This awareness that, despite all it had in the past, the play told an important and topical story, was shared with passion by the troop of 43 people, more than two thirds of whom were themselves Jewish, determined to wear as long as they could while the closure of public spaces swept the world. Although the West End was emptying, LeopoldstadtOur clientele has continued to grow – an increasing number of them wearing face masks. When the decision to close was finally made, the company went to a local pub to wait for further instructions, recalls producer Sonia Friedman, “and all we could tell them was,” You have to go home. ” “
If you want to understand how devastating the Covid-19 crisis was to the entertainment world, you need look no further than the week that Friedman will never forget. In the afternoon of Wednesday March 11, his production of Harry Potter and the cursed child was halfway through a performance at the Curran Theater in San Francisco when the city’s mayor announced a ban on all events involving more than 1,000 people. “For better or worse, we decided to continue but to close the evening after the second part. There had been a state of emergency in California since the beginning of March and we were watching a haemorrhage in sales, “explains the producer, whose 11 productions that were touring the world at the time included five of JK Rowling’s hit plays – in Germany, Australia, the United States and London.
I am constantly talking to my staff, theater owners, producers and investors, but no one has an answer
The next afternoon, New York closed all of its Broadway theaters, removing three more Friedman shows. Friday, the German production of Harry potter was closed on the last day of previews in Hamburg. On Sunday, Melbourne cinemas closed, taking Australian production with it, and on Monday March 16 – “at this point in acute crisis mode” – Friedman took precautionary action to heed Boris Johnson’s “advice” that all UK outlets are expected to close, and to close its five remaining productions.
Some members of the cast had already self-isolated after developing fevers. “I was in my London office, wearing a mask, with some of my staff, and we were all in shock,” recalls Friedman. “I announced that even though we did not receive a warrant [the full lockdown only happened on 23 March], I was closing everything until further notice. A press release was scrambled and a team of associate producers sent news for each theater, while Friedman sat in his London seat to answer panic calls. Besides the 11 shows that were already open, she had seven others in production.
Almost three months later, the shock turned into a passionate determination that made Friedman one of the most successful theater producers in the world. She left her home in London before the official foreclosure to stay with her writing partner, Joe Murphy, and their two dogs in a Hampshire cottage that Tom Stoppard’s wife Sabrina Guinness had rented to them. During the first eight or nine weeks, given the number of shows she had paused and “the sheer uproar of chaos and uncertainty” that it had created in so many time zones, Friedman only managed to sleep three or four hours a night. “I tried to do what I could to save my industry and my employees, constantly talking to my staff, theater owners, producers and investors, but no one has an answer. “
It is only now that a working group has been created in the United Kingdom between the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the two main coordinating bodies of the British theater to try to chart a practical path for survival. If none is found, the industry has warned, 70% of UK sites will run out of cash by the end of the year. The first victims have already been announced, with the Nuffield and Leicester Haymarket theaters in Southampton taking office last month. “For the first few weeks, we were silent, which was perfectly fair, since they were only health and care workers, and then we had to wait for them to sort out the sport. The theater always comes last, “sighs Friedman,” but more people attend at least one show each year than at all league football games combined. ”
The figures are surprising: the United Kingdom has some 1,300 theaters across the country, employing some 290,000 workers, from actors to administrators, stage technicians to front office staff. An article sent to DCMS last month by the Society of London Theater and the UK Theater notes that in 2018, their members sold £ 1.28 billion worth of tickets. The value of the theater to the economy of London, where almost half of all British performances take place and where tourists represent a quarter of the public, is estimated at £ 5 billion a year. And Friedman’s closed program portfolio is a testament to the export value of this dynamic British industry.
But the crisis facing commercial producers is particularly acute, as they receive no state subsidy and a global pandemic is beyond the terms of their insurance policies. In a revealing coincidence, Leopoldstadt was staged in a theater, Wyndham’s, which opened in 1899, the same year as Stoppard’s dynastic history. In London, as in Vienna of the play, the end of the 19th century was a period of optimism which produced many ornate and expensive gambling houses which sleep now. As Friedman points out, it costs over £ 30,000 a week to close each theater in the West End. Ideally, they must average at least 65% of full ticket sales just to break even, but that doesn’t take into account restart costs, which are likely to increase at minus 75%, which makes physical distancing from the public impossible without the support of the game-changing State. With emergency funding from the Arts Council due to end in September, theater lobbyists say, “The impact of this pandemic represents the greatest existential threat to the British theater industry since the closings of theater houses that have ended the golden age of the Jacobean theater in 1640. “
For Friedman, Leopoldstadt was an act of faith and love, and a belief in the ability of commercial theater to go beyond the usual crowd pleasures. “It was extremely ambitious and one of the biggest pieces I have ever produced, with a cast larger than Harry potter or Jez Butterworth The passer. “Although some reviewers have complained that the volume of information was overwhelming, she adds that” it is safe to say that it is up there as one of the greatest successes that I have ever produced: this was one of the greatest honors of my career, and deeply moving for me and the people who saw it. Proposed the choice between reimbursements and seats when – and if – the show reopens, 45% of those who reserved chose to stick with it.
Theater is an industry so people-centered that its recovery poses special problems, and return plans will need to be carefully tailored to the profile of each performance. The first of Friedman’s shows to reopen will likely be Harry potter in Australia, where measures to contain the pandemic have been much more effective than in Europe and the United States. “We are targeting September, and I think it will be a test for the world,” said the producer. Since the audience of Leopoldstadt are generally older than other West End shows such as Harry potter or The Book of Mormon, he’ll likely make a return later – but as long as the company still wants to do it, and the public still wants to see it, it will, he promises. And from London, everything is fine, he will go to New York.
Keeping the faith with a vision of a post-Covid world is difficult but crucial, insists Friedman. While her days are spent lobbying and problem solving with half of her 40 core employees who have not been on leave, the hours between 11 p.m. and 2 or 3 a.m. are spent on “what which I call my future: every day I do something positive to imagine that there is something on the other side of this, other than the resumption of emissions at hand. ”
The potential of the crisis as a source of future themes and intrigue is not lost on her. “We exist in a world of stories in our theater and this story is not yet credible, we are living it,” she said. “I keep telling people,” This is history, guys “, this is going to be discussed for centuries. We are dealing with something so monumentally complex that the world’s largest brains are just beginning to accept what needs to be done. ”
As a theater producer, it pays to be coated with Teflon. “I’ve always been good enough in a crisis,” she says, “I’m not going to give up until I finish, and if I do, the rest of the industry will be too, because until there, I am sure that hell will always be standing. Meanwhile, the venerable Wyndham Theater falls asleep, its large Viennese apartment complex wrapped in ghostly plastic sheeting, awaiting the great awakening.