There have been so many losses over the past few weeks that sometimes it’s hard to find any gains. But maybe space and time are among them. Most of us, including theatres, artists and critics, are caught on the hamster wheel of incessant product creation. The cycle never stops: there are always more shows to make, more tickets to sell, more shows to see and more reviews to be written.
The shutdown of theatres is having a devastating impact on the industry, and the losses – not just financial – will be huge. We shouldn’t underestimate them, and there will be many different kinds of cost that we will be counting for a long time to come.
But crisis and opportunity are close cousins, and sometimes it is about taking succour and pleasure in the small gains that unexpectedly emerge. For me, personally, the unlooked-for bonus is that I have moved in with my 92-year-old dad to try to shield him in whatever way I can. I know at some point in the future I will look back on these weeks and cherish them because of the chance they gave us to spend sustained time together and really get to know each other in a way that daily life and my constant theatregoing don’t normally allow.
I have been talking with some of those running theatres and companies over the past week as the initial panic has subsided. While no one is underestimating the severity of the situation and its long-term impact on the industry, some see a silver lining in the shutdown as the chance to get off the hamster wheel, step away from the noise and rethink what theatre is for – and how we make it and programme it.
Just because we’ve always done things in one particular way, it doesn’t mean we have to keep doing them the same way. Yet often those who become part of institutions also quickly become institutionalised. They start doing things in the same old way. But after the pandemic, we may not be able to carry on in the same
One of the reasons diversity among our theatre leaders is so important is that when new people from different backgrounds come into the room and take their place at the table, they see things through different eyes and offer new perspectives. They question why we have always done things the way we have.
Producer and Black Theatre Project founder Tobi Kyeremateng was doing that on Twitter last week. There she made the valuable point that arts organisations are so in thrall to the idea of the new that they “don’t see repetition as a valuable cog in the legacy wheel”. She continued: “An idea is thrown into the air and caught with: ‘Oh we did that five years ago’, and not as a means to say: ‘So how do we learn it, try it again with new voices, new tastes, new instincts, how do we grow?’ but as a means to say: ‘We’ve ticked that box and it isn’t worth revisiting.’ ” She went on to say: “The idea of ‘newness’ is overrated.”
‘Rather than creating, theatre needs to step away from all the noise and take stock’
So too is the idea of constant busyness and unceasing production – the deeply ingrained impetus that as an industry we must produce more and more product or we fail. This thinking has propelled the rush to sort through the back catalogue to see if there’s anything we can fling online. Actually, we need to think harder about whether something filmed from the back of the theatre on a hand-held camera really celebrates the work. And does the world really need more monologues filmed in somebody’s bedroom when everyone can catch up on Succession and the movies they always meant to watch?
Has our urge to keep creating just moved online? Perhaps rather than creating, what theatre needs to do is take a deep breath, step away from all the noise and take stock. This is a moment that is forcing all of us to change how we live on a personal basis. It could also be one that makes theatre interrogate the cycles of creation that many have become trapped in and the opportunities that will emerge from breaking out of them.
The many disruptions of the pandemic will make it impossible to go back to normal when the theatres reopen, so it’s crucial to think long and hard about what theatre does and why – because in a changed world where audiences and communities will emerge with changed personal relationships, they will surely also have changed relationships to theatre and their local theatres. So, theatre needs to greet them in changed ways and engage with them differently too. If it does, perhaps we will look back on this period of terrible loss and see it brought theatre unimagined gains.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner