As the number of theatre-goers in the UK reaches almost pre-pandemic levels, perhaps now is the time to reflect on the changes COVID-19 enacted in the British theatre landscape. While the last couple of years have proven to be devastating for the arts and culture sector, with the mass shutdown of performance venues and huge job losses, the community’s sense of innovation and perseverance in the face of such unprecedented hardship continues to shine through. 

It was a daunting task for many productions to move online during the lockdown, however, the success stories of the situation ultimately highlight the potential of British theatres to improve their inclusivity. Before the pandemic, reports from the Audience Agency suggest that the average British theatre audience was between the ages of 64 and 75, of white ethnicity and highly educated backgrounds. But during the pandemic, some of the UK’s most prominent theatre companies arguably managed to reach a wider audience than they had ever done previously. The National Theatre, for instance, posted just 16 of their productions on Youtube from 2020 to 2021. Combined, they were viewed over 15 million times and in 173 different countries. To put this into perspective, compare their global audience figures from 2018-19 with the figures from 2019-20: the former being 0.78 million and the latter, around 1.75 million.  

Statistics also suggest that the accessibility of theatre in education shifted during the pandemic. In 2019, several theatre companies had concerns about their ability to reach state school students due to the lack of funding provided for creative subjects. While independent schools were able to offer their pupils up close and personal opportunities in the arts sector, many state schools were unable to even pay their drama teachers adequately. However, according to The National Theatre, by April 2021, their streaming service managed to reach 70% of state schools in the UK. This roughly accumulated to 1.2 million views on their website alone. 

You could argue that the reason for the high audience engagement during the pandemic was a combination of easy accessibility (all 16 of the NT plays were free to watch) and the widespread need for at-home entertainment. However, I believe that it shows what many analysts have been arguing: that more people have an interest in theatre than are typically able to access it. Professors Pascale Aebischer and Dr. Rachael Nicholas from the University of Exeter support this, suggesting that there is still a large demographic willing to watch (and pay for) live, online theatre. Taking this into consideration in the post-pandemic era, production companies could potentially widen their inclusion of audience members. For example, those living with permanent health issues or disabilities, or from regions with little to no nearby venues, and anyone lacking the means (or the time) to travel to in-person shows.  

While talk of rising covid cases in theatre productions has been circulating as recently as June of this year, and concerns about a difficult upcoming winter are growing, we could expect to see pandemic-era precautions taking place in the industry once more. To prepare for the worst and still improve the inclusivity problems inherent within the arts sector, theatre organizations should remember this: they still have a much larger, more diverse audience, ready and willing to access their productions online.  

By Hannah Smallwood

Image credit: Pixabay