Time is out of joint. The speed with which this situation is unfolding is one of the most disorientating things about the coronavirus crisis.
We went from an opening night at London’s National Theatre on Friday, to the closure of most theatres in the UK on Monday, and the realisation that we’re all about to start living our own personal bottle episodes.
It’s dizzying and distressing. The temptation at a time of crisis is to gather. We’re a social species, we need each other, but our best shot of lessening the virus’ impact on the most vulnerable in society, and keep the NHS from being overburdened, is to stay apart. The way we live is going to drastically change. And that’s going to be hard.
One of the many things that this unprecedented situation has made starkly apparent is that while a small number of people have made a large amount of money from theatre, the industry is propped up by freelance workers whose existence is precarious even in normal circumstances, something that is only likely to intensify over the coming weeks.
Jobs have already been lost. Projects cancelled. And there’s no real sense of when, or if, normality will be resumed. One glimmer of light amid the fog of uncertainty is the speed with which people have stepped up to initiate schemes and fundraisers to try to keep each other afloat.
There has been some swift and inventive thinking in the industry, acts of kindness great and small
There has been some swift and inventive thinking, acts of kindness great and small. A number of grassroots funding schemes have sprung up – including Papatango’s initiative to pay commissions for those self-isolating – and people are sharing skills or offering feedback on scripts or teaching sessions.
Some of the most generous and galvanising acts of leadership in the last few days have come not from Downing Street but from those in charge of arts institutions taking the difficult yet necessary decision to close buildings.
This was made clear by David Byrne, artistic director of New Diorama, as he committed to paying freelance staff and actors for their upcoming shifts. “In good times you talk about values, in a crisis you live them,” he said.
The last couple of days also saw an outpouring of love and support on social media platforms, which can often be combative, with people sharing and celebrating the things they love about theatre in an act of solidarity and, let’s face it, mourning.
That’s not too strong a word. We have lost something, and it’s fine to feel dazed and wrung-out for a few days, to not feel pressured to use every second of this time productively, to prioritise looking after yourself and those around you. If you need to spend an afternoon listlessly watching YouTube clips of penguins roaming free around aquariums, do it.
The push to share work online is also understandable and valuable, to make shows available for streaming and to upload to YouTube, to preserve and share the work, but that doesn’t take into account the fact that theatre is both congregational and alchemical. The audience is as much a part of the experience as the performers.
When I spoke to Lucy Prebble earlier this month, in an interview about her play The Effect – about two people cooped up in close quarters while trialling an experimental drug – she likened making theatre to sitting around the campfire, as the group of people around you slowly grows.
Though campfires are incompatible with social distancing, ours is a creative industry and already it’s inspiring to see people thinking about new ways of collaborating and coming together online. Digital campfires, if you will. This is going to be important in the months to come.
We’re entering a difficult period – though other countries have, of course, been living it for some time – and it’s going to require new ways of thinking, about how we make and share work, about the industry, and also about society.
We’re entering a difficult period and it’s going to require new ways of thinking
Stories are central to this. They help us make sense of the world. They also offer us something to hold on to in times of upheaval. We’re going to spend the next few weeks, if not months, watching and reading an awful lot, submersing ourselves in imagined worlds. Stories will make self-isolation bearable.
The Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran says stories are “not only the most powerful transmitters of human experience, but also natural penicillin for diseases of the human soul”. I agree with this completely. We need stories and storytellers now, as a balm, as a comfort, but also as a window through which we can envision what the world will look like after all this has passed.
Natasha Tripney is The Stage’s reviews editor and joint lead critic. Read more of her columns and reviews at thestage.co.uk/author/natashathestage-co-uk/