A pair of photos has been doing the rounds this week. One shows the interior of a crowded plane. The other shows a theatre in Germany, with an audience of 200 sitting socially-distanced in a 1000-seat auditorium.
Several singers have shared the diptych, most seemingly under the impression that it provides a watertight case for re-opening theatres immediately.
Meanwhile, the first results of Indigo’s After The Interval survey of UK audiences were published, and the report makes fascinating reading. In particular, two figures caught my eye. In response to the question “Would any of the following help you to feel safe and comfortable going to an event at a venue again?”, the most popular answer was “Limits on the number who can attend” at 76%. Later in the survey, the same audience was asked how, if at all, they’d be willing to contribute financially in order to help companies ensure a successful re-opening after the economic challenges of lockdown. The least popular answer by some distance was “Increasing ticket prices”, a mere 18% replying that they’d be up for that.
The two photos were originally posted by my fellow bass-baritone Michael Volle, and the flight seems to have been from Berlin to Wiesbaden (or nearby), where the concert was taking place. It’s a short trip, and Germany appears to have its epidemic pretty well under control. Leaving aside the question of why so many people chose to fly a 500km journey (are we really still doing that in 2020?), the implied question of most of the re-posters is: if the plane is safe, how come the theatre isn’t?
A more fundamental question might well be: is that plane really safe? Believe me, this is the first time I’ve ever seen singers point at a photo of a crowded plane cabin and tell us how perfectly healthy it looks. Furthermore, with two-thirds of commercial airlines’ fleets reportedly grounded, the idea that it’s business as usual for them seems a little tenuous.
(A more pertinent question might be whether bailing out airlines is the best use of public money, when, for example, arts organisations and individual artists could be financially protected for a fraction of the cost.)
As for the sparsely-populated theatre, you’d want to know whether the audience enjoyed it (although since the excellent Mr Volle was singing I’d imagine they very much did), and would they be willing to come back regularly under the same circumstances? Did they maintain social distancing on the way in and out, and would they have been able to do so had there been an emergency evacuation? Does a magic distance of 2 metres really give you indefinite protection from an infected neighbour, even over the course of two or three hours?
And, the bottom line, did they pay five times the price of a regular ticket in order to be part of an audience one-fifth the size? Everything else aside, you’d assume that at least the airline made a tidy profit on that crowded flight.
The Indigo results suggest that the answer to that last question would be, for most of the UK public at least, an emphatic: No. Even if, courtesy of some Houdini-level contortionism, you could squeeze half the usual audience in and maintain safe distancing, mere double-price tickets wouldn’t cut the mustard: for 82% of respondents any increase at all in prices would be unmanageable or unacceptable, despite the fact that almost as great a majority want to see a substantial decrease in audience numbers.
It seems a huge contradiction in terms. Of course we’re being a little unfair – we don’t know that exactly the same people answered both questions, and even if they did, were the two factors to be linked more closely in a different survey, the numbers would almost certainly shift closer.
Even so, there’s the problem in a nutshell: people want an improved product, but they don’t want to pay for it. In the UK it’s a particular issue, and not just with the arts. It’s at the core of British politicians’ problems over the National Health Service, which is free at the point of delivery, funded directly from tax. But for at least a quarter of a century the idea of raising income tax, for example, has been off the table. Even the last Labour leadership, the most left-wing for a generation, was only able to suggest tinkering a little at the upper margins for fear of making themselves electorally untouchable.
As with the British taxpayer, our average British theatre- or concert-goer seems to want a top quality service at bargain basement prices.
How do we in the arts get around this? Within living memory our answer in the UK has almost always been to cut costs, to make the product cheaper and more efficient. But even before this crisis hit, organisations had already cut away most of the flesh, and many had been hacking away at the bare bones for a while too. And the important thing to realise about highly efficient systems is that they are, for the very same reasons, also highly fragile – as the last couple of months have surely proven beyond any doubt.
Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere. In the year I was born, Britain had precisely no Michelin-starred restaurants. Now there are 67 in London alone. Within a generation, a fair number of the British public have been persuaded that an exceptionally good dining experience is worth splashing out on. Not every night or every week perhaps, but once in a while on a special occasion, or to make an occasion in itself. That’s hardly come at the expense of cheaper restaurants or fast food outlets: it’s a different product, quite clearly a different concept entirely, and therefore people’s expectation of what a reasonable price for it is also instinctively different, without there being a contradiction.
Over the same period, budget airlines have been one of the travel industry’s major success stories, and their premium-price competitors have struggled in their wake. Many have taken our approach of attempting to slash their costs, as a result often ending up providing the same sort of experience as their budget competitors, only less well done and still at a higher price. Neither one thing nor the other.
So the rules are different for different products. Consumers view air travel differently from buying food, and buying fast food differently from paying for a fine dining experience. If you saw a fine dining restaurant had cut their costs so drastically that they were charging fast food prices, you might quite justifiably have doubts over the quality of the meal. And whereas you can probably forgive Five Guys for occasionally forgetting the jalapeños, a sub-par fine dining dish misses the point completely.
Let’s look again at those two photos. Health risks aside, the plane passengers realised quite some time ago that air travel is not really much fun, and you may as well grit your teeth, get it over with and do it as cheaply as possible. The fun starts when you arrive at your destination.
That’s where we come in. In another part of the Indigo survey, respondents were asked how they’re currently feeling about the possibility of going to live events again. Only 19% said they’d be comfortable attending as soon as venues are allowed to reopen. It reveals a dangerous gap between our instincts as performers and those of our audiences. I filled in the survey myself – thinking as a potential ticket buyer rather than a professional artist – and was surprised at how cautious most of my answers were. We might do well to bear in mind that a low probability of individual consequences still translates, given a large enough population, to a near-certainty of a number of infections and deaths.
And so we might also do well to take a little time, have a little patience. Our desire as performers to get back on stage, share our art, and make some money is perfectly natural. But we need to make it clear to the public that none of this is worth a moment of risk to their health and lives.
That aside, high art needs to be exceptional, unforgettable, or at least aspire to that. Popular culture aims to entertain you for an evening; we should be aiming to transcend your physical world and change your lives. Fast food versus fine dining. A packed auditorium, under safe conditions so that those present can fully engage in the moment, is no guarantee of that miraculous transformation, but it’s surely a key part of a genuine theatrical experience.
So for the time being we need to take every care not to risk infecting our audiences with a deadly disease; and by the same token not to infect the very qualities that make our art worth sharing in the first place.