Coronavirus: Audiences fearful of returning to theatre – survey

by The Culture Newspaper

More than 40% of regular arts audiences would not consider booking tickets again for at least four months, despite saying they are missing live performance during lockdown, according to a new survey.

More than 86,000 people who frequently or have recently attended shows at venues across the UK were polled about their attitudes towards theatregoing after the Covid-19 lockdown. The findings confirm fears that audiences may be cautious to return to previous attendance habits.

In the first wave of a major audience survey, conducted by consultants Indigo Ltd, 192 arts organisations – nearly half of which are theatres – participated by asking their customer bases about venues reopening.

Many theatres have already said they do not anticipate performances resuming for several months. Some have shows scheduled for autumn, while others have said they expect to be closed for the remainder of this year.

Among respondents to the survey, the first significant research undertaken on post-lockdown audiences, just 17% said they were actively booking tickets for future events, with half of those purchasing tickets only for November onwards.

Asked when they would be ready to start booking again, 41% said they would not do so for at least four months.

Only one in five respondents (19%) said they would be willing to return to venues as soon as they reopen. This figure was lower for over-65s and higher for under-35s, of whom a quarter said they would attend simply because venues would be reopened.

More than half (52%) admitted they would stay away if advised to avoid large gatherings, and 28% said they would prefer to stay away from large gatherings when buildings reopen.

Despite this, 93% of respondents – which represent people who have attended performances more than once and within the past two years – said they were missing live events during lockdown.

Most (74%) cited the buzz of live performance as the thing they missed most, with other popular choices including seeing performers they admired and supporting local venues.

Participating organisations included major theatre, dance and opera venues across the country as well as smaller theatres, arts centres and touring companies.

Responding to the findings, Derby Theatre’s artistic director Sarah Brigham said the short-term impact was worrying.

“It confirms our fears that it may be some time before audiences are ready to return to venues in large numbers in a sustainable way. So I hope the right support packages are put in place for the sector’s sustainability because it also confirms that the buzz of a live event is irreplaceable,” she said.

Brigham added that theatres must “hold our nerve” and support the wider artists’ ecology if they are to be ready to “play that crucial role when [audiences] need us to”.

Jon Gilchrist, executive director of Home in Manchester, described the report as sobering, but said its findings would be critical in developing the scenarios in which buildings could reopen.

The results also found:

  • Three quarters of respondents would feel safer returning to venues with some form of social distancing in place, such as limiting the number of people who can attend, avoiding long queues and spacing seats at least 2 metres apart.
  • Theatres fared relatively well in the list of venue types in which audiences would feel comfortable. No venue types scored highly, but large, standing venues were deemed the least attractive and both small and large seated venues such as theatres were viewed more positively. Outdoor events came out top.
  • Among those who said they would not consider booking for at least four months, audiences from theatres and concert venues made up the highest proportion (42% and 46% respectively).
  • The ability to refund, receive credit or exchange tickets were all of high importance to future bookers. However, 79% would support the ability to make a donation to a ’recovery fund’ at the point of sale.
  • Audiences also said they would support giving to initiatives that enabled arts access for those who could not otherwise afford it, as well as schemes that would celebrate health and care workers.

Indigo co-founder Katy Raines said: “It’s clear from the survey data that audiences have great affinity for the cultural organisations they usually attend, and are itching to get back to experiencing the buzz of live performances again.

“But they will need reassurance that they and the artists and performers will be safe before they do so – simply seeing venues reopen, and even seeing others attend, will not be enough on its own.”

The survey was carried out between April 16 and May 6, with further phases of research ongoing.

The full report can be downloaded here.


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