Phil Willmott

Can We Really Make Theatre Future-Proof?

The Vertical Theatre I always enjoy it when a project is described as “future-proof”, delighted that the organizers envision it holding its permanence in any dystopian sci-fi scenario you care to think of.

Last Friday I came across the term applied to a theatre project in a press announcement, for the first time. I suspect we’ll start hearing it a lot more and very soon, as theatre makers emerge from lock down having had weeks to consider how their work can survive and flourish no matter how our response to Covid shifts.

The background to all this is that so far open air theatre has been allowed to happen in every protective tier of social distancing except lock down. This because it’s considered to be relatively safe in comparison with being packed, shoulder to shoulder, with strangers in the confined space of conventional venues.

I’ve taken advantage of this myself and got away with staging a Hamlet this year because I specifically conceived it to be performed out on the Thames riverbank. As I also mentioned last week, this encouraged me to set up an all–weather theatre space, The Rotherhithe Playhouse. It’s heated and under-cover whilst being open at the sides for air to circulate around seating, all configured to allow household bubbles to sit a meter a part from others. We managed to do a week of Christmas Carol performances before this current lock down forced us all to return home and stay there.

However, back to Friday, when a headline in The Stage newspaper announced that a tourable pop-up venue, allowing for social distancing, would provide a “future-proof” live performance space when it launches later this year.

It works on the same roof-but-no-walls model as my little playhouse but on a much grander scale. If the architect’s drawings and the promo video are anything to go by it’s going to be a magnificent towering beast that can be erected when ever and where ever there’s a demand to see shows and concerts. It has ramps up the side to each level of the auditorium to do away with the crowded front entrances of traditional foyers. This does, I’m afraid, give it the appearance of a multi-story car park but fortunately it’s decorated with panels in jaunty colors to make it look more inviting.

It’ll be called The Vertical Theatre and it’s the brainchild of the newly formed Vertical Theatre Group, comprising of Stufish Entertainment Architects and figures from the arts and entertainment world.

But are they right to claim it can guarantee the “new future of live entertainment” when it’s cloned and replicated across the land?

I must say I can see a few reasons why it won’t.

Firstly the weather. I’ve been making open-air theatre for twenty years and no one should underestimate the ferocity of the UK climate and quite how biting the weather can be for most of the year. Even if there’s 1,200 – 2,400 warm bodies in the audience and management can somehow afford to pump warm air at us (surely the perfect conditions for spreading a virus) sitting still to watch a show with nothing between you and the cold damp air to the side of you is going to be an endurance test that only the fittest can manage for very long.

Don’t believe me? OK find a room with no central heating and sit still in it for twenty minutes I doubt you can without your teeth chattering, and that’s with walls. Trebling the misery will give you a sense of how much worse it would feel if the sides were open to the elements.

Or, if they can manage to heat us I’m afraid it’s going to be equally uncomfortable, as you’ll discover if you try sitting still, in a heated room but next to a wide open window.

I also worry that if the countries going to be peppered with these pop-up towers and if the company are right and theirs is the most credible future for live entertainment, what’s going to become of our beautiful existing venues? Will all the work and thought that’s going into making them Covid safe have been wasted? I can imagine ill feeling towards these utilitarian flat-pack towers if, say, a beautiful much loved Edwardian jewel box theatre is left to rot up the road.

And, if there’s no escape and the new arrivals are the only viable option let’s hope there’ll be enough public money around to build alternative versions. If the entire industry becomes beholden to the Vertical Theatre Group, lovely though I’m sure they are, it wouldn’t be healthy to have one company controlling who does and doesn’t get to perform on their stages and on what terms.

However, in the short term, I’m afraid the project’s biggest challenge is that it will be as uncost-effective as my little space if the country’s going to continue to be plunged into sudden and complete lockdowns.

What sane producer is going to invest in mounting a show when there’s no guarantee it will be able to open or complete its run and recoup?

Maybe there will be no more lockdowns, let’s hope so, but no one can say with any certainty. And even if we’re no longer at the mercy of such draconian measures it would only take a few days of headlines reporting some new emerging Covid strain to wreck the public’s appetite for leaving their homes and congregating with strangers.

Now the guys behind all this (architects Ric Lipson and Paul Preston, documentary producer Holly Gilliam, theatre producer Katy Lipson, production director Jake Berry, and Digital Theatre founder Robert Delamere) are very bright. There’s every chance they’ve already considered and solved the issues I’ve raised but I think we need to wait a little longer, for a few more details, before we consider the project truly future-proof.