Coronavirus in London keeps most theaters closed, as performers fill grocery store shelves

LONDON – In the golden theaters of the world’s most popular theater district, most of the marquee lights are still dark.

Since the government ordered London stages closed seven months ago, only a handful of theaters have dared to announce reopening plans – with limited series, limited casts and a socially distant audience scattered throughout the seats. Producers say ticket sales will barely cover the electric bill.

The impact of the persistent restrictions has been catastrophic for London’s creative class. An estimated 290,000 people work in the theater here – on stage and behind the scenes – and many have had to seek paychecks where they can. Actors on leave fill the shelves of grocery stores. Musicians drive nails at construction sites.

“It’s tough,” said top producer Nica Burns, whose company, Nimax, operates six theaters in London’s West End. “It’s not just a job. It’s a lifestyle choice.

The Garrick Theater is among those hoping for a limited reopening in November, if government restrictions allow.

The Lyceum Theater has suspended performances at least until January. (Photos by Tori Ferenc for the Washington Post)

LEFT: The Garrick Theater is among those hoping for a limited reopening in November, if government restrictions allow. RIGHT: The Lyceum Theater has suspended performances at least until January. (Photos by Tori Ferenc for the Washington Post)

She said that for the artists and the crew, “it’s very difficult emotionally and for some mentally” to be denied the spark of a paying live audience.

Burns called it the worst of times and noted that London theaters remained open during WWII. To find a similar closure? She suggested looking at the 16th century plague.

Emma De Souza, spokesperson for the Society of London Theater, said that at a grocery store in Sainsbury in east London there were so many West End artists working “you can hear singing in the aisles “.

Actor Paul Valentine is among those who have been stocking shelves since the lockdown.

“It’s been an interesting old year,” said Valentine, 32, who toured last year with a “Wuthering Heights” production.

He said he missed performing in front of a live audience, especially since he loved comedic roles where “just a little twitch and you can make a bunch of people laugh out loud. Without an audience you wouldn’t. can’t do that It’s a shame you don’t get this buzz.

A man walks past a closed ticket booth on Rupert Street. (Tori Ferenc for the Washington Post)

In July, the British government announced $ 2 billion in grants and loans to struggling arts institutions. Over $ 400 million has been distributed to nearly 2,000 organizations to date.

But industry representatives say not much of that money goes to freelancers – about 70 percent of those working in theater and a good chunk of those affiliated with other performing arts.

Hundreds of independent musicians took to Parliament Square in October to highlight the plight of the music industry. The impromptu orchestra played 20% of “Mars” by Gustav Holst – lasting 90 seconds – to symbolize that eligible freelancers can claim a maximum of 20% of their income through government support programs.

“I really miss playing with other people,” said Barry Clements, 30, a trombonist who has been with the “Les Miserables” pit orchestra for six years. “Bounce off the other players and the audience and play for the audience. That’s the beauty of it – we all love what we do.

He hopes to join his bandmates in December, when “Les Miserables” is due to return for a limited time of six weeks – assuming the growing number of government restrictions still allow it.

“We’re all anxious to come back and hopefully get back to some sort of reality, even if for a short time,” Clements said.

The musical “Les Misérables” hopes to return for a limited time of eight weeks to a socially distant audience in December.

Old seats are piled up in front of the Duchess Theater. (Photos by Tori Ferenc for the Washington Post)

LEFT: The musical “Les Misérables” hopes to return for a limited time of eight weeks to a socially distant audience in December. RIGHT: Old seats are stacked in front of the Duchess Theater. (Photos by Tori Ferenc for the Washington Post)

For now, he works as a laborer, ripping off flooring and installing items for his father’s construction business. One of his friends from the West End is now a delivery driver, another has become a lifeguard.

Cynthia Duberry, 44, a seasoned director who has worked in the industry for 20 years, works in a grocery store.

She said one of the things she missed the most was the half hour before a show opened.

“This sound, from the incoming audience, is one of my favorite moments,” she said. “I’m on stage, just before I put the show back to the front of the house, you stand there, everything is set up, the rustle, that lovely moment before these two worlds meet.”

Empty changing rooms at the Garrick Theater.

Strict social distancing will be in place if the Garrick Theater can reopen in November. (Photos by Tori Ferenc for the Washington Post)

LEFT: Empty changing rooms at the Garrick Theater. RIGHT: Strict social distancing will be in place if the Garrick Theater can reopen in November. (Photos by Tori Ferenc for the Washington Post)

Last year, London theaters performed for 15.3 million people (more than a million Broadway), which grossed $ 1 billion at the box office.

Today the streets of the West End are empty. Bistros and bars that would have been crowded with theater crowds, gulping down a last trick or a quick bite, rushing around 7:30 p.m. curtain, are struggling.

David Pugh, a West End and Broadway theater producer, said he was struck by the calmness of his neighborhood. His apartment overlooks Shaftesbury Avenue, which hosts shows including the hit “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”.

“I no longer need double glazing,” he says. There is not much noise for the windows to block.

Some in the industry have been enraged by the suggestion that they give up the arts and find permanent jobs in other industries.

Small-cast productions, such as “Six”, a musical about the wives of Henry VIII, have had a better chance of reopening. (Tori Ferenc for the Washington Post)

A government-backed poster suggesting that a ballet dancer could pursue a career in cybersecurity landed with a particular thud. Of course, dancers retire young and seek a second career, whether or not the world is in the midst of a pandemic. But the British Culture Secretary admitted that making it work in the current environment was “”coarse. “

Caroline Jay Ranger, theater manager, said: “They want to invest the money to recycle us to do something else, when we are only doing theater – it’s the set builders, the electricians, the master carpenters, wig designers ”and they are all“ specialists, specialists ”.

Summer has offered a bit of a respite for the arts in Europe, especially in outdoor venues, such as the Salzburg Music Festival. But now time has forced everyone to come home, at the same time the cases of the novel coronavirus are increasing exponentially in Europe and the United States.

Broadway decided that was too much to take on – New York theaters will likely remain closed until at least May.

Of the 80 or so theaters in London, 10 have announced their opening or will try to reopen from the end of October, even if they have to operate at a loss, with a smaller and socially distant audience. The Royal Ballet also plans to resume public performances in early November.

The biggest musicals have to sell 80-85% of the tickets to break even; strict social distancing often means they can race 30 to 40 percent.

The scene is repainted at the Garrick Theater. Many theater crew members have had to find work elsewhere since the initial closures in March. (Tori Ferenc for the Washington Post)

Andrew Lloyd Webber has said that social distancing at a London performance hall is, financially, “impossible”. He pointed out that although his hit musical “Phantom of the Opera” was shut down in London over the summer, it ran into sold-out rooms in South Korea without social distancing. Instead, the Korean storefront had hygienic door handles, thermal cameras to spot feverish customers, and other strict hygiene measures.

In London, the first major musical to return was “Sleepless in Seattle”, a stage version of the romantic comedy by Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. The cast and crew were tested for coronavirus daily, the director removed the kiss, and the theater’s capacity was reduced from 1,200 to 400. Spectators wore masks, observed a one-way system, and had their seats taken. inlet temperature.

“People around the world were watching us intently,” said producer Michael Rose, who did not break even on the show but said “proving it can be done”.

“There were standing ovations every night,” he said. “I feel like we are offering some kind of therapy and I feel very privileged if that was the case.”

With the theaters closed, the generally bustling West End is quiet. (Tori Ferenc for the Washington Post)


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