“The theaters are going to stay. I think there’s a hunger for theater. I think there’s a hunger for live entertainment. And that will never diminish. The human being loves storytelling. And it loves storytelling on a one-to-one basis.”
– James Williams, CEO, Shaftesbury Theatre
In this episode
Host Mariam Sobh talks with Shaftesbury Theatre CEO James Williams and Avison Young’s Chris Dumas about the future of theaters in a post-pandemic world. As audiences take their seats and companies resume their places on stage after some of the longest theater closures in history, go behind the scenes to see what’s changed, what’s new, and what’s never coming back again. It’s showtime.
- 12:47 James Williams talks theater funding in a post-pandemic world.
- 17:54 Chris Dumas explores how theaters could expand beyond the show.
- 19:27 Chris Dumas discusses spatial changes of arts spaces.
Click here to expand transcript
Mariam Sobh 00:01 Welcome to Changing Places, brought to you by Avison Young. In Changing Places we explore our continuing and complex relationships with the built world around us. I'm your host, Miriam Sobh. "Nothing is forever in the theater. Whatever it is, it's here. It flares up, burns hot, and then it's gone." That's a quote from the 1950 film All About Eve, a revival of Cabaret at London's Playhouse Theatre marked the official reopening of the storied West End. According to the stage, the opening symbolically represents the full reopening of the West End, 609 days since its forced shutdown due to the pandemic. That's the longest shutdown since the Puritan repression in 1642. Wild, right? Now with folks getting back into their seats and unwrapping their candies, letting out one last cough, I want to dive into all things theater from their venue design to how they intend to survive with reduced crowds with my guests James Williams, who's the CEO of Shaftesbury Theatre, and Chris Dumas, Principal of Workplace Strategy, Arts and Culture at Avison Young. I can't wait to get their takes on the current challenges in the theatrical landscape, how COVID has changed approaches to live events and what the future looks like going forward for one of the oldest forms of entertainment in the world, the theater.
Speaker 1 01:24 I was here the first day they all reopened.
Speaker 2 01:27 Okay, so–
Speaker 1 01:28 Yeah, so all through the pandemic, anything that's been on I've been at.
Speaker 2 01:32 Have you been to a West End theatre that's reopening?
Speaker 3 01:35 Yes.
Speaker 2 01:36 Yes.
Speaker 3 01:36 Yeah. Have you?
Speaker 4 01:38 I don't know. No.
Speaker 2 01:42 No? Okay.
Speaker 5 01:43 No.
Speaker 2 01:43 Okay.
Speaker 6 01:44 Yeah.
Speaker 2 01:44 That's a yes.
Speaker 6 01:46 No.
Speaker 2 01:47 Okay.
Mariam Sobh 01:47 We'll begin at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London's West End with James Williams.
James Williams 01:55 As we go backstage, you can see the dressing rooms, all of which are in the original form that they've been since the theater was first opened. We have added new spaces and we have tried to keep those dressing rooms to a standard that is appropriate for our current performance. It's important that there are places to shower, it's important that there are places to rest. You don't see any major difference from a performance post-pandemic to a performance pre-pandemic. And we were ahead of the game in terms of COVID because we've got a good air system, a good exchange of air. And it makes us feel very comfortable with the audiences that are now coming into the theater. You see a foyer that's looking very empty at the moment. Well, that's because we're before performance. But even when there was a performance on, we now try and get people to move through our foyer a lot faster than they used to. With COVID. We've closed that bar, but we probably will never reopen it because with the new large bar opening in stalls, we'll be able to better service our audience. And we've got to reconfigure these spaces. So during the daytime in about two years time, this foyer will be open to the public, for them to come in with their coffees and teas and sandwiches and snacks that they bought at an outside catering facility and sit and enjoy a bit of calm or they can sit outside and enjoying the fresh air. The West End is coming back to life now. We have an environment now where the audience are coming back and they're gladly coming back to the theater.
Mariam Sobh 03:40 James, in the last year and a half theaters have had to deal with a lot of uncertainty from how to safely reopen to how do you update Edwardian theaters? Can you tell us about how you and your team at the Shaftesbury Theatre have tackled these issues?
James Williams 03:54 Well, I think that it had a slight complexity to it because we were already in the throes of doing some major work on the building. So when we got to a point of being instructed to close down, we had a team of 35, 40 construction workers just completing one job and about to move on to another job, which was the excavation around the theater to create a new space for us. And so we had that running in parallel with the show. So the immediate was dealing with the show closing. And to go from one day where you had 150 people in the building working and audiences of over 1000 coming into the show to the next day having nothing was, was really catastrophic. And within probably two days, no one was coming into the theater. And then we thought we might be back in the new year and then it just kept on moving. And so you were constantly in this, this state of flux.
Mariam Sobh 04:51 It's interesting you mentioned that while everything kind of shut down, you were still able to do the construction and rehabbing or whatnot. Was it maybe a little bit of a blessing in disguise to be able to focus on the construction solely during this period of time?
James Williams 05:06 So, I would come in at 7:30 In the morning, unlock the building, come up to my office here whilst the builders knocking the hell out of the building down below, and then at five o'clock, lock up and go home. It gave me something to do. But actually in the end, I've spent the last 40 years working in theater, seeing shows put on every night, and it became slowly the most dispiriting thing to have to do because although I love the fact that we're changing a theater building and making it a better factory for us, what makes my heartbeat is seeing an audience in watching a show, hearing the the orchestra strike up through the start of the show all those things. That is what feeds me.
Mariam Sobh 05:45 Yeah, I mean, it can definitely– if you're used to all that noise and excitement, it's it can sound very, too quiet.
James Williams 05:52 They weren't quiet because they were doing demolition, but it was more a case of it doesn't give you the same stimulus that you get when you've got a creative body in the building sort of pushing away and working at something that is very original.
Mariam Sobh 06:10 Would you say the Shaftesbury has been ahead of the curve when it comes to embracing the new reality?
James Williams 06:15 Oh, I'd like to think so. But I think that would be clutching at straws, frankly. The truth is that the Shaftesbury, it has been trying to make the theater a theater for the current audience. So, taking a 1911 building and trying to make sure that it can satisfy the needs of that audience in many different ways has been the challenge. And perhaps that has pushed us slightly ahead of the curve in comparison to others. But to make us out here a leader would be probably a little bit false. But I like to think that we're sort of certainly showing a way to others.
Mariam Sobh 06:51 Well, speaking of showing a way for others, is there a difference between the Shaftsbury, which is the largest independently owned and managed theatre in the West End, versus what other theaters may have gone through during the pandemic?
James Williams 07:03 I don't think that many were as foolhardy as us, and so going for the big project. Theater Royal Drury Lanes did the same. But you know, there are those of us who are desperately trying to make sure that we could take advantage of the theater closure and those who said, 'Well, you know, it's it's going to be a prolonged period, I'm shutting everything down. I'm making all my staff redundant. And I will wake up when moment comes. Until that time, I'm going to stay tucked away and safe and secure.' Even when we were closed, we did activity that we could do legitimately despite the lockdown, and that sort of gave us a few crumbs of comfort.
Mariam Sobh 07:41 Well, what's it been like with the cast, crew and staff of And Juliet? What's it been like working with them as you prepare to get back to business as usual?
James Williams 07:49 The starting point is they're a fantastic bunch. And the show is sensational. It's probably one of the most thrilling shows that I've worked on. And I worked on far too many now. So we were in a good place in our relationship with cast, with, with the crew, and with everyone associated with the production. Although audiences– some are absolutely fine, they're just so relieved to be back in theater– others are more cautious. And we'll have to see what we can do to help them feel as safe as possible. That, that's the hard thing, that they've got to create an environment backstage that is utterly safe, so theres there's integrity in terms of the cast members not catching COVID or if they do catch COVID, being in a position where they're able to isolate from the rest of the company because you get a COVID go through 27 actors and suddenly you're in a real state. If you're any part of the show and looking after the show from the audience's perspective, you are not allowed backstage. And if you're backstage once you've left backstage, you're not on our back.
Mariam Sobh 08:57 It makes me wonder what, what is backstage like now compared to before? I imagined previously, there's a lot of excitement and movement and people going in and out. And now is it pretty quiet, everyone's kind of sequestered to their own space?
James Williams 09:11 Yeah, they– we're lucky. The theater had a development in 2015 that put up a floor of additional production offices here. So our dressing rooms aren't overburdened. They're still quite full, but we– the company have had to spread them out a little bit more so that there are less people or more space for each person in each dressing room. There's no loitering around in, in other people's dressing rooms anymore. That has to– you go to the dresser space, you stayed there. There's one staircase up one staircase down so that you're not crossing over and staircases. You have to be masked all the time until the company are on stage. It's very, very disciplined as many people have romantic views that we were not a disciplined bunch. We actually have to be very disciplined, given what we often do on stage.
Mariam Sobh 10:00 You mentioned that audiences are sort of a mix. Some feels super comfortable, some are a little hesitant. Have you heard from audiences on things they would like to see changed for moving forward with the theater going experience? And I guess I'm wondering is have things changed since the pandemic in the way that you do things? Like are you offering other alternative ways to experience the theater?
James Williams 10:21 Yes, yes, and I think it's true of anyone who has anything that's ticketed. You don't get a ticket anymore. It's on your phone or it's on a piece of paper that you have printed out. So there's no double handed. But things like the bars are literally done in a file, so you no longer, can no longer stay in the bar. We've had to close down one of our bars because we wanted to make flow through it quicker and safer for everyone. We've introduced a lot of advance ordering techniques, so you can get whatever drinks you want in advance and they can be waiting for you. Or we put roving people around the auditorium so they can take individual's orders. So we're cashless, we're ticketless, but you can still get a drink.
Mariam Sobh 11:11 When it comes to theaters in general, do you think that outdoor venues like Regent's Park Open Air Theatre will become more of a norm? Or will indoor venues continue to dominate as a place where folks enjoy entertainment?
James Williams 11:23 I think that the two coexist. I think that open air theater is fantastic thing and I love going into it. But you can't do the same things in an open space as you can in an enclosed space. The theaters themselves are going to get better. You know, we have a state of the air-handling system here that has revolutionized the conditions for our audience. And, you know, we forsaw and in coincidence installed it just before the pandemic. But that replaced what was an antiquated system, which in itself, it replaced the original system, which was just a hole in the roof. The theaters are going to stay. I think there's a hunger for theater. I think there's a hunger for live entertainment. And that will never diminish. The human being loves storytelling. And it loves storytelling on a one-to-one basis, which is really what the theater is. You're sitting there and you're having a direct dialogue with the actors. So that's something very special.
Mariam Sobh 12:22 It is indeed. And now I feel like I need to go find a theater show to watch. I miss theater. When moving forward, you know, it sounds like you're saying the theater-going experience will always be there, it's always going to be important part of our lives. Do you see any trends in the next five years or so? In this space, do you think things are going to get better? Or does it depend on where we are with this pandemic?
James Williams 12:47 Well, the pandemic's going to gradually decrease in its impact. So we will slowly return to normal. I was just thinking of an analogy. You know, at the moment, people want comfort food. So what we're going to see in our theaters are shows that make people feel good. I think it needs those people who are really in the R&D Labs, you know, our regional theater in the same way as you need a vibrant Lincoln Center in New York, or various other, more laboratory type theatres that coexist with the commercial world. And we've got to see both sides of that ecology supporting each other and being supported independently of each other.
Mariam Sobh 13:30 So I'm wondering, given our conversation, does the thought of going to a live Broadway show fill you with endless excitement? Do you want to see the symphony or opera in a less traditional setting? Or would you rather watch filmed live theater that you can stream in the comfort of your living room? We're gonna dive into all these questions and more, so stick around for the next portion of the show. I'll be speaking with Chris Dumas, Principal of Workplace Strategy, Arts and Culture at Avison Young. Let's just say he knows a thing or two about arts and culture spaces, places and renovations. And just a reminder, Changing Places is a podcast brought to you by Avison Young that continues to explore and question our complex relationship with the built world around us. I'm your host, Miriam Sobh. I hope you're liking the show so far. If so, please share us with your friends. We're about to meet Chris Dumas of Avison Young. Chris is a project manager and chartered civil engineer who's managed large scale development projects in arts and culture spaces all over the world. He has over 35 years experience in global real estate. Before we speak to Chris, let's hear if theater goers on London's West End are scared, excited or nervous about seeing a show.
Speaker 2 14:42 Excited, scared or anxious to see a live show again?
Speaker 8 14:45 Excited, always excited.
Speaker 9 14:47 Really excited. Like it's just really nice. The atmosphere is really nice. I feel like it's more fun than before because everyone's just so grateful that we get to be back. It's a bit weird having so many people in such a small space. But I feel like theaters are doing a really good job of making people feel safe. Like everyone's wearing masks. Yeah. Really exciting.
Speaker 10 15:11 Excited to be back at the Western End, yeah.
Speaker 11 15:14 Excited.
Speaker 12 15:15 Yeah. Excited.
Speaker 13 15:16 Just excited.
Speaker 2 15:17 Excited?
Speaker 13 15:18 Thrilled!
Speaker 14 15:19 It's been a combination of both. In that it's taken me a while to come back. I was due to come and do like a full weekend April 2020. So I've kind of delayed coming back. But eventually, I was just like, I really want to go. And I'm just gonna do it.
Mariam Sobh 15:37 Chris, welcome to Changing Places. Chris, I want to get your thoughts on the theater sector, or art sector more broadly, as venues begin to open their doors for audiences, talent and crew? What does it look like from 10,000 feet?
Chris Dumas 15:50 So I'm very much here, here in London. Things are very much now in full swing. But I would say in the West End, we are missing the tourists, we're missing the visitors to London. I think the other sort of huge change that we've seen is the growth in, in the digital side. And that's using cashless technology for paying for drinks, paying for ice creams, paying for programs. And you know, this is, this is having a benefit. So obviously, throughput is speeding up. And this is helping revenues for the theatres as well. I think other than that, I guess that there is a broader picture of what is going to happen. And this depends very much on the sort of growth of, of something very different, which is a growth of hybrid working. With many people now working from home, or working remotely at least for parts of the working week. And therefore are our city centers where most of this form of entertainment and cultural activity is centered? Is all of that activity going to remain in the city centers, or is this going to be– is it going to start moving further out into the suburbs and possibly beyond?
Mariam Sobh 17:01 Yeah, that's definitely something I've been thinking about is with the new work situations that people have. Before you would go into the city, and you would maybe stay after work to go catch a show. And now if you're not there, is the show gonna come to you?
Chris Dumas 17:16 Well, it's a nice idea, isn't it? But maybe that might change over time as well. That maybe having a show that does the rounds is maybe a more sustainable way of more people getting to see those shows, than, than lots and lots of people traveling constantly into the same parts of towns.
Mariam Sobh 17:34 Yeah, it seems like there's just so many options now that folks are looking into. I know you mentioned the digital stuff and we also spoke with James Williams about using digital tickets, ordering drinks through your phone. Is that something you think all venues should be doing for their audience? Or is this something you think is a case-by-case?
Chris Dumas 17:51 I think that all venues will eventually do it. I mean, look, the idea of standing in a queue waiting for somebody to sort out the change is, these things are long gone, really. And just the speed of the transactions is just such a huge benefit. A lot of them as part of their overall sort of viability and sustainability, are having their bars and restaurants and foyers open to all-day activities. And of course, the ability to generate revenues quickly through that process is also extremely important, where you can just use cashless technology to generate income.
Mariam Sobh 18:27 I think sometimes we think because of the pandemic, so much technological changes have have occurred. But I think also just because technology has been speeding up, we're so impatient, you know? I don't know the last time I used cash. Everything is just like use your phone, swipe this and that. So it's interesting to see that these traditional spaces, they are now becoming tech savvy. So that's kind of interesting to see.
Chris Dumas 18:50 Yeah, they all become extremely tech savvy. And theaters have used technology in all sorts of ways for many, many years to impress us with, with what– you know, the art of the impossible and just putting it on the stage. I think, as always, the big the big issue is bringing the audience with you and bringing the rest of us along that journey.
Mariam Sobh 19:08 And when it comes to theater and the spaces that theater has been in over time, it's been outdoor as well. It hasn't always been in an enclosed space. You've have amphitheaters, arenas. What are the things that you're seeing now, Chris, from other venues or production houses using spaces in a new way for our new reality?
Chris Dumas 19:27 Yes, this is another interesting trend. One of, one of our major clients, the London Symphony Orchestra, has been using an area that really has used for its for– to store equipment and music. It's an industrial zone that just outside where north of London and Tottenham, and which happens to be on the same industrial estates as Beavertown Brewery has its taproom. And putting on some combined events with Beavertown providing the beer and the London Symphony Orchestra providing classical music. And together, sort of putting on something that is very new, and, and attracting and accessing very different audien ces. And it wouldn't be able to do, say, in a traditional concert hall. And I think that's a very interesting development, which hopefully will, will gain further ground.
Mariam Sobh 20:18 It sounds like with, with the London Symphony Orchestra playing in a brewery, that gives a bigger audience access to classical music that may not have otherwise decided to go and attend to show. Are you seeing that more with these sort of hybrid experimentations?
Chris Dumas 20:34 Yeah, I think it's a little bit slow because obviously COVID hasn't gone away. And we're still working our way through this pandemic. But it certainly has given fresh license to go and experiment and try some other things.
Mariam Sobh 20:46 Do you think Broadway, London, as these epicenter for theater, do you think that could change and it could just break away into smaller places, suburbs, other realms versus what we've known as, as the hub?
Chris Dumas 21:00 I find it hard to see Broadway and the West End disappearing and atomizing into smaller groups. I do think that the domestic audience not coming into city centers as much as it has been creates the opportunity to provide plays, musicals, etcetra, much closer to people's homes. And then it's a case of, of locating these in the right places that can attract as many people as possible.
Mariam Sobh 21:32 What about for theater-goers? Are they going to see any changes in terms of ticket prices with with all that's going on? Are they going to be going up, going down? I'm just thinking I went to see Hamilton before COVID. And man, that was an expensive ticket. But it was worth it. But at the same time, I would have liked to have a discount. So is that the trend? Are things just going to be Hamilton prices moving forward? Or do you see some changes?
Chris Dumas 21:59 I think that there is a need to attract people back in. And I think that, you know, the laws of supply and demand will inevitably create some downward pressure on prices, particularly if tourists are not around. But you've got to temper that with the fact that theatres have had a terrible time through this pandemic. And you know, they have really worked through their reserves, and therefore there isn't an awful lot more to go on. And therefore it's not like, yeah, there's a bottomless pit there.
Mariam Sobh 22:32 Yeah, I mean, that's a good point you made. Just, I keep forgetting that, yes, the folks that work in theater also dealt with a pandemic. They didn't have jobs, they were just sitting there waiting for everything to clear up.
Chris Dumas 22:42 And many of the people who work in theater are freelancers. And so, you know, some have been able to access some government subsidies and support. Others haven't. And, and so, you know, been very, very badly hit.
Speaker 14 22:56 I'd like to see more support from the government, in terms of funding, in terms of in times of crisis. There was a lot of uncertainty, especially in like theater and music and the arts. And I think that the government could have done a lot better to make it clear what stance they were taking, and how they were going to support them, rather than leaving it up to people.
Speaker 2 23:16 ...like to see cultural venues going forward.
Speaker 15 23:19 No, I don't think so. Everything has been really well run everywhere that we've been. Everyone's been really, really professional.
Speaker 16 23:26 I think it's been– everybody's been very sort of cognizant of the rules and being careful. And it feels quite–
Speaker 15 23:34 The theaters have done everything that they can and been really impressed with them.
Speaker 16 23:38 No, I think it's fine. Just like it to comes back to the way it is
Speaker 17 23:42 Not really. I think as long as everyone's had their jabs and their boosters, they should be alright.
Speaker 18 23:48 Not any that I can think of.
Speaker 2 23:50 Are you happy the way it's all been implemented since they've reopened?
Speaker 18 23:52 Yeah, definitely. I think it's, it's been great. You know, I've just got to get on with my life. And on with going to the theater.
Mariam Sobh 24:03 If we're looking back at sort of these Victorian theaters or opera houses, how would you go about luring people back into those spaces?
Chris Dumas 24:12 I think that the additional offer that theaters are putting on in the way of bars, restaurants, they're a great help as well because it means that you can have a whole evening out as opposed to just see a show and that's it. I mean, you might want to see a show and go on somewhere else. But it does give you another dimension. Another possibility. And that is certainly a growing trend.
Speaker 19 24:37 It'd be nice to be able to just go to a gallery or something again, without having to feel scared. Like it's different from theatre, but we have so many like cultural hubs in London that you used to be able to just walk into. And if you were out and about, you could go to an art gallery, or you could go to a space.
Speaker 20 24:54 And you can control like numbers and make things safe without making it– cutting ties that you have to be there.
Mariam Sobh 25:03 You mentioned some of these galleries or museums being spaces for different types of things. And what I wonder is, if you have, let's say, an event in a warehouse serving beer, but then there's like, really expensive artwork, you know, hanging around, how do you balance that? I mean, is there, is there any worry there?
Chris Dumas 25:24 Massive worries. I think that if you went to see that sort of thing, it would be, you would be going along to a gallery maybe to get a behind the scenes view, with a very different perspective. And it might attract also– I mean, I'm hoping that it will attract individuals who may be very interested in the art, but also may be very interested in all of the activities that a gallery and museum has to do behind the scenes in order to display that art. Whether that's to do with logistics, with conservation, with transportation, with audience management, you know, all of those issues.
Mariam Sobh 26:02 Well, as we get ready to wrap up, Chris, are there any trends you're seeing now good or bad that we may see play out over the next few years?
Chris Dumas 26:08 So I think the, the digital and cashless trend will continue, I think, and will grow. I think that the transmission of shows on online, which is another thing which has been an increasing feature of this pandemic, I think will go alongside the, the real life experience of being in the auditorium. And I can see that growing enormously, particularly to countries that, you know, sort of more developing countries that have less, less access to this. So I think those trends, which are both digitally inspired, will, will carry on.
Mariam Sobh 26:47 I'd like to thank James Williams and Chris Dumas for taking the time to guide us through the future of live entertainment as we all adjust. In our next episode, we're off to the ports. They've been in the news lately, but we're gonna speak with two experts who can guide us through this integral part of the supply chain and our everyday lives. I'm Mariam Sobh and this is Changing Places, brought to you by Avison Young. See places changing and evolving in your neighborhood? Share your evolving spaces with us on social media using the hashtag #changingplacespodcast. I'm Mariam Sobh, and this is Changing Places. Changing Places is brought to you by Avison Young. Our producer is Andrew Pemberton-Fowler. Our sound engineer is Patrick Emile. Our production assistant is Gabriella Mrozowski. Additional production support is provided by JAR Audio.