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THIS year, we need a love story on stage more than ever. We need to see Covid-19 killed as convincingly as the wicked stepmother of Snow White. Or the Uglies hurling expletives at each other like, “He’s six feet behind you!” “Do you have Poundstretchers’ face mask?” We need lines like, “Whit? I’m not wearing a face mask, you saucy minx.”
But by Christmas, will our theaters be open again? This week, The Ayr Gaiety confirmed it would be open for its annual funny business. Jeremy Wyatt, Chairman of the Board, said, “I am confident that the theater will reopen. It has had a lot of challenges since it opened in 1902. It was nearly destroyed by fire, in the 1970s it was nearly demolished and became a parking lot. And then it closed in 2009.”
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Wyatt notes that the theater will reopen in September while we are living in “very uncertain times,” “We have a full fall schedule and a great panto team with the creative team from last year. We’ve cast it now and it’s going to be something special.”
In other theaters, The Gaiety’s intent is being echoed. In Glasgow, for instance, the King’s Theatre is selling tickets for Elaine C. Smith in Cinderella. How awesome. But wait, is there a fairy godmother in theaters like Gaiety who can spirit out a corona virus or a second wave?
Other issues arise. Will we have a close-up audience by September? Can the theaters somehow become a magical kingdom where with the rubbing of a spirit lamp the virus is kept at bay?
Oh no, they won’t, says Iain Gordon, Glasgow Pavilion boss. I’m working on the set design for this year’s panto right now, Santa Claus is Coming To Town. I estimate I’m going to spend about £ 90,000 on the set design and a beautiful video wall. But it’s a bit of a gamble. We have to hope that by then the coronavirus will be gone or an antidote will be there.
“But we don’t know if this is going to be the case. Whether people would be able to return is something we don’t know, too. How do you get back faith in a theater? ”
“The manager of the pavilion argues that if the Scottish government still limits social distance, the idea of opening theaters is as much a pipe dream as Jack making the giant beanstalk run in a square. “You’d have to go back three rows between the audience to establish social distance in the auditorium. And then you have the question of members of the audience walking up the aisles to get to the toilet. In the toilets, you still have the question of spacing. All of that means you will have to could the crowd significantly, down to a few hundred people in the stalls.
The manager lets out a deep sigh, the kind you hear when Cinders tells Buttons that she treats him as just a friend. “The reality is that in order to make a production profitable, I need 600 people in the building.” And what about the audience’s desire to get to the panto? There will be a lot of Pavilion fans battling. The unemployment rate is going to be incredibly high and the lack of resources is going to be noticeable.
Aberdeen’s His Majesty’s Theatre says it’s difficult to know what impact the social distancing will have, but as it stands, “Beauty and the Beast” will go on in December. And the SEC Armadillo hopes Greg McHugh’s Aladdin won’t need a magic lamp to deal with the virus this holiday season.
But if Covid-19 is an issue for major theaters, the art houses of the nation face an especially acute challenge. Every ticket sold is as valuable as the glittery slipper of Cinderella due to its comparatively small size.
The Tron Theatre in Glasgow, for example, requires subsidies for its existence and depends on panto income. It achieves attendance figures of almost 100 percent throughout the theater season – and would have expected the same from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz this year. But the appearance of star lady Johnny McKnight and company is certainly not a given, causing real problems for the theater. “In terms of the panto, we have essentially slowed down our normal planning process – which was in its early stages, given a landscape that is changing rapidly and in ways over which we have little control,” a spokesperson said.
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