OLIVER DOWDEN: People are waiting in the wings to get full shows back on at Christmas – only Operation Sleeping Beauty can bring back the magic of theatre for families this winter
In recent weeks, we’ve all been thinking and talking about the Proms. I for one can’t wait to be back in the Royal Albert Hall next year, singing Land Of Hope And Glory at full voice. I have very fond childhood memories of watching at home every year with my grandma, and hope to be one of the first through the doors next year.
To get audiences back into our venues in much larger numbers though, we’re going to have to innovate and be bold to save the things we love.
Since March, theatres, music, comedy and other live performance venues have been in a fight for survival, battling first the reality of lockdown and then trying to navigate the significant obstacles presented by social distancing.
When coronavirus first hit, I promised to stand by the arts; my department subsequently unveiled a world-beating, £1.57 billion rescue package to see them through the crisis.
Officials are working on ‘Operation Sleeping Beauty’ which aims to bring back theatre this Christmas. Pictured: The Royal Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty at The Royal Opera House
When public health experts were concerned about the return of live performances of singers and wind and brass players, saying they were potentially too high-risk without extended social distancing, I sought a second opinion.
We funded a scientific study to examine the transmission risks associated with singing or playing those instruments.
When the study showed those activities posed no higher risk than shouting or speaking, we scrapped the extra restrictions and performers were back on stage together within days. A three-metre distance became one metre-with-mitigations overnight.
I was at Glyndebourne that week, and heard how the difference between requiring three metres, two metres and one metre of social distancing between artists on stage gave them more freedom to perform. And we’re going to keep doing more.
Mass indoor events are now in my sights. Socially-distanced audiences have been allowed since mid-August, and it’s great to see organisations like the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and musicals like Sleepless – A Musical Romance, back up and running again.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden also writes that we have to innovate and be bold to save the things we love and get audiences back into venues
But we need to start filling seats in much larger numbers – not just for the audiences, not just for the venues and livelihoods who depend on them, but for the entire urban economy, too. Theatre is a lynchpin of London’s West End and its absence is painfully reflected in its deserted streets.
Innovation is key. It has the ability to rewrite the entire script, and I’m keen to take some of the best experimental ideas for getting people into our theatres safely and put them into practice. It could be using technology to improve ventilation in venues, as used in the pilots at The London Palladium and other theatres.
Or using the saliva tests being trialled by Southampton University, which Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is looking at rolling out for performers and their families. Testing is the short-term key until we find a working vaccine. We’re making exciting advances in quick turnaround testing, where on-the-day coronavirus tests could give people who test negative a pass to visit the theatre that evening.
These technologies are still emerging, but we will throw everything at making them work.
We’ve got to consider every idea, and back several horses.
We’ll also need organisers who can take on this challenge.
Mr Dowden also writes that he can’t wait to be back at the Royal Albert Hall (pictured) next year
There are people waiting in the wings to get full performances back on during the crucial Christmas period – and I want to support them.
My officials are working on ‘Operation Sleeping Beauty’ which aims to bring back some of the magic of theatre for families this Christmas, and I hope to share more progress soon.
At the same time, we’re learning from those around us.
OTHER countries are beginning to experiment. Germany is holding scientific studies on crowded venues – recently hosting three music events with 1,500 participants, and using testing and hygiene and safety measures to investigate the risks posed by those mass indoor events. We will watch those trials carefully and seek to learn from them.
I won’t allow the UK to be a laggard in the race to return live theatre. If we cherish the hustle and bustle of our cities and our vibrant urban economy, then we need to show our cultural organisations and businesses support now.
We cannot guarantee plain sailing, and as with any part of reopening after lockdown, we cannot guarantee zero risk.
That’s just as true when people sit next to each other on planes. But as with flying, we can minimise the threat and help adults find ways to feel a sense of normality – whether it’s by getting on a plane, enjoying a half-price meal out (as 100 million did last month), or, indeed, by visiting the theatre.