A newsletter crowdsourced with contributions from the FMTW team.
If we imagine theatre at its most utopian - an empathetic space where cultures can be shared equitably, stories exchanged with passion and imaginations ignited - then we must also imagine them to be welcoming, generous and open. This is a simple kind of utopia, right?
Yet, as we return to the possibilities of venues opening and Government guidelines being seriously relaxed across England those who open these spaces are left with many questions.
How are we generous with each other and everyone involved in the reopening of theatres? How do we recognise the work that goes into welcoming an audience and who else this could put at risk? How do we make sure our spaces feel welcoming to as many people as possible? And, more specifically, how do we balance concerns for those who want audiences to remain in masks with those who don’t mind unmasking?
The reality is that front of house staff are among the most vulnerable in our industry. Underpaid, often working zero hours contracts (so technically not freelancers, but with easily comparable precarity), they were among the first to lose their jobs when the pandemic hit.
Now that theatre is returning they have a higher risk of contracting COVID, given that many of them are young and may have only received one vaccination, and they will bear the brunt of our society trying to figure out what our new standards of courtesy and safety are for each other.
If audience members choose to police the wearing or not wearing of masks, when tensions erupt it is the front of house staff who will have to step in. How do we keep audiences safe? And, how do we keep the people we depend on to interact with audiences, to usher them into theatre, safe, both physically and emotionally?
Choice is a complex problem. None of us would attempt to tell anyone what to think about Covid, we do not have access to or a comprehensive understanding of all of the data, and we are certainly not here to promote a specific roadmap to reopening - just to ask that whatever the roadmap is that it considers the safety, sanity and livelihoods of the most precarious amongst us.
However, if the Government has passed on the responsibility of safety to the venues we collaborate with and they leave the personal safety choices up to individual audience members - masks, physical distancing, testing - we do have to consider how welcoming this is, in real terms. We all know that written policy differs greatly from lived experience, this is no different.
Research demonstrates that a majority of people want mask wearing in indoor spaces. They have evidence that mask wearing works in that it reduces the likelihood of COVID infections. But the Government are still choosing to abdicate responsibility and put venues in the crossfire between people who want to return to seeing theatre but are scared of the consequences of catching COVID, and people who don’t believe the pandemic is significant.
The Government’s response so far been to suggest that the most vulnerable simply curtail their lives in what We Shall Not Be Removed have called a ‘two tier reopening of society’.
This is not good enough. Not if we still believe theatre can be the utopia mentioned above.
So in a world of change, how do we balance the welcome?
How do we create spaces where the vulnerable are centred and different needs are met, including the financial repercussions of the pandemic? How do we hold all of it, without being defensive and in the realisation that now matter how hard we work, we may not solve it? How are we kind with people who are acting out of fear without endangering ourselves? And, how do we avoid stagnating ourselves with shame for not being able to untangle such a complicated knot?
Perhaps hope comes in the form of hybrid living, resisting either/or thinking, and acknowledging that different needs require different approaches, for example Chichester Festival Theatre offering performances with both full capacity AND physically distanced seating arrangements for those who will feel safer in this arrangement. Giving audiences clear guidelines to make the choices they need.
Of course, to those who drive the change towards and work in accessible theatre this thinking won’t be new and there is so much to be learned from those who have embraced this kind of varied welcome for decades. In many ways it is not complicated. It is about listening, working with care and recognising that remaining flexible makes the space more open to everyone.
We can only hope that the front of house staff are being offered the same range of choices and where they are not, we as freelancers must stand beside them as part of the workforce so crucial to ensuring the show goes on because it is in this coming together that we all feel safer, challenge the precariousness of our way of life and ensure that our spaces are truly welcoming to many.