Finding our seats again: new audience expectations as theatre curtains rise again

When COVID-19 shut the world down, entertainment venues grappled with endless uncertainty—almost immediately.

Overnight, packed venues with thousands in the audience turned into ghost towns of empty seats and stages. And the worst part? No one knew when the stage would re-open again.

In total, theatres like those in London’s storied West End spent more than 600 days completely closed, marking the longest shutdown since the Puritan repression in 1642. This left an unimaginable strain on performers’ ability to continue their craft, along with a hunger for theatre and live entertainment that only grew with each postponed or canceled performance from the public.

“Our love of theatre will never diminish. The human being loves storytelling. And it loves storytelling on a one-to-one basis. There’s always a hunger for theatre. Theatres are surely here to stay forever.”
James Williams, CEA Shaftesbury Theatre

Now, as we’ve settled back into our seats, we reflect on what’s changed and what’s remained the same. Can we expect theatres catering to a set of new needs and expectations or can we expect our regularly scheduled performance?

Let’s open the doors on post-lockdown theatre.

Safety and wellness at the heart of each performance

The challenge for all – how do we welcome everyone back to their seats as safely as possible?

Theatres have responded with action to protect performers, theatre staff and audience members such as increased cleaning protocols, additional room and spacing backstage for performers, mask and vaccine protocols, and more to help audience members feel safer returning to their seats and performers feel ready to take the stage.

The ultimate goal? Have these aspects be so seamlessly integrated into productions that the performances of today feel just like the ones we’ve always known and loved.

No contact, no problem: digital check ins and cash-less payment options

Our expectations around ease and convenience, and let’s be honest no-contact transactions, sparked by deliver-to-me everything in the pandemic have created new desires around interactions of every kind.

Many venues have begun to look at the experience of a theatregoer from their first step into a theatre until their exit, identifying areas of opportunity to leverage digital channels to allow quicker and safer interactions with others throughout their full experience.

This includes digital ticketing, cashless ordering at food and drink kiosks, and even pre-ordering of food, drinks, and souvenirs for quicker, easier transactions.

As James Williams shares, this move from theatres is such to say, “We might be cashless, we might be ticketless, but you can absolutely still get a drink.” In other words, what you have always been able to get at the theatre may look different now, but the result should leave you feeling the same as it always has.

Other key considerations: open air, moving the show closer to home

Theatres are also taking a closer look at where shows might take place, touching on new and emerging trends in mobility and decreased foot traffic to city centers in the wake of the pandemic.

Along with increased demand and desire for outdoor theatre experiences and venues, which could give greater peace of mind to attendees who feel safer surrounded by fresh air and wide open space, the future of theatres could lie outside of city centers as more people work from home or spend less time commuting to downtowns.

“Much depends on the growth of hybrid working. With people working from home or working remotely, at least for parts of the working week, our city centers, where most of this form of entertainment and cultural activity is centered, may need to rethink several things, including: is all this activity going to remain in city centers, is it moving further out to the suburbs – and what will that mean for theatregoers either way?”
Chris Dumas, Avison Young Arts and Culture Workplace Strategist

In line, venues must think about the broader theatre-going experience and new audience expectations at every turn. If individuals are going to come into a city center for a show, what does the whole night out look like – not just the going to the show but the before and the after? What kind of experience must be built around going to the theatre vs simply promoting attendance of the show itself?

One thing is for certain: audiences crave feel-good theatre experiences right now

Times are tough, and people are looking for great light-hearted or feel-good escapes. Entertainment is a wonderful avenue to take people away from existing struggles into meaningful stories that remind us all of things like shared humanity, empathy, compassion, and connection. In short: the best of us and our human experience. And the theatre is here to deliver.

Looking for content that can lift us up and tug our heart strings in the best ways, venues are responding with performance line-ups and experiences that can deliver just that.

As the show goes on: what we can expect to see sticking around in the next 5 years and beyond

While much remains in flux about the future of shows and performance, experts predict that many trends from pandemic times will make their mark on theatres worldwide for many years to come, including:

  • Digital and cashless capabilities, marked by upticks in ease and convenience as part of the theatre-going experience, not only continuing but growing in use over time.
  • Online as a viable option for new, different types of performance audiences can stream at home or on-the-go.
  • Venue options and collaborations created to increase audience attendance as theatres meet a wide array of desires around how, when and where audience members want to consume theatre performances.

Audience demand will remain firmly in control for the near future, with many aspects of the theater experience focusing on successfully helping us all return to our seats with gusto.

This article shares key takeaways from Changing Places podcast episode Reopening night: new audience expectations…but the show must go on, which features expertise from Shaftesbury Theatre CEO James Williams and Avison Young Principal and Arts and Culture workplace strategist Chris Dumas. For more, take a listen now:

Have you returned to the theatre post pandemic? What feels different to you? What is the same? Share your thoughts after listening to the episode across social media platforms #ChangingPlacesPodcast.

Author: Rachel Kresge, Avison Young Global Content Development Manager