The U.K.’s National Theatre is modelling multiple different scenarios under which it might be able to reopen its doors so it can emerge from the ‘catastrophic’ impact of the coronavirus, according to artistic director Rufus Norris.
Speaking to Variety, Norris said the National Theatre is hoping to open its doors again in July, but is also planning for other scenarios that might see it reopen instead in September, January 2021 — or possibly later.
“Every organization like ours is running numerous scenarios…The one thing that you just can’t afford to do at the moment is rest on optimism,” said Norris.
Norris spoke to Variety ahead of the National Theatre announcing a new line-up of shows that will stream for free on YouTube as part of its successful NT at Home lockdown initiative, including Danny Boyle’s “Frankenstein” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. The organization is also launching a monthly virtual quiz for those stuck at home featuring quizmasters including Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Ian McKellen.
The coronavirus pandemic has proved hugely difficult for the theater sector, “where mass gathering is the modus operandi,” explained Norris. “The impact on the organization, and for every theatre in the country, is catastrophic. Whether there is a catastrophe or not in the end depends on how soon we can reopen and how much support we get.”
Norris said the theater sector, a vital part of the U.K.’s thriving and fast-growing creative industries which generated £111.7 billion ($137.7 billion) for the economy last year, should be supported by the government. “It will take us longer to get back on our feet than other things simply because we depend on audiences gathering in large numbers.”
The National Theatre employs 1,400 staff, has overheads of some £2 million ($2.5 million) a week, and creates around 25 productions a year that play at its South Bank base, with many also touring. Ticket sales generate around 60% of its income, with the balance made up from commercial revenues, Arts Council funding and digital initiatives like NT Live.
The ability to furlough staff has been ‘a huge blessing,” said Norris, who explained that the lockdown had proved a hugely challenging time for the National Theatre. “Closing down an organization on the scale of the National Theatre is a really complicated business, particularly when nobody has done it before.”
Norris said he would like the government to extend its support for freelance workers, many of whom are unable to claim for state financial support. “They’ve got the really short end of the stick,” said Norris.
Longer term, bailouts for the theater sector will be needed. “All of us, to one degree or another, have got a ticking clock underneath us…Those ticket sales are just irreplaceable. Sooner or later – there’s no point in mincing any words about it – some (theaters) have already closed down, organizations have already gone bankrupt and that will continue, and the casualties will get more significant as time goes on,” said Norris.
Norris said it would be particularly important to back theaters when their doors reopen, because even then, audiences may not fully return until there is a coronavirus vaccine that makes them feel safe. “It’s going to be a long game.”
During lockdown, the National Theatre has been juggling productions that were due to run as part of its 2020 season, including William Shakespeare adaptation “Romeo and Juliet” starring “Chernobyl’s” Jessie Buckley and “The Crown” actor Josh O’Connor, and a return of Norris’s acclaimed adaptation of Andrea Levy’s “Small Island.”
Norris says he has spent a lot of his time during lockdown communicating with artists and production teams trying to map out how and when the shows will play.
The theater has also faced outwards during lockdown, drawing plaudits for streaming some of its past productions for free on YouTube for its National Theatre at Home lockdown initiative.
The first production to stream, “One Man, Two Guvnors” starring James Corden received 670,000 views during the livestream and has had 2.6 million views overall. Subsequently, its adaptation of “Jane Eyre” received 219,000 views live and over one million views overall, while the family orientated “Treasure Island” has received 522,000 views so far.
New additions to the program include Danny Boyle’s production of “Frankenstein” filmed at the National Theatre in 2011, which sees Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating between the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his creation. Both versions will be shown across two nights on April 30 and May 1.
Simon Godwin’s production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” which ran at the National in 2018 with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo playing the Shakespearian leads, will be streamed on May 7.
Meanwhile, new initiative The National Theatre at Home Quiz can be played from home and features familiar faces from the world of stage and screen as quizmasters. People will be able join the virtual quiz via the NT’s YouTube channel and Facebook page live at 7 p.m. BST, starting April 27 with Dame Helen Mirren, Sir Lenny Henry, Lesley Manville and Sir Ian McKellen asking questions.
“A lot of a lot of people in this country and around the world are having a very, very difficult time,” said Norris. “If can we can give people some relief or some balm for their stresses, some entertainment distraction, that’s great.”
He also paid thanks to the artists who had granted permission for the productions to be broadcast as part of NT at Home. “This idea succeeding or not was always going to be entirely dependent on the artists going along with it, and they all have done so immediately without hesitation and without fees. That gesture has been extraordinary because it meant that we could do something for free and immediate and on a huge scale.”