As Fred Astaire once famously crooned, there may be trouble ahead. Indeed, you think to yourself, watching the much-loved Nuffield theatre in Southampton going into administration and Frozen closing on Broadway, the man’s got a point. Undeniable.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Making theatre as we know it is impossible during a pandemic and, to be honest, it will be pretty bloody hard even once the lockdown is over and we adapt to a post-Corona world. Community secretary Robert Jenrick suggested in Wednesday’s briefing that theatres could re-open as early as ‘later this Summer’, and yet the overwhelming consensus among the venues themselves is that theatre as we know it will not be back this year – possibly for much longer.
So what will the next few months and years bring for the arts? Well, there will indeed be trouble ahead. But there is also no industry better equipped – as individuals and as a whole – to face the music, and dance.
Theatre will embrace digital opportunities
As audiences and venues alike adapt to the fact that socially-distanced conventional theatre isn’t viable, the first step is likely to be embracing technology to connect digitally with audiences.
Some theatres (looking at you, NT) have had a head-start with livestreaming high quality theatrical productions but many more are following suit. The productions, going live at regular times each week, can provide a much-needed sense of community as theatre-lovers across the globe gather virtually to enjoy the best offerings of British theatre. There’s hope that as social distancing eases, it will be easier for theatre makers to create shows that, even if they can’t be performed in front of live audiences, can be filmed and streamed.
But the scope of digital theatre is so much greater. Online festivals have started to emerge (e.g. The Yard Theatre’s Yard Online which, in a stroke of genius, is due to end with an after party on Animal Crossing), and more and more performances and scratch nights are starting to pop up on Zoom, allowing for interaction between theatremakers and audiences. The Cockpit Theatre has created ‘Just Off Church Street’, an online channel exploring their local area in Marylebone through video and performance. Immersive Theatre giants Les Enfants Terribles are planning ‘The Prism’, an interactive, immersive online story. And these are just a few examples; there is no one right way to do virtual theatre and as we go forwards into the next few months and years, expect to see theatre makers finding more creative ways to engage with digital theatre.
But Theatre will stay live
Theatre isn’t cinema. It’s designed to be raw, immediate – to deliver a personal connection between performer and audience which just can’t be recreated on a tiny screen. Performers are not supposed to buffer.
The West End will be quiet for a while, but the scope of live, socially-distanced is huge and open to just as much creativity as digital theatre. The English National Opera have recently announced a series of drive-in opera performances that will run in September (ENO Drive & Live). 1:1 Concerts taking place in Stuttgart, Germany, as the name suggests, are delivering intimate concerts for one performer and one audience member in areas around the city. Italian theatre director Gabriele Vacis has suggested the fascinating idea that theatres could open as interactive museums; allowing audiences to book online and visit in limited numbers to watch a theatre’s daily activities, from rehearsals to reading to the technical work of installing lights and sounds. Around the world, producers and theatre makers are working actively to create safe ways to return to live performance.
On a practical note, there may well be more investment in less-risky forms of theatre, for example Open Air. Audiences will surely return to Cornwall’s gorgeous clifftop Minack Theatre, for example, before they cram themselves into one of London’s stuffy pub theatres. And inside or outside, extravagant sets and huge budgets are less likely to feature in the immediate future as producers mitigate their risks. This may affect cast size too; the smaller the cast, the less risk of one person getting a tickly throat on opening night and scuppering the whole endeavour, so expect to see more one-man or woman shows.
Theatres will have to become more accessible
I’m taking the opinion of my mother on this one. A life-long theatre lover, who first introduced me to the wonders of live theatre via Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat when I was ten, she informed me recently that “I’ll certainly think twice before going to a theatre at the moment.” My mother’s only 61.
Theatres have traditionally relied on the twin pillars of tourism and older, middle class demographics to sustain their audiences – without them, at least for the short term, venues need to be bolder and more insistent in breaking the arts open. The Young Vic’s Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah recently expressed his determination in a BBC interview that theatre would be ‘rebuilt with that [class, race, gender equality] as a fundamental’ and that seems inevitable.
The abundance of free livestreams is making theatre widely accessible – if producers and directors do not use this as an opportunity to engage with diverse audiences, it will be a shameful missed opportunity.
Theatre Will Survive
This is the important one. It’s a strange and anxious time, and the news of closures and cancellations can be relentless. But there is a bigger picture. Story-telling, music, make-believe – live theatre, in whatever form, is comes as naturally to human societies as finding a tasty carb to tuck into it. It’s been with us since the Ancient Greeks (and probably before) and it will survive this, too. Creativity, ingenuity and flexibility will carry us through this season – and leave us with a greatly enriched and more resilient arts industry when we’ve made it through.