Being one of the hardest hit industries, when will theatres reopen?

With restrictions starting to ease around the nation there has been a weary yet optimistic approach to Australia’s COVID-19 reopening plan. Australians are treading into unchartered territory with the prospect of going back to work, after many months of government-enforced quarantine restrictions.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has highlighted his three-step plan, in agreement with the National Cabinet, to have the country ‘mostly’ reopened by July.

3 Step Framework for a COVID Safe Australia – Australian Department of Health

Step one is now well underway and sees up to five visitors at home and ten in business and public places. This stage dubbed the ‘cautious stage’ continues to encourage people to work from home, if possible and sees the reopening of restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, boot camps, libraries, community centres, playgrounds, and the movement of local and regional travel.

Each stage will be closely monitored and divided by ‘cooling-off’ periods in order for medical experts to assess and control Australia’s COVID-19 growth factor, with the goal of keeping it below 1.

Step two will allow up to 20 people in your home or business and in public places. This phase continues to encourage remote working from home and sees the reopening of gyms, beauty salons, cinemas, galleries, amusement parks, caravan and camping grounds and also some interstate travel.

Step three will allow gatherings of up to 100 people, encouraging most people to return to their normal workplace and see the reopening of nightclubs, food courts, sauna s, all interstate travel and the potential cross Tasman/Pacific Island bubble to begin. Mr Morrison hopes to achieve this phase by July, if everything goes to plan.

With second waves of COVID-19 starting to be seen in the northern provinces of China and parts of Europe, the threat of a second lockdown could send us racing back to square one and starting all over again. The economic burden caused by this, coupled with the damage that has already been done, would be severe. National Cabinet ministers have echoed the dangers of not reopening the economy against the persistent threat of coronavirus and have ensured there would be diligent action taken in detecting and containing any emerging COVID-19 clusters.

So where does this place the theatre and the arts?

The Federal Government’s guidelines provide very little comfort for many large scale arts organisations, venues and audiences. The majority of arts organisations will be classified as ‘higher risk businesses’ due to the close proximity of patrons and the increased risk of coronavirus transmission within enclosed spaces.

In the UK, the British parliament has suggested that certain sporting and cultural events could be held ‘behind closed doors’, meaning that they would go ahead without any audience and be broadcast instead. Whilst this may be possible for major sporting events such as the Premier League, it would be impossible for commercial theatre to breakeven without a live audience and the revenue they bring. With major musicals requiring at least 80-90% capacity to be financially profitable, the writing is on the wall that social distancing measures in venues seating 1000+ simply doesn’t equate to breaking even. In a recent interview, Michael Cassel told Aussie Theatre that “we [Michael Cassel Group] need to wait for the time when gatherings of 1,500 people are permitted” before re-opening the doors to his production Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Sir Cameron Mackintosh

Referring to the ongoing need for social distancing, acclaimed British theatre producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh recently said: “it doesn’t add up financially” and Australian producer John Frost said, “if I’m honest, I can’t see a musical happening until the second half of next year”.

To complicate matters, when the time does come for National Cabinet to consider reopening large scale events, will the public perception of the obvious health risks weigh down on a producers decision to stage a large scale production? Only time will tell.

As reported by The Telegraph (UK), industry insiders are targeting a northern hemisphere’s autumn time frame to reopen. Broadway has recently extended their shutdown until September 6 but has not scheduled a new reopen date. With London’s Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the brink of insolvency and Sydney’s Carriageworks filing for administration, one thing is for certain – if the lockdown continues beyond 2020, even large scale theatre operators will struggle to stay afloat.

When millions of dollars of investor money is at stake, the risk/benefit ratio of staging a large scale touring production becomes increasingly uncertain. Under the new guidelines, it is unclear how theatres would be permitted to re-open at any point without accepting a drastic reduction in audience numbers.

Deloitte Access Economics latest employment forecast report suggests that the hospitality and arts sector, which have been the hardest industries hit by the pandemic, may not bounce back to their pre-COVID positions until 2026.

This gloomy outlook may be mitigated as the global race for a vaccine is well underway. With nations around the world scrambling for the trophy of developing the first COVID-19 vaccine, there appears to be promising results from big pharmaceutical companies including AstraZeneca and Massachusetts based American biotech company Moderna. The biggest issue the world will face will be profits and pride for the winning nation and the challenges in producing enough doses for billions of people.

Photo Credit: Daniel Boud

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