How do we adapt theatres for the future?

Olivia Miller
Picture by Rob Laughter, Unsplash

In the Government’s latest announcement (23 June 2020), it was clarified that UK theatres can re-open on 4 July 2020, but live performance will not yet be permitted. Dermot O’Brien, an expert in theatre performance and business at the School of Arts, has commented on the implications of this news and how smaller and local theatres could play a vital role in the return of live performance following COVID-19. He said:

‘The latest announcement that theatres can re-open, but not for live performance, is disappointing. Live performance IS Theatre, why would people want to leave the safety of their homes to don a mask, sitting in isolation, watching a recorded streamed production in a theatre? How many theatres could even facilitate this? Certainly not small, local community ones. Make no mistake, despite a task force looking at the obvious on re-engineering auditoriums for the new one metre-plus social distancing rule and the use of facemasks and temperature testing on entry, Theatre will never be able to survive without large audience numbers as in the past. Several have already gone into administration with the loss of hundreds of jobs, billions of pounds lost in revenues and the consequential source of tax income. The theatre as we know it is in big trouble. It needs a bespoke, quick package to protect the talent – covering both the employed and the freelance.’

How can Theatre re-build?

‘What we can do is work in ways that reflect the pandemic. Create local, smaller working approaches, using bar areas and studio spaces to work with audience groups. We can also try more immersive, although socially distanced, working in new and different spaces, using the bubble approach to maintain safety.

‘Why don’t we use new ways of working to develop a ‘new look theatre’ for the future? We need to find safe spaces and ways of working to get the material ready for when we can start to perform again, so let’s use the smaller and the local to our advantage.

‘We know talent comes from the small scale and fringe, but the majority of funding from Arts Council England targets the large organisations, believing it’s a ‘trickle down’ rather than a ‘struggle up’. We need to re-adjust, looking to the small, local groups who are often still active through the pandemic and supporting new and diverse talent. We talk of diversity and yet our theatres tend to look quite monochrome in product and management. Let’s put the majority of subsidy into the talent rather than the organisation and let’s encourage voices from different sections of our society so that audiences can engage better with the work. Let’s use the able and disabled from every background and use this disaster as a springboard to a better theatre of the future.’

Dermot O’Brien is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Arts. His practice is in Theatre performance, Directing and Producing. Mixing business and arts has been a constant pleasure for Dermot and he is a member of the Institute of Directors, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.He has directed seasons at theatres such as Wimbledon and The Mermaid, where he also produced critically acclaimed versions of King Lear, Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet and Measure for Measure in repertory.

The University’s Press Office provides the media with expert comments in response to topical news events. Colleagues who would like to learn more about how to contribute their expertise or how the service works should contact the Press Office on 3985 or