22 May 2020
What Next for Events & Theatre during sustained social distancing?
Published – 22nd May 2020
What Next for Events & Theatre during sustained social distancing? We know our industry needs urgent government support, but we wanted to talk about what we can do in this interim period. In late April, Gary and Zoe gathered together a diverse group of industry leaders to discuss the current challenges, the next stage of transition and what, if anything, we could collectively do to successfully engage with audiences; and help regenerate the industry whilst these social distancing challenges remain.
Read what was discussed here and a huge thanks to all of our amazing contributors.
Zoe Snow and Gary Beestone, Directors, Gary Beestone Events & Theatre (Chairs)
Emma Dagnes, Deputy CEO, Alexandra Palace
Ivan Youlden, Director, I & You Productions
Gavin Green, Senior Partner and Andy Hayles, Group Chair, CharcoalBlue
Colin Nightingale, Creative Producer, Punchdrunk International
Sara Donaldson, Director, Donaldson Creative
Bryan Raven, MD, White Light
James Seager, Director and Creative, Les Enfants Terribles
Terry Jardine, Group Chairman, Autograph
Nicola Blackford, Commercial Director, Secret Cinema
Sam Hunt, Director, SHUNT Culture
James O’Brien, CEO, Progress Productions
Mark Sherwood, Production Director, QDOS Entertainment
Introduction – The Current Situation
The industry is suspended in a state of limbo. Theatres are closed, entertainment venues have shut their doors, stadiums are empty and broadcast is on repeat.
Covid-19 has had a previously unimaginable impact on the events and theatre industry. The future of a world where social distancing may be required over a sustained period is making the industry and our audiences feel nervous and uncertain. It is obvious to everyone, that this isn’t a problem that can be immediately solved – events and theatre are shared experiences and the industry will only be able to fully return when social distancing is no longer required.
We wanted to talk about what we can do in this interim period.
On the 30th April 2020, Gary and Zoe gathered together a diverse group of industry leaders within events, theatre, immersive, film, TV, sport, venues and the arts, to discuss the current challenges, the next stage of transition and what, if anything, we could collectively do to successfully engage with audiences; and help regenerate the industry whilst these social distancing challenges remain.
Even since the meeting, so much has changed and many in the industry are already responding with creative projects and ideas and the health emergency continues to change on a daily basis and will do so for some time. This further illustrates that as an industry, our response whilst being practical and realistic, needs to remain positive, collective and adaptable.
There have also been many other brilliant webinars, task forces and articles being generated since the start of the crisis, as our peers respond to and start tackling many of the issues we face. It’s incredibly encouraging to see our industry as a whole look for positive solutions amidst the inevitable chaos the pandemic has created.
There are many questions and of course we didn’t come up with all the answers, but we discussed a range of challenges and possible ideas, approaches and considerations, to try and move ahead across the wider entertainment industry. We have also included useful reference links throughout.
What is the Industry already doing and how do we all find opportunities during this period of transition?
Everything we do is centred around gathering people together. Collectives of people wanting a shared experience. How they get to the performance, what happens when they arrive, where they sit or stand and everything and everyone they interact with has and will continue to be affected by social distancing for an indeterminate length of time.
What is this interim phase and what does it look and feel like?
Confidence was a key word that came up repeatedly across the session, as we began to explore the core challenges. How do we give audience members the confidence to buy a ticket? How do we make them feel safe and also be willing to take the risk to go ahead? As we face the biggest period of recession in all our life-times, will they even be able to afford to?
“We need a massive behavioural change – When will people be willing? We need to fundamentally change the way people are thinking…” Sam Hunt
Crucial in responding to this is the thinking about the challenges and considerations in marketing moving forwards:
“Audience members will need confidence in buying a ticket that the show will actually happen and that there are then safety measures in place. It will be interesting to see what customers and audience members are expecting following the re-opening of bars and restaurants and the measures they take to operate.” Nicola Blackford
It is clear we need to inspire confidence, for our audiences to know we have thought carefully about ways to get them together, at a curated experience, that brings them back as one in that desired collective and that feels safe for all.
Aside from the physical events or productions themselves, transport was a central consideration. Just getting our audiences to where they need to be remains immensely challenging and a huge factor during this transitional phase.
Before we even look at how we put on a show safely, how do we get the audience there?
“We are going to have issues accessing our audiences until Transport is able to make people feel confident to move around.” Colin Nightingale
The safe stated capacity of London tube and buses with social distancing is 10-15%. We all know this isn’t feasible to get the audience numbers we currently need, so what can we do or offer to address and try and overcome this issue?
Social distancing also presents the venues and productions themselves challenges at every turn; Logistics, queuing and social distancing, capacities, toilets and importantly the safety of the people; cast, crew and audiences. The list is endless. We are a highly creative and innovative industry – how can we modify systems and processes to get things moving within the current limitations? And how do we create a unified response? Is it even possible without government help?
Bryan Raven, MD of White Light, who joined us for this working group, has written this open letter aiming to raise awareness and to lobby for support for the industry and it’s crippled supply chain to the UK government, joining together the many individuals who have been fighting to raise a spotlight on the wider industry.
We need to protect and keep our supply chain going, to be able to respond quickly and also collectively look after our suppliers. The longer this transition continues, impacts to future budgets and schedules remain unknown and so it’s imperative we consider and support the supply chain any way we can.
Freelancers are at the heart of our industry and have also been severely affected – covering everyone from cast to crew at every level. How can we support them as we try and move ahead with our own planning?
The press and media coverage is both informative and often supportive but also can be detrimental. We need to write our own news stories here, as a collective – and ensure we don’t fall down a rabbit hole of negative press, with overwhelming stories with misinformation creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of an extended and fear filled suspension.
We are all digesting articles such as this, from The Guardian on the 15th May. “Theatres in High Jeopardy….” Do these create positive awareness that help is needed or are we talking ourselves into a negative self-defeating spiral? The Stage ran this article on the 20th May, documenting the DCMS enquiry into theatre and entertainment. This seemed to make ever clearer, that we need to work together and come up with solutions, but also that wider support must be considered.
Ultimately – People need people. And we, as an industry provide those magical moments that bring them together.
That remains our biggest challenge. How do we generate the emotion, the connection and the physical collective human experiences that are an intrinsic part of life and culture?
What can Venues do? Positive and practical options to operate during the transition
What are the physical changes we can make to venues to use them in a different way? Inevitably we discussed removing seats or operating at half capacity.
We talked about adding in extra performances to mitigate the financial implications of reduced capacities. Getting more people through, in smaller controlled groups with careful measures in place.
Removing all of the seats to create a standing only space for a different type of experience, that can have a higher turnover and process more people over a longer period, within social distancing guidelines.
These ideas are all possible, but it comes back to the bottom line and what venues and producers need to generate the required revenue to cover costs.
Two examples of this in action include:
A Massachusetts theatre is looking to operate within these restrictions in August.
Vue Cinemas are looking to reopen in July, incorporating social distancing as part of their operation.
But how sustainable is this? Is this a positive transitional plan, or a loss leader? And how are logistical items including toilets, staffing, queuing etc. addressed?
We can find solutions but are they financially viable?
• Let’s work with our Health and Safety experts to come up with safe ratios and plans
• Can we add in additional performances (can we use understudy casts?) to create more performances and generate more audience space to raise revenue?
Andy Hayles shared some really interesting intel regarding the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires. Information here on how they are trying to adapt their venue and programming to operate within this transitional phase. They are actively trying to tackle these issues and modify the way they operate to get their doors open again.
Content and Programming
As well as practical changes, we talked extensively around content.
Programming is key – Who is the target demographic, who will spend first, who will be worried about any risks, who will travel?
The Royal Court has stated that they may look into programming that is “reckless and radical,’ coming back again to the themes of confidence and the ability and willingness to travel and indeed spend. What kind of content are we producing or championing that will attract certain demographics to lead the way and ‘get back in the saddle?’
Do we look at small cast shows, two handers, stand up comics? Different ways to fill the stage and attract a demographic that is of the moment?
Content that we can generate helps programming to change. What is clear is that we need to make a change in content which can be flexibly applied. Is there content we can create that we help us deal and respond with the as yet unknown social distancing measures?
We also know that tourist numbers (especially in London) are non-existent and will stay this way for a while. It supports the programming argument – who are we targeting and what are we producing and presenting to survive and serve a captive and available market?
Social responsibility was also a hot topic of discussion. What can audiences do to play their part? How do we empower and encourage them to think, feel and behave differently – and work with us as take these tentative steps to getting the doors open again.
Flexibility was identified by many as a real step forward. Ticketing mechanics, refunds and exchanges and a more adaptive booking process will help give consumers the confidence to purchase tickets, knowing their money is safe if things need to change.
If we make changes and gave them the information they need to buy, confidently, it shows them we are looking ahead and giving them the much needed assurances they need.
What can Producers and Productions be doing?
Audience size and the break-even point from production costs against commercial revenue is a key driver in our decision making. Traditional events with audience sizes of 500+ (maybe lower) could be a long way from being a reality.
What can we learn from immersive theatre experiences?
“The model of immersive theatre we operated on Alice answered some of the questions. 15 people, every 15 minutes over 6 hours – but we will still need to get 800 people to the venue each day for our new production….” James Seager
We have to think creatively around programming to get the audiences back. Using a smaller cast or even multiple casts, reducing costs for increased performances to get the revenues up.
We all of course, also have a responsibility to the casts and crews. As well as solutions for audience management, we need to devise clear industry guidelines to operate productions, theatres and venues in safe and consistent ways.
Outdoor Events and Transport
In the past few weeks, production companies have already been looking at ways to remove the public transport issue by promoting drive in cinemas and exploring events that incorporate the safe “bubble” of a family car.
Drive through cinemas are a huge topic of conversation at the moment. Alexandra Palace were also very early to partner with the ENO to create a drive through theatrical experience – read more here on their collaboration with the ENO.
Can we look at ways to limit tube usage? Make cars or vehicles part of the show? Or stagger performance times to try and manage the journey of audience to venues at peak times. Can we include parking at our sites?
There is also lots of potential modelling to be done on existing experiences that could be worked up to include vehicles – Safari type experiences, outdoor immersive performance, light trails etc.
There is still work to be done around site infrastructure and safety in the logistics, but these are all parameters that can be incorporated and factored into the event budget and timeline planning. Can we be working with our freelance and supplier partners to share ideas, thoughts and best practice?
Large Scale Public Spectacles
It is impossible to avoid the need for a collective experience. Something that is bigger than us, something that is shared.
“Large scale public spectacle, with social distancing still in play. Can we go larger – so you don’t need to stand in a field together which brings people together in a different way?” Sam Hunt
Is it an installation? A light show? A far-reaching stunt that brings people together from their homes? It all comes back to programming and presenting content in a way which unites.
“What can we do? It’s down to us to brainstorm and see what we CAN do. Safely. This is how we can deliver an event.” Ivan Youlden
Marketing and Comms
We kept repeatedly coming back to two words – Confidence and Collective.
How are we telling our audiences that they will be safe? What will the event feel like and be like? What gives them reassurance?
Clear comms, with open and honest language that addresses the concerns of the audience is key, especially when tied in to a more flexible ticketing refund and exchange policy.
What can we learn from Sport?
We need collective experiences. What can we learn from sport here?
“The pressure for sport is different, it all relies on broadcast. We are looking to operate behind closed doors and that enables us to add more production. We need to create a communal experience with no one in the venue. Technology and interactivity through apps can help us with this.” James O’Brien
James and his team at Progress have launched ‘The Presenter’ an exciting new way for fans to feel part of a collective experience, from their homes with links to the stadium and action in play. This also resonates with the athletes in the stadium or see and hear reactions – in real time.
These kind of integrated tech solutions, help make the audience feel safe but also amplify their experience – and if done cleverly, can link into the athletes, or the performers on ‘stage’ and brings the connection closer to them too. It’s a mid-way point between the digital and live experience.
Broadcast and Streaming – Can we widen our reach?
“There are holes in the broadcast schedules. They are raiding the archive and sending out old content. There is potentially an opportunity for entertainment to get into the broadcast world to get the productions a bigger audience.” Ivan Youlden
TV commissioners are looking for content – studio shows that can operate without a live audience, family entertainment, a big shared TV moment or finale to the week. Can we tap into these opportunities and amplify our content? Not just on TV but online too?
Secret Cinema recently partnered with Hagan Dazs to launch Secret Sofa, to keep them close to their audiences. The recent ‘One World’ concert was streamed online and then via BBC in the UK and many future online concerts have been scheduled just this week including Take That and a Eurovision special on the 16th May.
Audiences do want more, however. Can we raise the production values rather than talent just using their phones? Can we use one location and produce something with the standards we are used to?
The work theatres have been doing include the National Theatre, Soho Theatre and The Globe and provide great archive access. But audiences do and will want more. The interactive element to programming and broadcast resonates really well with audiences, with the recent ABC Disney Family singalong getting huge press and now a second outing.
We believe many people in the industry have concerns around free content as an answer to the immediate response to the crisis… Does it set the wrong precedent / audience expectation moving forward?
“You can get access to high quality culture work for free – why would I now pay for a gig at Ally Pally?” Emma Dagnes
There is no question that there is the risk that if this continues for too long a period it ultimately undervalues the real cost of creating high quality artistic work and shared experiences. We don’t want to disconnect the audience from live experiences in the longer term.
How Can Technology and Interactivity be a positive extension?
Interactive apps connect the audience with the performer; it goes some way to bridging the gap of connection.
The gaming industry have been leading the way on this for years. What can we learn from them?
“Merging gaming and the immersive world within lockdown (and vr) should be explored.” James Seager
Travis Scott recently connected with 27.7 million fans when he performed a concert inside the game Fortnite. Artists are getting creative with their solutions to connect with their fans.
What content can we take online whilst keeping a direct connection to offer a more tailored and connective digital experience?
Whilst the group consisted of a wide range of people with different commercial and creative aims, reassuringly there were some clear areas of consensus that we hope everyone will take away from the discussion.
It is our hope that they will use what discussed in some way to create, develop and create projects which can engage audiences until social distancing is removed and we can truly start to create shared experiences again:
• We want to put on shows and makes things happen – it’s in our DNA
• It is our responsibility, as ambassadors for the industry talk positively and proactively.
• We need to collaborate.
• Programming will have to change this transition – whether it’s less actors or more performances.
• We have to integrate the programming requirements and content to help get the doors temporarily re-opened during the transition period.
• It is essential for the survival of our interconnected industry to work collectively, with our peers, our partners, our suppliers, our competitors and our freelancers to come up with solutions and ideas that bridge the gaps and factor in social distancing.
• We must inspire confidence to allow the collective experience to start being again.
• We need to write our own good news stories and advocate for support from government and investors positively.
We have pulled together a list of useful references and links to what some of our industry partners are doing to inform and hopefully inspire:
• The Event Safety Alliance Guide offers some brilliant thought leadership on tackling the planning of events during this transition: Link
• Want to use your skills and get involved? The event industry has been supporting during the crisis all over the UK and this amazing new start up is run by the industry to support wherever they can: Link
• SOLT are offering a range of webinars and support via Theatre Means Business: Link
• Accenture have produced an informative white paper on navigating and managing business impact: Link
• Eventbrite are offering resources and support here: Link
• BECTU have a support hub available here: Link
• Theatreartlife are offering a range of webinars and support: Link
• Guidance on the return of Sport detailed here: Link