All that makes everyone keen to open their doors again. The government furlough scheme has been widely adopted in the theater sector—the Kiln, for example, has put 12 out of 26 permanent staff on paid leave, plus 45 front-of-house workers on short-term contracts. But the program is scheduled to end on June 30. (The government has suggested it will gradually wind it down to avoid suddenly making huge numbers of people unemployed, but no firm announcements have been made.) Without it, life will be very hard for the casual staff who keep playhouses going—the ushers, box-office staff, and bartenders—as well as for the actors, writers, and directors who typically work as freelancers.
The industry’s more privileged members will be best placed to weather the crisis. “If you come from a low socioeconomic background, or are an immigrant working here and your life here is already quite precarious, you go: I can’t take the risk anymore,” the critic Lyn Gardner told me. The playwright Barney Norris says that his father, a professional pianist, told him when he became a writer that he should take notice of the number of his peers who dropped out in their early 30s, as they decided to start a family. “There comes a moment when people who have been living their dream say, ‘I'm going to stop living my dream; now I’m going to get a pension,’” he told me. “That might well happen to the entire planet now, regardless of their age.”
The real financial crunch point comes if the shutdown lasts beyond November, when most theaters open their Christmas show—in Britain, this is traditionally a pantomime or other family-friendly offering. At local theaters and in the West End, audiences often book tickets for the Christmas show as early as February, and grandparents bring their grandchildren, instilling a theater-going habit that might last a lifetime. The loss of that revenue, and that chance to introduce youngsters to play-going, would be hugely destructive across the sector. This, too, could make theater more rarefied, as casual visitors are turned off the art form.
There are also already signs that Rubasingham’s worries about risk aversion are well founded. The first major post-lockdown project announced by Sonia Friedman Productions, a West End powerhouse, is a revival of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, with its original star, Mark Rylance. It’s as close to a banker as any production can be: The original sold out and transferred to Broadway. “People will want to get those tickets,” Gardner said. “That gets them over the psychological hurdle of returning to the theater.”
Aside from beloved landmark productions, what else will people want to see? Will they hunger for escapism, for farces and comedies and lighthearted romps, or will they expect playwrights to address the aftermath of the pandemic? “Comedy is fine, but catharsis is essential,” says Michael Grandage, a director who runs a West End production company. “It doesn’t matter if we can gather in a room and laugh. To me, it’s more important that we can gather in a room and cry. Frankly you could watch Hamlet right now, and find lots of COVID dilemmas—a man feeling lost in the world.” Barney Norris said that, so far, all the artistic directors he had spoken with were trying to honor their existing commitments, which would create an “interesting tension” between pre- and post-coronavirus commissions when shows resume—one person I talked to said an existing, and overtly political, project now felt oddly dated. On top of all that, the Arts Council’s funding requirements now place “relevance” over “excellence” as the highest goal of British theater. Everyone is dreading the inevitable onslaught of work full of overwrought plague metaphors, and the possibility of stand-up comedy shows called Now Wash Your Hands.