Theatre is just one of the many areas in the arts being affected by the current outbreak of coronavirus. This is a pandemic of cancellation and disappointment for audiences and creatives alike, with every venue shutting its doors in the last couple of weeks, unsure of when their programs will continue. There has been an overwhelming show of support for artists during this tough time, with projects and funds being set up by the minute. However, there is little doubt that the creative industry will be hit hard by the uncertain times ahead.
Theatres are closed, performances postponed and actors, directors, lighting designers out of work (see here for the full statement from SOLT). 2020, which began with so much hope and positivity – the start of a new decade, now feels like a catastrophe that can only get worse. It’s only March and the majority of us can't have plans until June, and even those have question marks. Now we must stay at home and tick a load of random things off the (indoor) bucket list. One thing we all have in common during this isolation period is how much we will rely on the creativity of others. Let’s celebrate that. Each and every one of us has had some creative event cancelled by the pandemic, whether that be a festival, West End show or even a trip to the cinema. Although, thanks to technology we will not have to completely cut art out of our lives, in fact art will be one of the elements keeping us going through this period. It’s all very well to be sat at home surrounded by rolls of toilet paper but what we are really going to rely on is: TV, films, books, streaming, radio and more. If you would like recommendations of how to pass your time in isolation with online theatre, see my post about watching theatre online during isolation.
On an even more sobering note, the impact of this virus will be so severe for some theatres that they may not re-open if this lockdown lasts for much longer. (Click here to donate to a fund supporting artists and creatives during this tough time) A couple of days ago it was looking like a few weeks, but now the number is verging on months and no one knows when this nightmare of inactivity will end. The thought that we shall have some “great theatre on the other side”, as the artistic director of The Old Vic, Matthew Warchus, said in a recent statement, gives me comfort. It is also not a question of simply re-opening. Shows will have to re-rehearse because actors will forget lines (they will...) Just because a show is ready to go does not mean everything is in the right place and will stay that way for three months. Actors need to be fit, healthy and know what they are doing, the blocking needs finishing, things that were rented need to be hired again, a venue must be found, the list goes on. When the end is not a clear date, this is really tricky. There is not much anyone can do but, as an audience, we must be patient with theatres. When the normality comes trickling back into existence I hope we can give theatres time to get back on their feet.
One aspect of this madness that resonated most with me was that of students graduating from drama school this year. Every year there are graduate performances to showcase the up and coming talent to potential agents and talent spotters. These shows, along with everything else, have been caught up in the wave of corona cancellations, leaving many worried that there will be a year of students forgotten by the industry. The number of projects led by producers to attempt to shine a light on this abandoned year of graduates is heartwarming. Read about one of these here.
The best news for me is that, so far, the Edinburgh Fringe is going ahead in August (fingers crossed). If that is cancelled then I don’t think miserable old 2020 can even be classified as a year. I imagine that there will be some alterations to the normal fringe rituals of cramming as many audience members into a damp basement as possible, but with some luck the festival will go ahead. On the plus side, the 11am comedy gigs with three audience members sitting miles apart should have no problem adhering with government guidelines. If the decision about the Fringe does change, you'll be the first to know! Read the Festival statement on coronavirus here.
Theatres were always the first places to shut when a plague reared its ugly head. Theatre itself survived, but this current crisis might well push it backwards or, at least, along a different path for a considerable time . The clearest indicator of this change is the sheer amount of theatre available online at the moment. The National Theatre, the Hampstead Theatre, The Royal Opera House and far more (see a list here) have all made archive footage available for free to the isolating millions. With the rise of NT Live we had already begun to see the growth of online theatre material, but this current surge will not simply disappear after the lockdown ends. It is yet to become apparent quite how this will change our future theatrical experience, but change will certainly come. For now, the best we can do is support - and enjoy - theatre from the safety of our homes and prepare ourselves for the eerie quiet when we emerge, blinking, from our caves.