At the time of writing this, London’s theatres have just closed.
We are in the mass-gathering business. Theatre is the opposite of self-isolation – it’s a house of togetherness – and having to shut down is contrary to all our beliefs.
We’re also in the people business, and while it’s clear the government has tried to balance decisions that could decimate our economy with those that might decimate our population, we will end up doing what’s right for the communities we serve.
However, the pandemic will test the social fabric of any community unlucky enough to host it. And that fabric will come under the most stress where it is already the most frayed.
It will hit us where it’s already hurting: theatres toppling in the wake of austerity with next to nothing in reserve, hundreds of thousands of freelances, companies that are constantly operating at the margins of plausibility. Coronavirus will not respect our bottom line. In the great casino of life, Mother Nature is the house, and the house always wins.
The notion of ‘control’ over such seismic events is an illusion, so there is a performative aspect to the footage of politicians striding calmly through the streets of Westminster, clutching their action plans.
Right now we are obliged to go beyond the performance of competence and leadership into a new mode of thinking, riven with conflict and contradiction: we want to stay open but need to close, we want to gather folk together but want them to stay at home, we want to protect our workforce but to do so they have to stand down.
In the great casino of life, Mother Nature is the house, and the house always wins
One of the quieter conversations happening within every industry is about opportunity – natural optimism somehow willing us to a place where we will grow from this.
I have had countless conversations with peers over the last couple of weeks, all of us wanting to share information in order to protect our colleagues and mutually survive, the timeless competitiveness evaporating as soon as the stakes became clear. It’s uplifting, but it’s not enough.
We will emerge in some form. No klaxon will sound, there will be no street parties. Our audience will find us again, electing to come back and share space with strangers, to laugh, cry, gasp, breathe and choose social intimacy over social distancing.
However, what state our industry will be in after this test of survival is unknown. Right now, all we know about this virus is that we don’t know enough. But what we really want to know is what the government has in store once the worst has passed.
Right now, all we know about this virus is that we don’t know enough
What is the action plan that recognises we are world leaders, a crucial and dynamic part of the peerless creative industries, contributing far more than we receive in investment? Will theatre receive a bail out as the banks have and as the airline industry is demanding? After the deluge, will this unique house be considered important enough to rebuild?
Rufus Norris is artistic director of London’s National Theatre. Read more of his columns at thestage.co.uk/author/rufus-norris