Reflections on Theatre in a Pandemic
Last Monday marked the grim anniversary of a year since UK theatres closed which followed close on the heels of the same anniversary for Broadway and it has spurred many of us to reflect on what it is of theatre that we love so much.
Theatre normally offers so many things. At its best it is something which challenges us, makes us reconsider our preconceptions and offers an insight into different lives. It also entertains us and offers an escape into a magical new world, with that magic taking many forms. The last year has been a difficult year, to differing extents, for everyone. And that escape has not been available in the same way. The creative industry of theatre has shown its creativity in trying to keep theatre alive. We’ve had live shows streamed to living rooms with an early one being The Old Vic starting with Lungs, live concerts performed from living rooms as part of Leave a Light On and The Show Must Go On YouTube series. Many companies took advantage of the opportunity to film productions a wholly original way with The Curve in Leicester creating something completely new.
I’m so grateful for all the myriad of ways people have tried to keep theatre alive and particularly for those in doing so helping charities to support people in the arts. And in many ways theatre has been opened up to more people, making it more accessible which can only be a great thing. But nothing compares to that live experience. Theatre by its very nature needs to be live. It can be enjoyed on screen but it’s not the same. It’s about the audience and performers connecting and reacting together. It is sharing the same yet simultaneously uniquely different experience with family, friends and strangers. And there is so much about that which I miss.
I miss the 3-minute call to get to your seats. I miss hearing the orchestra warm up. I miss hearing the overture which spurs the excitement of what’s to come, I miss the silence that happens as the lights go down. I miss the rush for the bathrooms at the interval. I miss discussing the show over a glass (or two) of wine. I even miss that last minute panic when you realise the tube is running slowly and you mentally consider all the alternative routes available to get you there before the curtain rises.
However, as hard as it may be now, we also have a lot of hope. The last two weeks have seen a multitude of theatres announce the opening of shows later this year. In the West End we have old favourites such as Les Misérables, new favourites such as Six and & Juliet along with new shows such as Back To The Future all offering new dates. Tour dates for Beauty and the Beast as well as many more are being announced.
We’ve had many attempts to open theatres over the last year, with Andrew Lloyd Webber pushing hardest to make things safe which he demonstrated at The London Palladium. We’ve had a lot of false dawns along the way which have created so much disappointment. Six tried hard to get performances going with the hope of drive-in performances which ultimately were not possible. Les Misérables had the short-lived concert in December. Pantomimes across the country started and were forced to close early. But this time feels different. We have a little more certainty about what can happen. Theatres are taking this cautiously with many openings moving to August and social distancing being implemented until much later than the provisional 21st June date, showing they are planning for changes happening.
And it also offers a huge opportunity, in what is becoming a cliched but appropriate phrase, to build back better. Across the last year we’ve seen so much inequality in our society exposed and during the Black Lives Matter protests there was a lot of soul searching done as theatres looked at the ways they’ve allowed problems to happen and in some cases perpetuated them. As theatres open they can immediately implement the changes that have been called for over the last year. Things won’t be perfect overnight but we have the opportunity to take huge leaps forward.
Through the pandemic we’ve also seen unknown performers get more exposure. It’s shown there is demand to hear more from new people. Maybe we can get a “New Graduates” night each year at The Theatre Café (who have been inspiring through the last year) and The Delfont Rooms could open up with a wider variety of people on, championing new talent. The Stage’s Matt Hemley has suggested having graduates perform a song at the start (or end) of West End shows to give people the chance to see them. This might not work for every show but adding a new song during the & Juliet curtain call would only delight the audience.
We’ve also seen new shows being given a chance. Cruise is starting as an online stream and will perform a limited run at The Duchess Theatre from May 18th (before The Play That Goes Wrong moves back in) and is something we would always want to support. I’m worried that with Trafalgar Studios removing the smaller Studio B (and hence becoming just one theatre) there would be less opportunity for newer writing. I’ve so many exciting shows in that theatre but this gives me hope we will still get that opportunity.
While we reflect on the last year we remember the way people in theatre have pulled together to keep the industry alive and we’re hopeful for the future. Hopeful for seeing old shows, hopeful for new shows, hopeful for new talent - writing, directing, performing – and hopeful that we’ll build back better. I am hopeful for the future all the endless exciting possibilities this offers.