Reimagining a post-COVID-19 future

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And so, we enter a more relaxed “locked down” level. (Or, with the restrictions on exercise and the arbitrary curfew, it’s been more of a “locked up” experience till now, as if we have been under house arrest).

It will be a while before “gatherings” are allowed, and so theatres and theatremakers continue to seek to eke out a living on the internet, or hold up “Please help, God bless” placards as if standing at traffic lights, begging for the largesse of the public.

There are forms of art that can exist quite comfortably on the internet or social media. Books can be downloaded onto a Kindle or can be read online. Any number of platforms stream movies. Music can be downloaded or enjoyed on YouTube. And, while a number of theatre productions and even stand-up comedians try to present their work through hollowed out online platforms, it is the direct encounter between audiences and performers that renders theatre unique. No performance is the same from one night to another, with actors feeding off the energy and engagement of the audience.

Many theatremakers are desperate to get back to the once-normal.

But the once-normal is unlikely to be the normal once again, at least not until a vaccine against the coronavirus is found. Even when we reach “level one”, the then new normal will require masks, physical distancing and entrance to the theatres not through metal detectors, but past temperature detectors, and foyers will become sites of social distance policing.

The very meaning of theatre is being questioned by these extraordinary times. Theatre has faced many existential challenges: will it continue to exist after the introduction of radio? Will it survive television? Will it find a way to outlast online streaming platforms that bring high-class production values directly into people’s homes? Will it survive a lengthy period in which COVID-19 denies it the direct encounter between performers and audiences?

Already, some theatres have ceased to exist, unable to continue to carry the costs of rent, staff or operations when there is no income from the box office. Just this last week, a theatre where I’ve had great memories of sold-out shows of my own works, like Pay back the curry and Land acts, and of meals in their restaurant and of their fun shows, sent out this notice: “Sadly, there is no easy way to say this. The Kalk Bay Theatre … is no more. With the ongoing building and staffing costs and no income since our doors closed, we simply could not keep it afloat. We burned the midnight oil for weeks trying to come up with clever solutions, bearing in mind that there was little prospect of reopening before sometime in 2021, but the brick wall in front of us was impenetrable. The devastating end result is that we had to terminate the lease with our landlord.”

Theatres may shut for these kinds of reasons, but theatre will continue, playing perhaps to smaller audiences, all looking as if they are attending a masked ball, or perhaps in people’s homes or on the streets or in other public spaces.

But, even as theatre faces its next existential challenge, it offers an opportunity to reflect critically and rigorously on the meaning and nature of the discipline, on what its roles are in a society as divided by inequality as ours, on whom we make theatre for, and why, and on how the “new normal” should look for theatre – will it simply return to what it was before? Is this simply an unwanted interruption in the business of theatre – or the “theatre industry”, as policymakers are now wont to call it – in much the same way as the pandemic is a devastating but temporary interruption to any other business?

Even as the coronavirus has offered the human species an existential challenge on a global scale as we have not experienced in our lifetime, it has provided us with an opportunity to reflect on even greater existential challenges posed to us and by us – the challenges of climate change, for example – and to consider how we may change the way we live now, in order that future generations may continue to live.

Do we simply go back to what we did, to how we lived before, or do we fundamentally change the way our economy works, our social structures, our culture of consumption?

If we follow the science, it is clear that we need to change, just as science has informed us of our need to change our behaviour during the current pandemic: to refrain from shaking hands, to maintain physical space between us, to wash our hands regularly, to wear masks.

And yet, the way we as a species have responded to recent challenges does not inspire much hope. After the attacks on the World Trade Centre, now known as 9/11, we had the chance to change our world to make it a more just, equitable one, but the powerful chose rather to go to war, and various parts of the world remain highly unstable theatres of death as a result. The 2008 financial crisis presented a challenge concerning how to remake the world, and we simply bailed out those who had caused the crisis, as they were “too big to fail”, and reverted to “business as usual”.

Theatre cannot change the world, but it can help individuals to question, to see the world differently. Perhaps, as theatremakers reflect on our own existential challenges at this time, we can reimagine a theatre practice that will offer new possibilities for a reimagined future.

Buro: MvH
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