We can’t mask the damage this virus is causing to our region’s theatres

Helen can't see how theatre productions can continue to offer the same joyful family fun while we so

Helen can't see how theatre productions can continue to offer the same joyful family fun while we socially distance and wear face masks - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Helen McDermott says wearing face masks may become the norm, but this will give added problems to those hard of hearing, and she wonders what will happen to her beloved theatre events if social distancing is enforced for the rest of the year

Well, what a change. Only a few weeks ago it was a bit of rarity in our part of the country to see folks in face masks wandering the streets. I’ve got to own up to thinking at the time that it was a bit OTT, almost as if they were trying to be trendy by copying what they’d seen on the telly. But from next week on we’ve all got to mask-up, at least on public transport. I know it’s for our own good but it’s not something I’m looking forward to. Masks become hot, they get damp, and no matter how carefully I try to fit one on the top edge always goes into my eyes.

Here’s another thing. Just before the lockdown I’d been struggling to make out what some people on TV were saying even though we’d got a pricey sound-bar. So I went for a hearing test. It turned out that I was OK for sound; it was the telly that was the problem. (It couldn’t be anything to do with me getting closer to 70, of course.)

It wasn’t just the telly that had me saying “pardon, eh, what was that, come again” more and more often. I’ve noticed that at the checkout in some shops I can’t take in what the assistants are trying to tell me. The thing is, there’s instinctively a certain amount of lip-reading involved and when those lips are bobbing up and down behind a face mask some of us have a bit of a problem. I’m lucky here. As I’m still basically able to hear I can ask for a repeat, perhaps a bit louder, but there are lots of folk who are not so fortunate.

The charity Action on Hearing Loss tells us: “People who are deaf or have hearing loss will struggle to communicate if more people wear non-medical face-masks during the coronavirus pandemic. Being able to see lip patterns and facial expressions is also vital for those who communicate through British Sign Language.”

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There are some tips for us to help those who are hard of hearing, such as speaking clearly, cutting down on background noise including unwanted music, writing things down, addressing the person face-to-face, and adopting simple hand gestures. Wearing one of the see-through masks would be a big help.

The use of face-masks and a lot else besides have been on the minds of everybody in the theatre business, desperate to bring all those sad, dark auditoriums back to life again. It’s also sad for people who should be both backstage and on it.

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A recent survey estimated that a loss of £330 million has been sustained so far during the lockdown; there are fears that many theatres, from the smallest to the largest, may never recover to open again.

This is a tragic prospect that’s really close to home. Ohyesitiz! Productions run by Des Barrit and me is a tiny company that for the past 14 years has put on pantomimes at Gorleston Pavilion. We’ve employed local artists on stage and behind it; each year we’ve brought hundreds of schoolchildren to experience the joy of live theatre, many of them for the first time ever.

Pantomime is a theatrical event like no other. Children of all ages are encouraged to join in the performance, laughing at the Dame, shouting at the Ghost. “It’s behind you!” “Oh, no it isn’t!” “Oh, yes it is!” “OH, NO IT ISN’T!” “OH, YES IT IS!” And then there come the stamping feet and the yelling. “IT ISN’T, IT ISN’T IT

ISN’T!!!!! And so on. The children seem to have been born knowing the lines. Families love to see the little ones up on stage

But what happens now?

At this time of year we’d start getting costumes and scenery ready, fixing the cast, designing the posters and press advertisements, ready for December. But how can we do it? Social distancing means a hugely reduced audience. How can they join in wearing face-masks? How do we keep performers and crew safe? What happens in packed dressing rooms, women and children in one, men in the other?

Kevin and Stuart have run the Pavilion for years with little or no financial support and now they look to government, national and local, for guidance and help to reopen. Like the Norwich’s Theatre Royal, Playhouse and Maddermarket, Sheringham’s Little Theatre, Lowestoft Marina, Hunstanton Princess, and theatres across Suffolk, they hope their Fairy Godmother will soon wave her wand.

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