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The distance between us

On 23 July, Beverley Knight played to 640 people for a socially distanced, UK government-backed pilot event at the London Palladium.

Writing shortly after the performance, she reflects on the show, explaining why she’s glad she took part – but wouldn’t do it again…

I cannot overstate the shock of walking out onto a stage and being faced with a whole load of empty seats covered in white paper with great big black ‘X’s on them. I saw them during soundcheck, of course, but somehow in my mind I didn’t quite appreciate that when I went back to perform they’d still be there.

It really was weird. I enjoyed the feeling of being back on a stage more than I can ever explain – if you are a performer it’s innate within you: you do it because you’re compelled to do it. But playing to a 30%-capacity crowd – all of whom were wearing masks, so they can’t communicate with you in the traditional way – meant my band and I had to dig deeper than we’ve ever dug before.

If you’re playing to a crowd that’s not your natural audience – a festival, for example – you can read the crowd, feel their energy and adapt; you know what you’ve got to do. But when you’re faced with a crowd that may as well be cardboard cut-outs, it’s so hard to know what way to play it. And there is only one way: to go all out from the beginning.

 


I wouldn’t encourage any performer to step inside an auditorium where they’re playing to 30% capacity

I’m a very physical performer – I come from a Pentecostal Christian background. It’s not a staid, austere thing. I learnt how to communicate a message that way: in the time-old tradition of soul singers. So I encouraged the audience to be physical, to get them on their feet and dancing. Within 15 minutes, they’d thought, sod this, and they were in.

The show made me realise that people, more than ever, are desperate for interaction – for the collective euphoric experience that concerts can provide.

An additional challenge for a performer was that you could hear too much of the room. With a “normal” show there are bodies soaking up the sound – so even though the audience was great, we could hear ourselves in a way you can’t when it’s a capacity crowd. We had to just work through that and carry on.

 


As for social distancing, it cannot be done to that level – and I wouldn’t encourage any performer to step inside an auditorium where they’re playing to 30% capacity. Financial considerations aside, the energy that you need just isn’t there.

That’s true for the audience, too: they appreciated what we were doing on stage, but they didn’t feel “in” the gig.

I wanted to be the person to do it for live music, to show that it could be done

The masks you can get over, because people know they can be demonstrative – 2,000-3,000 people in the Palladium make a hell of a noise, whether or not they’re masked. When the house lights go down, the audience should erupt, but that didn’t happen because the room was so empty.

I would say, in terms of a meaningful experience for both the performer and crowd, you’re going to need over half of the seats to be full – and even then it would still break your heart being on stage. You can just about work with 60%.

 


I’m glad I did it, because I had a point to prove. I’m not a woman who’s easily intimidated by circumstances, situations or people. That comes from a lifetime of being on stage. Whatever happened, I was going to deal with it.

I wanted to be the person to do it for live music, to show that it could be done – because the only way we can protect our venues is to get the doors open and get people in again.

Those of us in the arts were the nation’s cheerleaders – and their therapists – during the coronavirus [lockdown]. Whether people were watching Netflix, or listening to Spotify, or watching artists like me performing on Instagram live, we became the people who helped them through lockdown. And we’d quite like to do that again, this time in person – as soon as we’re allowed.

 


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Rebecca Kane Burton: “Socially distanced venues don’t work”

Beverley Knight’s landmark 23 July show at the London Palladium was a “blessed relief” for everyone involved – but it also showed that socially distanced concerts aren’t viable for the vast majority of music venues, according to Rebecca Kane Burton, CEO of West End venue chain LW Theatres.

British soul singer Knight played to a crowd of around 640 – some 30% of the Palladium’s normal capacity – as part of government-backed ‘pilot’ scheme designed to how venues might operate with social distancing ahead of the planned return of indoor shows on 1 August (now pushed back to at least the 15th). A second pilot event took place at another London venue, the the 1,250-capacity Clapham Grand, on 28 July, with Frank Turner playing to a 20% full room.

“The most horrible thing about the past 19 weeks has been not being able to open these doors,” Kane Burton, reflecting on the Palladium pilot event, tells IQ. “The excitement and thrill of working with my team again to put on that show was a blessed relief.”

Kane Burton (pictured) is full of praise for both Knight and the Palladium team, describing the former as the perfect performer given the circumstances.

“Not many people would be ballsy enough to get on stage with the room only 30% full,” she says, “but Beverley did it with gusto – she got everyone up on their feet dancing, which in turn made people feel like they were allowed to enjoy themselves.”

“The excitement and thrill of working with my team again was a blessed relief”

As for the LW/Palladium team, the message from Public Health England was that “they couldn’t find one flaw” in how the show – which featured temperature checks and a host of hygienic gadgetry – was organised.

However, while she says she considers the Palladium show a success, Kane Burton – like Ally Wolf from the Clapham Grand – is clear that it should not be used a blueprint for how live events may reopen safely in the UK.

For a start, both shows lost money – “Normally the ratio of staff to customers [at the Palladium] is 1:40,” explains Kane Burton, “but for Beverley Knight, it was 1:10; no promoter is going to pay for that” – and while Knight did her best, even the PHE officials present noticed the lack of atmosphere present with a sparse, mask-wearing audience.

“Socially distanced venues don’t work,” says Kane Burton. With a 70% empty venue, “you’re not allowed to have that moment of escapism” that comes with seeing a show at a packed venue, as the Knight gig showed, she adds.

“To get an atmosphere you need to fill the place to the rafters. That’s how you get a rocking Palladium, and that’s how you bring venues back to life.”

Knight agrees. “I would not encourage any performer to step inside an auditorium where they’re playing to 30% capacity,” she tells IQ. “Financial considerations aside, that energy that you need isn’t there.

“To get an atmosphere you need to fill the place to the rafters”

“And equally for the audience listening: they appreciated what we’re doing on stage but they didn’t feel ‘in’ the gig. The euphoria wasn’t there.”

Along with much of the UK live music industry, Kane Burton is now pushing the British government for a reopening date for non-socially distanced shows, as well as working with PHE to develop guidance for post-Covid-19 performing arts.

While the Beverley Knight show didn’t provide a roadmap for the future of live in the UK, it did signal to the rest of the concert business that venues are pushing hard to reopen when they’re allowed, concludes Kane Burton.

“We wanted to send a message to all promoters and agents that we, as a venue industry, are not resting on our laurels,” she says. “We’re here in the trenches, and everything we’re doing is about getting the industry back on track.”

“We need to get going again, because without live music, this country loses its soul,” she adds. “We can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

 


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Outdoor events get go-ahead in England

Small open-air concerts, festivals and other live events can resume in England this weekend, provided social distancing measures are applied, the government announced yesterday (9 July).

The news comes in a week of positive developments for the UK live industry, following the announcement of a £1.57 billion aid package for the cultural sector on Sunday and a reduction in value-added tax (VAT) levied on event tickets on Wednesday.

The easing of restrictions, which sees the country move to stage three of a five-step roadmap for the reopening of the live entertainment industry, allows outdoor shows to take place “with a limited and socially distanced audience”.

Venues will also have to use electronic ticketing systems and keep a record of visitor details in case test and trace measures are needed.

“Our culture, heritage and arts are too precious to lose. That’s why we’re protecting venues like theatres from redevelopment if they fall on hard times,” says culture secretary Oliver Dowden.

“From 11 July we can all enjoy performances outdoors with social distancing and we are working hard to get indoor audiences back as soon as we safely can, following pilots.”

The government is currently working alongside industry bodies including the Musicians’ Union and UK Theatre, as well as with venues such as the London Palladium, to pilot a number of small indoor performances to inform plans on how to get indoor venues back up and running.

“It is a step forward that some performances can resume in limited outdoor settings, but there is still no date for a return to indoor live performances”

Indoor events will be permitted to reopen in England in the next stage of the roadmap, restricted to a “limited, distanced audience” and stage five allows for the reopening of all events with fuller audiences, but dates have yet to be given for the latter stages of the recovery roadmap.

Dowden adds that the government is working to give “further clarity on restart dates”.

Members of the UK entertainment industry have repeatedly criticised the absence of dates from the government’s reopening roadmap.

“It is a step forward that some performances can resume in limited outdoor settings, but there is still no date for a return to indoor live performances, either with restricted or full audiences,” comments Incorporated Society of Musicians CEO Deborah Annetts.

“This uncertainty hangs over many thousands of musicians whose income is overwhelmingly dependent on performing, and whose lives have ground to a complete halt as a result of Covid-19.”

Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) CEO Michael Kill says that the announcement “lack[s] any real detail or information on where our sector stands”.

“We implore the government in the strongest terms to recognise our sector within Arts and Culture, and prioritise sector specific support before some amazing cultural businesses are lost forever,” says Kill.

Photo: UK Parliament (CC BY 3.0) (cropped)

 


This article forms part of IQ’s Covid-19 resource centre – a knowledge hub of essential guidance and updating resources for uncertain times.

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