the Intermission Ends in England…



The future of Broadway still feels uncertain, with even the earliest estimates of a return being Spring 2021. Fortunately, on the other side of the Atlantic there are examples of how the British theater—or should I say theatre?—community is planning to reopen their stage doors.

Make no mistake: the theater sector there is greatly affected as well, with a report by the Creative Industries Federation projecting losses of around $3.8 billion in revenue and up to 70% of industry jobs lost. Even a juggernaut like The Phantom of the Opera is not immune to its effects. The 33-year-long West End production has had a journey, originally to be permanently closed indefinitely and then uncancelled and then confirmed to quickly return and “even better than before” according to the show’s composer Andrew Lloyd Webber after signing a new 50-year lease extension. 

The problem itself lies in the inherent limitations of these theaters. “As we know, theater can’t work with social distancing — it just simply can’t” says Lloyd Webber who recently participated in a COVID vaccine trial in order to encourage the UK theater scene to return to normalcy. 

Andrew Lloyd Webber

Andrew Lloyd Webber

Three-time Olivier Award winning set designer Es Devlin asks questions that echoes Webber’s sentiments: 

“West End theatre buildings occupy the most central city locations and yet are only open to the public for around three hours on most days. Their architecture still expresses a time when it was socially acceptable for those on lower incomes to be funnelled through their own separate entrance. We’ve been asking: could they be altered, in the same way that Victorian and Edwardian housing is so regularly remodelled, to give more direct access from the stage to the street?”

John McAslan, architect of London’s The Roundhouse points out that “[t]he West End is full of wonderful historic theatres, but they’re now completely outmoded. People are four inches taller than when they were built, so the seats are too small, the sight lines are terrible and a huge number of seats are restricted by columns. The air is bad and the loos and bars are always too small to cope. With the government’s funding announcement, now is the time to make them fit for purpose.”

Emulating that, the 2,300 seat theater London Palladium now has $300,000 in equipment from South Korea which includes “thermal imaging cameras that survey the audience, self-cleaning door handles, contactless thermometers and disinfecting fogging machines.” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden personally inspected these procedures and praised the “very comprehensive safety measures in place.”

As many major English theater companies are struggling to stay afloat, innovation is happening locally as well. In the city of Leeds in Northern England, local community theatre troupe Slung Low hosted family-friendly performances on a flatbed truck complete with socially distant blue tents with two chairs. 

Photo by Alan Lane

To assist with the recovery of theaters both large and small, in early July the British government approved a $1.96 billion arts sector support package after months of lobbying by unions and industry organizations. This long-awaited deal includes nearly $1 billion in grants which will be shared between theaters, music venues, heritage sites, museums, galleries and independent cinemas as well as funds going to national cultural institutions, repayable loans and construction at cultural sites. 

Additionally, beginning Saturday, August 15th, indoor performances with socially distanced audiences began to be permitted across England with permission from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Creative solutions to programming are being proposed as a Ralph Fiennes-starring world premiere production of “Beat the Devil,” a monologue play complete with stringent safety measures and reduced capacity seating, is awaiting approval. 

No matter what happens on the West End, it can be assured that the Broadway community will be observing across the pond and taking detailed notes. 

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