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Why Can’t Theatres Be More Like Restaurants?

The theatre and hospitality industries are inextricably linked. Both bring people together, usually indoors, to create an experience. We are all hosts, entertainers and storytellers.

So why is it, as the hospitality trade begins to open up, that we don’t look to restaurants for inspiration on how we might operate in a socially distanced world?

Let me give you some context. I’m a Set and Costume Designer. Like so many, when I was starting out I relied heavily on part time jobs to pay the rent. I’ve spent years working in the hospitality trade. I’m now married to a pub owner, which I guess technically makes me a landlady. I’m still working on my Peggy Mitchell impression.

What this means is that as the world shut down I watched the fallout of not one, but two industries that I know and love. I’ve also seen how both industries have reacted. How businesses have responded to the crisis.

Theatres response has been to stop. To hibernate. They need to be more like restaurants.

The similarities between theatres and restaurants go beyond their shared goal of providing people with a good night out.

Both operate in a highly competitive environment. Both work to completely out-dated and unsustainable financial models. They are both asking themselves how to remain relevant, facing new technology, and changing customer habits.

Let’s say watching a live performance in a theatre is the same as a restaurant experience (the food, the wine, the ambience).

The ushers, the duty managers, the performers - these are the equivalent of your front of house restaurant team. Your waiters, sommeliers and bar staff. These are the people who the customer see providing their experience. They get the applause. They offer direct customer interaction.

Then you have your creatives, stage managers, technicians. The builders, scenic artists and costume departments. These are the chefs, the kitchen staff, the food producers, the wine makers…. these are the people who make your experience. But you don’t necessarily see them.

You wouldn’t got to a restaurant without any food. Likewise you wouldn’t go to a theatre unless there was creative work to watch.

But here’s the difference.

Lots of restaurants have kept on cooking. They have been working behind the scenes to provide a new service. To change and adapt their businesses. To innovate.

Theatre has left their creatives and makers in limbo. We have been told to stop. We have also been left out of the conversation. Theatres have not only closed their doors to the public, but to the very people who make their shows in the first place.

They have become restaurants without kitchens. There is nothing to eat.

When the government announced that theatres could reopen, but not for live performance, people scoffed.

Impossible, they said.

But I’ve been watching restaurants carry on, without being able to seat a single diner. Sure, not all restaurants reacted the same way. Many also say it was impossible.

But some didn’t. Many rose to the challenge. Sure they can’t serve food in their restaurants. But that doesn’t mean they can’t make food. That doesn’t mean they have to stop existing. Stop creating.

The obvious first step was takeaway. Kitchens will cook the food, but it will be eaten in peoples homes. You could stay this is the equivalent of watching a filmed theatre performance in your living room.

Except theatre has already undersold itself here. We’ve been giving our food away for free.

Restaurants also quickly realised that takeaway relied heavily on their local customers. People that lived within a few miles radius of the restaurant.

Many regional theatres and smaller venues have a programme of community engagement. They know who their locals are and how to interact with them.

But what about the West End and other large city-centre venues? Commercial theatre has not had to reach out to its community in the same way. They open the doors and let people come from far and wide. Their reach is global, not local.

So how did restaurants solve this problem? How did they get their food to people further afield?

Meal kits. You can buy pre-prepared kits from restaurants across the country. You need to do a bit of cooking yourself, but all the hard work is done for you. The food arrives prepped and ready, and can be delivered nationwide by courier.

These restaurant kits come with a recipe, and often a link to a video, from a chef to tell you how your meal was made and how to finish cooking it. The customers are now not just passively eating food: they are actively involved in making it.

Imagine if performances could be streamed in peoples homes but the audience could also pay to see how it was made? Online Q&A’s with creative teams. Digital access to Designer’s sketchbooks. Rehearsal room footage. Virtual tours of workshops. A zoom book group led by a playwright.

All offered alongside a paid streaming service. Not given away for free.

Restaurants have not just been cooking. They have been finding new ways to engage with their audience. To share how their industry works.

As creatives we often complain that our role in making work is not fully understood. This could change that.

So the chefs might still be cooking but what about the dining rooms? Surely these spaces remain empty?

Not necessarily.

Plenty of restaurants transformed themselves, almost overnight, into delis, wine shops, butchers and grocery stores. They have remained open.

Space is too precious a commodity to waste. Restaurants know if they are to survive they need as many people as possible to come through their doors. Regardless of if they can eat there or not.

So what could an open theatre building offer other than live performance?

If cinemas can reopen, then surely theatres can become cinemas. Don’t just stream theatre into peoples homes. Screen past productions in your auditoriums. I would much rather watch a performance from the Olivier in the Olivier, with only a quarter of the seats filled, than at home on my laptop.

As much as you can’t perform on stage it doesn’t mean someone couldn’t be onstage. Not acting or singing, but quietly talking into a microphone about the show people are about to see. Like the Director perhaps.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if a Lighting Designer could give live lighting demonstrations to the public? Explain how it works?

We could offer tours of the many theatre sets lying dormant right now, run by the Designers and Builders who made them.

I would pay to see that. I think the public would too.

It’s not just our auditoriums that need be open. How many theatres have rehearsal rooms, foyers, workshops? Each of these could be used. As teaching spaces. As studios and workrooms for freelancers.

We can become galleries. We can become bookshops and craft fairs. We could even become restaurants.

It doesn’t matter what we choose to become. Letting these buildings go into hibernation is surely not the only option.

Which brings me to the last thing we can learn from restaurants.

If I was to tell most restauranteurs that they could only open for eight sittings a week, and most lunchtimes their spaces would be shut they would laugh. Restaurant rents are ridiculously expensive. No restauranteur is going to miss an opportunity to serve customers, and make money, if they can manage it.

Isn’t it mad that so many of our (especially commercial) theatres are closed most daytimes? That they only open up for one audience, eight times a week?

Why do you think most restaurants open for lunch and dinner? And often breakfast too? Because it’s the only way to make their business financially viable.

So if opening for dinner is the same as opening for an evening performance, what is our lunch service? What is our breakfast offering?

Why couldn’t an auditorium open for a seminar in the morning, a screening plus Q&A in afternoon and a socially distanced production in the evening? Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even if our auditoriums can only have a 30% audience capacity, that’s still nearly a full house over the course of the day.

Maybe theatres already have these ideas. Maybe they have better ones. But until they include creatives in the conversation nothing seems possible. Now is a time for honesty and openness, not whispering behind closed doors.

These buildings need to bring back their artists. They need to get the cooks back in the kitchen.

Libby Todd is a Freelance Set & Costume Designer.

She is also the author of Restaurant For Two, a food and cooking blog championing our restaurant culture during lockdown.

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