Is social distancing being removed in theatres from May?

I am so confused about when theatre may or may not return to some kind of normality. And producers aren’t really helping us to understand their thought processes on the new government roadmap – they are just putting tickets on sale from various dates and leaving the general public scratching their heads wondering what on earth is going on.

I have been confused to see many shows now planning to start performances from 17 May (the day that indoor performances can begin, so long as they are at 50% capacity) but on the ticketing websites, there appears to be no plans to social distance seats. So I have been digging around to see what I can find out and come across an interesting theory.

Latest government guidelines say that “In Step 3, all but the most high-risk sectors will be able to reopen. In all sectors, COVID-Secure guidance will remain in place and premises must not cater for groups larger than the legal limits. Sectors which will reopen include:

f. Some large events, including conferences, theatre and concert performances and sports events. Controlled indoor events of up to 1,000 people or 50% of a venue’s capacity, whichever is lower, will be permitted, as will outdoor events with a capacity of either 50% or 4,000 people, whichever is lower. The Government will also make a special provision for large, outdoor, seated venues where crowds can be safely distributed, allowing up to 10,000 people or 25% of total seated capacity, whichever is lower. In addition, pilots will run as part of the Events Research Programme to examine how such events can take place without the need for social distancing using other mitigations such as testing.”

So, are the government saying that from 17 May, indoor performances can start up, without the need for social distancing, so long as a maximum of 50% of seats are sold? This would seem to be the case if you look at the seating chart for a show like Wicked (see right) which is selling tickets from 17 May but doesn’t appear to be socially distanced. However, large blocks of seats appear to be off sale (mainly the side views and back of circle – the cheaper seats).

This would make sense that if social distancing is not a requirement, they can potentially make more money by selling more of the ‘premium’ seats and not the cheaper ones.

Other theatres like Nimax put an online algorithm in place after the first lockdown was lifted, so that ticket buyers could book their choice of seats in the auditorium and then the required seats around those would automatically be taken off of sale to maintain social distancing. Their website saying their shows will return from 17 May – with social distancing, but they are still selling tickets for some shows as early as next week and various dates before 17 May so I have no idea what they are planning!

What do you think of this theory? Are you just as confused as I am? And how would you feel going back to the theatre in May and not being socially distanced – would that put you off of going?

Photo: Tristram Kenton