I have been thinking a lot lately about theatre. About being in an audience in a theatre, about performing in front of an audience. And I miss it. All of it.
But as much as I miss it, I don’t want to rush back. We must make sure that re-opening is organized, and that audiences feel safe. And that’s the challenge. Because audiences are often crammed together, and it would not take much to make that audience uncomfortable. We haven’t been sitting in rooms close together for over a year, and so that’s something that we need to relearn. I imagine an audience packed into the theatre for the first time in almost 2 years, and as the lights begin to dim…someone begins to cough.
That used to be nothing to us. A smattering of coughs as the lights dim was just part of a night at the theatre. But now? I think it will be a while before our audiences are so nonchalant about a cough.
So what does a full return to the theatre look like? Can we just throw open the doors and hope for the best? That’s probably not a great idea. Because we’ve been distancing for over a year, our audiences likely won’t be ready to sit shoulder to shoulder, for our audience’s comfort, we’ll probably have to ease them back into the theatre.
So how can theatres, operating at a reduced capacity, possibly thrive? Is theatre operated in this way a money-losing venture? Unless we embrace some of the technologies we’ve utilized during the pandemic, then yes.
A wise option for theatres would be installing cameras, investing in good internet, live stream performances, and offering a digital ticket. And we should continue to do this, even after theatres open to full capacity. There are lots of great reasons to offer digital tickets, such as being able to share our amazing theatre with the rest of the world (and with the rest of the country), as well as reducing the ableism inherent in requiring people to come to the theatre (many of which are not accessible spaces).
There will be plenty of well-intentioned people who will declare that live-streamed theatre will be the death of theatre. But I don’t believe they are correct. We are drawn to gather together to be entertained. Radio, television, home video, and even streaming platforms did not kill the movies. We are still drawn to go to the movies when we could wait to see it on video or streaming. But some films just have to be seen in the theatre, with other people to really experience.
Others will say that having watched a play in a live stream, no one will want to see it in person. And I am certain that’s not true. After all, we watch movies we love over and over. Not only do we listen to our favourite musicians over and over, but we will pay to see them perform live. To sing the very songs we listen to over and over. That’s why a digital ticket isn’t the death of theatre. Because many of the digital audience will see the show and then want to experience it in person. I saw Hamilton on Disney+, but I would choose to see it in person in a heartbeat. I watched The Grinning Man on Youtube, but I would absolutely see it again in person given the chance.
We have a road ahead of us for re-opening our theatres, and it may be a long one. But we have an opportunity to remake our theatres and our theatre experiences, to grow our potential audiences, and to remove barriers.
So much possibility.