I have been writing about theatre for over 30 years and during that time people keep on telling me that theatre is a dying art-form. But as John Steinbeck once observed:
“the theatre is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed.”
The coronavirus may kill you; it might kill me, and it could kill my venerable Great Aunt Cecily, but it is not going to kill theatre which has survived previous pandemics, war, political repression and more. But I guess you could say it is having a good go. And the government sure seems intent on doing its bit too, largely through lack of clarity, ignorance about how theatre works, and a cruel indifference to the plight of theatre’s freelancer workers, 40 per cent of whom have been ineligible for either furlough or the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme.
It may surprise you to know that 70 per cent of theatre’s workforce are freelancers. If they are forced to leave the industry who will make the shows we all love to see? A venue is merely a pile of bricks and mortar, nothing more. It is the artists who turn it into a theatre by the work they make inside it.
The company of Les Enfants Terribles' 'Alice's Adventures Underground' at the Vaults London.
It’s true to say that the Coronavirus is a huge challenge for theatre (a bigger challenge than even the Puritans who shut it down fearing it was a bed of sedition and loose morals), because it is an art-form which is based on bringing people together in the same space. Although as I suggested to Not Quite Sure in Tooting a couple of weeks back it is a space can operate across many platforms, including digital ones.
But of course, for lots of us, theatre is about being physically together in the same space, and the virus makes that tricky. The second lock-down is a major blow, coming at a moment when so many theatres, not just in London but in Sheffield, Manchester and beyond, had just started opening their doors and inviting audiences back in. Now they will be closed again until at least 2nd December, and there is no guarantee—at least until a vaccine or cure is found—that there might not be further lockdowns if infection rates rise again. It puts theatre in what my great aunt Cecily would say is a pretty pickle.
But while theatre may be down, it is definitely not out. Theatre and theatremakers are nothing if not resilient. That may be because everyone who makes theatre gets knocks and rejections all the time. To be a theatremaker is to live in hope. Even as you read this, shows already announced, and some that have not yet been are in rehearsal ready for the moment when theatre can re-open again. Many more are being live-streamed because while audiences cannot attend theatres, performers and theatre makers can because it is their place of work. Support them by watching and donating.
The company in CRAVE at Chichester Festival Theatre (Streaming until Sat 7 Nov). Photo by Marc Brenner
There will, of course, be casualties along the way—in individual careers, in talent that never gets a chance to bloom and not all companies and buildings will survive the pandemic. We should properly mourn every single loss.
But theatre will not die. It will morph and change as it has always down over the centuries, and I’m confident that while it may take time to recover, possibly a very long time, recover it will. New growth will come.
So, Worried in Bromley, my advice is to listen to Shakespeare. Because as Rosalind suggests in As You Like It, even when all around seems dark and death is rampant, we must “take the present time” and “love the spring.”
Cover photo by Ciel Cheng.