COVID-19: Impact on the Theatre Industry

A new study on how audiences’ relationship with theatre has changed following COVID-19, what performances post-lockdown could be like and whether it seems feasible that theatres can survive through alternative means.

Key Findings

  • Theatregoers remain steadfast, with 88% of them saying they are as, or more, likely to attend a West End theatre after lockdown.
  • People searching for streamed theatre has hit all-time highs, with NT Live being the most popular, receiving over 20x more interest than previous peaks.
  • 94% of people say they would not spend over £20 on a streamed performance however - leaving a huge deficit compared to equivalent ticket sales.
  • September 2020 is the most likely month that theatregoers believe venues will reopen, however there is a wide range of opinions with some not thinking they will open until 2022 or beyond.
  • Face masks and reduced capacity performances are cited as the safety measures that would be least likely to encourage people to return to theatres.
  • 71% of theatre fans have streamed a West End show since the lockdown (over a 400% increase), but only 28% of them have paid for a stream.
  • Subscription-based streaming services still struggle to grow despite the lack of theatre, with only 10% of regular theatre-goers now having one.
  • Open air theatres may be in with a surge of popularity, being the most opted for change of habits, with 30% of people more likely to attend one.
  • Not all the cash has been taken out of the theatre industry just yet, with 39% of those surveyed still having an existing valid booking, 48% having rescheduled a performance and 37% having taken a credit voucher.

Since theatres in London and across the UK closed on the 16th March 2020, the future of the industry has been incredibly uncertain.

SeatPlan surveyed 1,957 regular theatregoers to get a better understanding of how their relationship with theatre has changed, what performances post-lockdown could be like and if it seems feasible that theatres can survive through alternative means.

Please note: This study is intended to gauge the opinions and actions of regular theatregoers and is not intended as advice or endorsement of these.

Audiences believe theatre could return in September

The theatre industry has been giving very mixed messages about when it is likely to return. Currently, performances have only been official cancelled until the end of June 2020, however, shows like Hairspray at the London Coliseum have only pushed back their openings until September 2020, while the Old Vic has put tickets on sale for their production of A Christmas Carol which opens in November. Meanwhile, Cats and Les Mis producer Cameron Mackintosh has said he thinks theatres are “unlikely” to open this year, quite different from the outlook given by Robert Jenrick during the government's daily briefing on 13th May stating that "we hope that [theatre's reopening] will be later this summer".

“I think from the moment social distancing doesn’t exist any more, it will take us four to five months to actually get the actors back together”

- Sir Cameron Mackintosh (Cats & Les Misérables Producer)

This confusion is reflected by theatregoers – with September 2020 being the most chosen month for when theatres would reopen, but leaving many responses ranging anywhere as early as June, to as late as 2022.

“Personally I would not be concerned if theatre audiences were without masks or if audiences were of a higher percentage. I would still want go to the theatre.”

- 61-70 year old respondent in London

“I will only be prepared to re-enter a theatre [...] when I am confident there is no risk of contracting the virus because anti virals are available and in use or I am assured the risk is minimal."

- 61-70 year old UK respondent outside of London

Many are happy to not take refunds

Out of our respondents, 76% had tickets to an upcoming show or shows when the lockdown was put in place. There is some positive news for the theatre industry however, as only 14% of those with bookings had taken full cash refunds for all their future tickets. 37% of people had taken at least one voucher for a future booking, while 48% of people have had at least one performance rescheduled.

With future sales for many venues at record lows, the financial impact on the industry is still likely to be devastating however, but it is clear that among the regular theatre fans, there is a desire to keep their already spent cash in the industry.


Potential safety measures offer little encouragement

Venues are already trying to plan for many different re-opening scenarios, but not only do they face the challenges of what is advised or mandated by both the government or medical organisations, but also what theatregoers themselves will deem acceptable enough to return to the theatre.

When asked to rate on a scale from one to ten what measures would make them more likely to return to a theatre, an available vaccine (8.4), government advice (7.8) and the availability of regular testing (7.8) all came out on top. These are all way out of the hands of venues to influence however, and possible measures that they can control such as mandating face masks (5.6), limiting capacity to 50% (6.1) or having temperature checks on entrance (6.3), all did not receive an overwhelming response.

“Measures like reduced capacity, temperature checks and compulsory face masks would put me off going to the theatre, not encourage me. Although these measures would improve safety, they would rob me of the enjoyment and experience of attending the theatre.”

- 31-40 year old UK respondent outside of London

Not only are reduced capacity theatres unpopular with audiences, but also with the theatre producers and venue owners themselves.

"We cannot survive by selling one ticket in two, or one ticket in three, because it won’t pay for the weekly costs”

- Nica Burns (Producers & Theatre Owner, Nimax Theatres)

In a recent interview with ITV News, West End theatre producer and Nimax Theatres co-owner, Nica Burns, stated that even by selling one ticket in two, the venues still will not be able to survive due to the high running costs of staging nightly shows.

Streaming offers some hope for venues

Coronavirus has seen significant changes in the habits of regular theatregoers as they attempt to fill the void left by live performance. This is most notable in streaming, with 72% of people reporting having watched a streamed theatre performance – which is a significant 400% difference from the period before COVID-19.

There is some good news for venues and companies who have monetised their digital, with a 329% increase reported in those who have paid for at least one stream or broadcast, as well as a 40% increase on people paying for a subscription theatre streaming service.

Online theatre reaches record highs, while ticket sales plummet

In April, West End venues have experienced what is likely to be the worst month for ticket sales since World War II. Despite many theatres still selling tickets for shows for September 2020 and onwards, interest in London productions has nose-dived to historic lows.

Top long-running productions such as The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre or The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre have seen people searching for them online drop to over 95% less than their previous norms.

This has been countered by a huge growth in people searching for online streaming services. Marquee TV which offers recorded arts and culture for £8.99 per month, saw an increase of almost 2000% more people searching for it in than in February, while the US-based BroadwayHD saw an astronomical increase of over 5000% more people in the UK searching for it in March compared to the previous month.

The biggest winner, however, is the National Theatre and their NT Live series of weekly streamed production. Not only did it see historic increases, over 368,000 people searched for the service and they received a peak audience of 209,000 for their stream of One Man, Two Guvnors.

Despite this being nearly 20 times the National Theatre's largest venue's capacity, it still is unlikely to bring much consolation to the theatre's struggling management, as the streams are available for free, helping to contribute to their huge popularity, but not off-set the loss of tickets sold.

"If we don't have people coming in, we won't survive."

- Rufus Norris (Artistic Director, National Theatre)

The National Theatre's Artistic Director, Rufus Norris, explained in an interview to ITV that the situation was desperate and when asked how many theatres could close, said that "In a worst case situation, if there is no support, most of them".

It is clear that despite changes in habits, without being to open, these venues will not be able survive without additional support.

People will not pay nearly as much for streamed theatre

It is unlikely however that this is going to give significant support to venues however, as from those surveyed 97% of people said they would not pay more than £20, despite 75% of people saying that they would generally pay more than £20 for a normal theatre ticket.

Overall, the estimated average ticket price a person is willing to pay compared to an online stream is estimated to fall from an average of £47.61 to £8.45, a decrease of 82%.

It is important to note, that as respondents are identified as regular theatregoers, this is likely a far more optimistic picture than the average theatregoer, particularly in the West End where many top-price tickets are bought by international travellers and irregular attendees.

Theatregoers are steadfast on returning post-lockdown

Only 12% of people said they were less likely to attend West End theatres after they re-open. The period following lockdown could signal a shift to outdoors theatres, with 30% of people saying that they are more likely to attend an open air theatre.

Methodology & demographics

This survey was sent to 9,183 users of the site SeatPlan.com and received 1,957 responses. Responses were collected between 05/05/2020 and 10/05/2020.

These respondents generally identify as regular theatregoers, and are not representative of an average theatre audience, many of which are made up of international travellers and people who do not attend more than once a year.

Demographic splits are included below for reference.

Charts and references have generally be rounded to 0 or 1 decimal places for readability.

Where multi-choice answer order was not relevant, these positions were randomised to avoid biases.

Where internet search data is cited, this has been extracted and analysed from publicly available datasets from Google. Data is for the specified search term and is generally deemed representative of changes of interest, despite overall interest for related terms being greater.

Full data from the survey (with PII redacted) is available along with a range of downloadable images using the download link at the bottom of this page.

Download assets

For the raw survey data and PNG image versions of all charts and graphs, please click the link below.

All writers and publishers are allowed to re-use these assets. Please refer back to the original study when doing this however.