In honour of a terrible year finally coming to a close, Holly Webster reflects on what she misses most about live theatre and the ways in which the industry has responded to mass closures throughout 2020.
We’ve heard it a million times at this point, but the pandemic has changed everything beyond recognition. Everything we have done in the past has had to be changed in a way to keep everyone safe and his has included suspending events and then bringing them back in new, safer ways.
Of course, one of the industries that had this knock has been the theatre industry, but sadly, bringing back theatre has been more difficult than some other areas as it naturally includes bringing a lot of people into one enclosed space. Another issue that the arts as a whole face is that the government have never really taken them seriously, which has meant an inadequate amount of support has been given to help get the curtains open again. Just look at that awful cyber retraining campaign for a start — I could write a whole blog just about that!
Having said all of this, there have been trickles of the industry coming back, with companies announcing pantos and shows merely being rescheduled instead of cancelled but in what capacity and how successful?
One of the ways that this has been done over the entirety of lockdown has been for theatre companies and artists to put on online shows. So far, I have watched online poetry shows, theatre shows of loved ones plus a viewing of the musical First Date. This is a weird situation for me because I am constantly impressed by the quality of work that people have still been able to be shown and also, the amount of time and effort put in. However, watching online shows will never quite fully catch the tangible magic of going to the theatre. The joy of ordering your tickets, getting your ticket in your hand (and smelling it — yes I know I’m weird, but it helps me to savour it), getting dressed up and going out, arriving and getting your pre-theatre drinks, seeing the set for the first time… I could go on forever, but you know the magic as well as I do. Doing all of this through a screen just isn’t the same but I’m still grateful that we can have something. I do however sympathise with those who do not have easy access to the internet because they might miss out on such wonderful opportunities to still bask in the joy of theatre.
One of the things that I have noticed is that because people are so desperate to get theatre back, there is less saturation of white, upper class, male gaze theatre being produced because it is somewhat easier than ever for people of different backgrounds to put their work out and get it noticed. I do hope that the crossover of lockdown and the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement this year will mean that once the industry is back to normal, it will not forget the amazing opportunity that art gives us to tell stories about all kinds of walks of life.
Of course we can’t mention theatre in the UK without talking about the West End. Before things changed again, we had Six reopened and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie due to reopen sometime in November. It would be great if more shows could have looked at opening sooner but I think it’s important that a couple of shows are able to look at reopening with new COVID-19 safety precautions in place so that those in charge of theatres can get a sense of what will work, doing this with a control group means that the industry has some time to iron out some of the kinks before taking the leap to open up more theatres and shows. So, hopefully, when they do open, we as an audience and those involved can get as close to the usual theatre experience as possible.
I just wish there was more material support and opportunities for those who cannot work in their usual shows. Most of these will have a back-up job to help them pay the bills, but many of these jobs will have suffered too and a lot of people will have been made redundant or furloughed. So for them to have that taken away plus the job that brings them so much joy must be heart-breaking and scary, my heart is with them. I hope that they can get back to doing what they love soon, and that it won’t be too long before I’m sat in a theatre seat, feeling the buzz of the audience coming in and waiting for the show to go on.
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