By Niamh Hanns
2020 saw the world come to a standstill. Weddings were cancelled, bars were closed, theatres had to completely shut down. However, just because people couldn’t meet in person didn’t mean the stage went entirely dark– where there’s a will there’s a way, and theatrical types all across the globe made sure that the show did go on.
On March 17th, London’s West End closed following advice to the public against attending performances, and to begin observing social distancing measures. Broadway had shut down less than five days previously, and the UK went into its first lockdown the following week. This first lockdown saw an incredible influx of free online theatre. Some personal highlights included the National Theatre’s ‘At Home’ series, which saw a different National Theatre play released on YouTube every week from April-July, and NSDF and Fringe favourites Ugly Bucket Theatre making their show ‘2 Clowns 1 Cup’ available to stream. As a northerner who is often envious of the comparative accessibility of theatre in London, I was genuinely thrilled to have such a wide range of theatre available not only for free, but without an expensive train ride.
But the implications of free theatre were evidently problematic. While releasing past performances for free was a wonderful solution for the sudden hole the arts left in our lives, and was amazing from a financial and geographical accessibility perspective, it raised questions for the industry on a wider level. If people became accustomed to being able to access theatre for free, would that result in an overall devaluation of the arts in the public eye? An awful lot of time and money goes into creating theatre, something people could easily forget if they expect to be able to access it without paying. The National Theatre clearly saw this risk, and have since launched a paid subscription service to access their content at home, although over Christmas they still made their pantomime Dick Whittington available for free. Regardless, the pandemic has had a disastrous financial impact on the industry, with a report by Oxford Economics warning of a £74 billion loss in revenue across the arts industry as a result of the crisis.
As the year drew on, some theatres managed to reopen, with the West End given the green light to reopen its doors in December as London emerged into Tier 2 following the November lockdown. Undoubtedly the experience of theatre makers had changed dramatically, with performers having to take daily coronavirus tests and distance from their fellow cast members. Audience capacity was greatly reduced to reflect the 2m social distancing requirements, yet although this would result in much smaller profit – if any – for theatres, many theatres still seized their chance to reopen. Of course, this joy was short-lived as London was moved up to Tier 3 on 14th December, and the new Tier 4 shortly after, and shows such as Six and Les Misérables had to close mere days after the start of their runs. Therein lies one of the most frustrating issues for theatre during the pandemic; the sheer speed at which restrictions can change makes it near impossible to plan for anything, particularly shows involving large financial commitments, with the ever-present risk being shut down with little to no notice at all. This is perhaps why Durham’s own theatre, the Gala, made the decision early on to remain closed until at least 2021, while also using the closure as an opportunity to carry out planned improvement works. As it stands, the Gala Theatre has not made any announcements about their plans for the rest of the year.
Yet the pandemic has forced us creative types to remain, well, creative, adapting to the situation as best we can and finding new ways to produce theatre. The Ratatouille Musical is a great example of this. It began as a trend on TikTok where theatrically-inclined users would post their ideas for songs, choreography and even promotional material for an imagined musical based on the Disney Pixar film, and eventually came to life as a streamed charity concert featuring performers such as Adam Lambert and Mean Girls’ Ashley Park. Creativity has also flourished here at our university, with Durham Student Theatre’s output remaining high throughout the pandemic. Theatre companies released a range of audio dramas, such as DUCT’s They Met on Good Friday and CTC’s Frankenstein, and a lucky few managed real staged performances earlier on in the term when restrictions allowed for in-person activity, including student-written plays Agency, by Tom Murray, and Hostage, by Francesca Haydon-White. While the term and year ahead promises to be a tricky one, we must hold out hope that theatre as we know it will return – and in the meantime, continue being creative and support each other and our theatres in any way we can.
Illustration: Adeline Zhao