“The habitual tendency when things get tough is that we protect ourselves, we get hard, we get rigid. But…that’s the time to soften and see how we might play or dance with the situation.” – Jeff Bridges
Walking down Bristo Place and encountering Bedlam Theatre standing proud in all its neogothic glory is like witnessing a moment frozen in time. Posters from the last production, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, remain fixed to the surrounding fence and an eerie stillness emanates from the theatre walls. For the past six months, this has been the sad reality for theatre in the UK. It is difficult to remember the last time live theatre has experienced a blow quite like this and even more difficult to know how long it will be until it is ‘the same’ again.
If the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown have demonstrated anything about the theatrical community, it is the sheer resilience and optimism that remains its driving force. The temptation to wallow in negativity about the future of live theatre still prevails among many of us but one thing is certain: theatre is not going down without a fight.
The problem does not stem from any lack of innovation or creativity. In fact, theatres and theatre companies all over the UK have used the lockdown period as a way to democratise theatre through streaming platforms. The most notable manifestation of this is the National Theatre Live at Home which screened past productions for free whilst encouraging donations to keep the theatre on its feet during the difficult months of April through to July.
Money is, sadly, where the current problem lies. UK arts industries contribute over £11 billion per year to the economy, yet the lack of arts funding means that theatres are the first to receive budget cuts. The National Theatre, despite being the country’s most prolific theatrical body, still had to lay off all of its front of house staff in July, and Edinburgh, a city brewing with artistry and innovation, had to cancel the Fringe Festival this year.
Although the Culture Secretary has secured a much larger amount of money for the performing arts than expected, actor Simon Callow maintains that “it is not enough to save an entire industry which, with the exception of the subsidised theatres, has no other source of income but its paying customers, and whose work force is largely made up, not of tenured workers, but of freelancers, among them the entire acting profession.” Theatre has, and always will be, a unifying force so it is sad to see the antiquated art-versus-commerce debate rear its ugly head again during this time.
That being said, the real question is: can live theatre survive with the implementation of social distancing measures? With stricter measures in place again to prevent an expected second wave, there is likely going to be a longer delay until the eventual reopening of theatres. Solutions to the problem are theoretical at the moment but they should definitely be considered.
In a utopian world, actors would all be tested for COVID-19 and isolated together creating their own ‘bubble’ meaning close proximity on stage would cease to be an issue. Tech and backstage crew would also be tested and wear masks, similar to what is being attempted on film sets as they slowly start production again, and a reduced audience size would allow for social distancing in the auditorium. Realistically, though, might smaller audiences mean pricier tickets, which could dispel people from going to the theatre and make it exclusive only to those who can afford it?
Another possibility for live theatre in the future is to use smaller venues such as cafes and restaurants as mock-theatres to create a more intimate experience. Although this may not replicate the buzz of watching performances in venues such as The Old Vic or The Globe, isn’t there something wonderful about theatre returning to its roots? The organic exchange of stories between performers and audience members has always been at the root of theatre: maybe a return to simplicity is the way forward for the time being.
Whilst the lockdown saw a streaming revolution in terms of how people consumed theatre, the virtual substitute has to be temporary. In a time of such distance and isolation, there is a yearning for the collective experience, the transformation, the discussion, the passion and the emotion that only live theatre can provide.
We have to adapt and cling on to the optimism that drives theatre and the creative industries. Jeff Bridges’s meditation on hard times could not be a more apt sentiment to carry forward: it is “time to soften and see how we might play or dance with the situation.”