Maggie Smith once observed: “I like the ephemeral thing about theatre: every performance is like a ghost – it’s there and then it’s gone.” I guess that feeds to theatre’s much-touted truism that you have to be there in the room. You either saw a show, or you didn’t. Theatre begins and ends with the live performance.
You can document all you like, but where it lives on is not in the reviews, or in the play text, or even in its filmed online manifestation, but in the memory of those who were there. It’s rather like the way that photos and video of a dead loved one can give comfort, but where that person exists most vividly is in your own head. The dead only truly die when they stop being remembered. It’s the same principle with theatre. It is a mortal art form. So, what happens when it never gets a chance to take to the stage? Are there still traces left behind?
I once did an interview with Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson from Good Chance, which collaborates with refugees, and they said that they were probably the only theatre company in the world that actively longs for the moment when it can disband because it’s not needed any more. I feel the same about the weekly feature I’m currently writing for The Stage called The Empty Space (see p28-29). This is because, as the name suggests, it commemorates or memorialises, or perhaps I should say celebrates, a production that would have opened that week were it not for the shutdown. It is a love letter to theatre’s dreamers.
I pair the show that never got on with a production that did open that week at some point in the past, whether a couple of years back or more than a century ago. Often there turns out to be unexpected resonances between the two, as if they were speaking to each other across the years in direct conversation.
In the first few weeks, I interviewed theatremakers who came within touching distance of opening night. But as time has gone by, I am talking with those who never even got inside a rehearsal room. For them, the production remains a tantalising mirage of what it might have become. These productions are all promise. They glow with possibility. They have never had to deal with a negative review or unsold seats.
I look forward to the moment when there is no need of The Empty Space series and I’m out of a regular weekly job, because that would mean theatres are reopening and shows are once again being staged.
‘Theatre’s beautiful dreamers will make shows possible against all the odds, as they always have’
I can’t wait, but I might have to be patient for some months yet. As Rufus Norris signalled this week, those running our theatres are acutely aware that venues may not reopen for some time – and when they do, enticing audiences back is not going to be straightforward.
So, in the meantime I will keep going with The Empty Space and keep reminding readers of the shows that never made it to the stage even though many people have been working on them for months, in some cases years.
Some of these projects will be reborn in future seasons or maybe on entirely different stages or in different forms, yet some will disappear forever, remaining a lost opportunity and a series of unanswered what ifs.
We can and should mourn their loss, and I hope that The Empty Space is making a tiny contribution in reminding that a group of dreamers did get together to make – or start to make – a show.
Because that is what theatre always is: a dream made by a bunch of romantics who find a way of turning the impossible into the possible and who bring us together to make shared memories.
Those dreams may currently be on hold but, like all of us lucky enough to have been theatregoers, I have a stock of sustaining, burnished memories on which to draw and nourish my own dreams.
At some point, we will get the chance to come back together again, and it will be those beautiful, precarious dreamers – our performers, playwrights, stage managers, designers, composers, producers and theatremakers of all kinds – who will make that possible against all the odds, as they always have done and always will.
That gives me comfort. We cannot retrieve what has been lost and those we have lost along the way, but we can honour them by remembering. We can take strength from the knowledge that, despite all the obstacles, theatre will survive and continue to bring the joy, succour and light we need to see us through the darkest times.