“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”
“There's one thing you can't download and that's a live performance.”
It feels appropriate to start a raucous advocacy rant about live events with a quote from The King of Tragedy, as audiences of the world are currently bereft at the near-complete cessation of live entertainment, but we’ve backed it up with one from The Queen of Reinvention, because the soul of shapeshifting will be needed to survive the current storm...
The unifying nature of the absence of live performances transcends disciplines. Whether you’re being hushed quiet as a theatre performance is about to start, laughing so hard a bit of wee comes out at a comedy gig, holding a plastic cup of beer awaiting your favourite band in a venue, or wandering with feckless joy thorough the woods at a summer festival, the current induced-coma of the gig landscape has been felt like a liver-punch by the audience communities across the globe. But we promised positivity and solutions-focused idealism, so VIVE LE GIGS! JE SUIS L’AUDIENCE, ONE MORE TUNE, and shhhhh the performance is about to commence.
Looking first at theatre, the boards have taken the ultimate hammering, ironically by being untrod upon, as curtains closed indefinitely around the world in March. For all theatre communities this was eviscerating, but for the behemoth of Broadway it seemed completely incomprehensible. For the first time in history, the juggernaut of New York Theatre ground to a halt, where it remains indefinitely at the time of publication, taking with it the mind-boggling figures that is contributing to the economy of New York. According to a report by The Broadway League, the 2018-19 season welcomed 14.8 million admissions, at an average of $146.50 per ticket. That’s a eye-singing amount of revenue for a city to lose, on top of having to stay alive in the middle of a pandemic, so needless to say, when we went looking for positive thoughts regarding New York’s theatre, the internet wasn’t playing ball, choosing to remind us that NY’s recovery is inextricably linked with Broadway coming back, and generally painting a picture of economic grimness.
There’s no denying the disaster, but in the search for realism, we searched harder and spoke to SJ De Mattio, the associate producer of The Mint Theatre Company, an off-broadway archival theatre company. They were realistic but pragmatic in the face of the no-wiggle-room closure they’ve endured.
In the wake of going dark, as well as hosting a streaming festival (which managed to pay 30 actors and stage managers two weeks wages while earning credits to their Pension & Health plans), they began a newsletter on lost voices from black history, which they is “predominantly women playwrights from the Harlem renaissance and before who changed the landscape of American theatre, and changed the literary establishment in new york and across the US who are not canonised or taught about in schools”
SJ feels that there was an underlying fog that needed to lift, what has been given an opportunity to do so now. “It’s allowed for us as an institution and maybe various other institutions to rethink our priorities. I think it’s strange, there has been a huge gust of wind that has destroyed everything in its path but also cleared a haze that I think has been left stagnant over our industry for a long time.”
Irish Theatre has seen some creative thinking in response to COVID with its national theatre The Abbey staged work entitled Dear Ireland, where they commissioned work from 50 Irish writers, who’d written short one-actor plays, which were then broadcast over a weekend in May, before then going on to announce a full, if unconventional program for the rest of 2020.
However, it’s all we government subsidy are thinking with brilliant creativity about how to continue producing theatre.
Ciara Elizabeth Smyth, an Irish playwright, dramaturg and general sound theatre peep is founding a new festival called No Touching Theatre, that’s taking a novel approach to restrictions and turning it into an exercise in creativity.
She and her partner, writer Oisin Kearney, conceived the idea amid the flurry of “wft are we gonna do now” that came after theatre’s closure.
“I think everyone who thought they could get away with it was trying to do socially distant theatre if they thought they could get away with it, we thought of this and then approached a director called (Emily Foran) and a Writer and Director Gina Donnelly”
No Touching Theatre called upon individuals, rather than companies to apply for inclusion, assembling their list of writers, actors, directors beforehand, before matching them up afterwards in a more modular method of theatre planning. “We wanted to present other peoples work, or facilitate presenting other peoples work, and I wanted to give directors and actors a bit of agency as a lot of that was taken away from them.”
The rules of making No Touching Theatre are “No Set, No Props, No Tech, No Touching”, using only two actors and writing pieces of a 5-10 minute duration, which narrows the goalposts considerably but definitely makes the creators think more acrobatically about how to tell their story.
So this means no phones, music, bits of paper, changing of lights…. it came about because we were trying to stop the passing of props, but i wanted to make something that’s high end but ow pressure. To use the restrictions, rather than moan about them”
Sorcha O’Reilly is a longtime festival and events professional currently working for Fuel, an Irish event management company, and is the artist director of Kaleidoscope, a family-friendly festival in Co Wicklow, Ireland. She believes that ideas should be shared in an effort to inspire the whole industry, rather than compete against each other. A more open-course and collaborative effort.
They’ve been building a Theatre In The Park idea that would utilise painted circles and sell tickets to households to encourage physical distancing but maintain the social atmosphere.
“I think instead of calling it's socially distanced, it should be physically distanced and socially present because you can be physically distant and still maintain a social situation.”
The shows would be only an hour-long with three showings throughout the day, allowing for a long ingress and egress and also to lessen the reliance on public toilets. Those would be provided, however Sorcha points out that people prefer to avoid them if possible especially now. Food would also be served to the circle.
Sorcha’s appealing for an underwriting facility whereby the government would underwrite the cost of an event to a point that would allow for a cushion should anything have to be cancelled from a lockdown.
And what of larger festivals and live events? As a group, the absence of live music gigs and festivals has been felt viscerally by the denizens of Thinkhouse, as a The echo-chamber of the gig-goer saw wide-spread social media lament at the passing of all the landmark festival weekends. Body & Soul (IRL), Glastonbury (UK), Burning Man (US), to name but a few, and most recently Electric Picnic (IRL). Memory posts were widespread and some festivals ran online events in their stead.
A total rethinking of how to proceed is taking place as curators and creators tirelessly strive to work around the restrictions that arise with whack-a-mole abruptness and regularity.
Two such creators are Deirdre Young and Sinead Bailey Kelly of H&G Creations, a two-person event production and styling company who have a history of putting on high-creative parties in hidden locations. After putting out weeks of free online content to keeps spirits up after the announcement of closures, they conceived a socially-distanced mini-festival to even fractionally fill the void left by 2020’s summer of silent fields.
Home festival would have limited tickets which would facilitate on-site temperature testing for all attendees as well as stringent sanitation and monitoring, but with an atmosphere and schedule that will cultivate the festival atmosphere.
It was originally scheduled for late August, but the girls sensibly had a failsafe plan of a Halloween reschedule in the event of restrictions changing (which they did).
It might seem strange to think of restrictions and festive atmosphere co-existing, but we need to adapt our thinking if we’re to keep moving forward. Instead of waiting for an end, we need to look at living alongside the elephant in the room, for our own mental health and sanity, because placing dates of an aspirational end only to be repeatedly dashed, will dent morale like an acid wave on a limestone cliff.
Government support will take us so far but creativity and innovation need to work independently of the wait for assistance. The #ThisIsWhoWeAre hashtag is gaining momentum for events in Ireland driven by EPIC and they have pre-written mail to your local authority which takes less than 30 seconds to complete.
As a supporter of live events, what can we do? Look up your favourite festival, theatre company, event producer, see what actions are being suggested, donate, lobby, push forward, create. Getting despondent isn’t an option, even if our future festivals, gigs and shows look forever different, they will happen, because the shows must go on.