Theatre in the time of COVID-19: Should the show go on?

Posted on August 12, 2020

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world turned to the arts and creative sector for entertainment, connection and to respond to the unknown. Yet the cultural and creative industries (CCI) sector undoubtedly has been hit the hardest by the pandemic. In fact, UNESCO called the situation a “cultural emergency” on a global scale.

Lockdown regulations have meant that the jobs many producers, directors, choreographers, musicians, performing artists, stage crew and technicians had lined up in the second half of 2020, in effect, disappeared.

During lockdown level 5, entertainment venues closed, and arts and music festivals were cancelled or postponed. Amendments to allow theatres to operate as studios for recording or live-streaming productions with small casts were gazetted in May, and the audio-visual and interactive media domain could resume operations within specified parameters. Under level 3, theatres can partially operate again, but with limited capacity and social distancing measures in place.

All of this makes it nearly impossible for theatres to remain financially viable, and some have indicated that they will reopen only in 2021. This, of course, comes with retrenchments and job reductions. It not only impacts those working in and for the theatre, but also those working in other areas that provide services to theatres, such as food and beverage, printing, etc. While many performing artists work across several domains and may have diversified their employment options, the health of employment opportunities in the CCI sector is in jeopardy.

Why should we be concerned about that?

The social and cultural contribution of the CCI sector is well documented, its economic contribution less so. A 2018 mapping study by the South African Cultural Observatory (SACO) showed that CCIs directly contributed 1.7% to SA’s economy in that year. Considering that agriculture contributed 2.4% in 2018 and that 7% of all jobs (1 136 million formal and informal jobs) in the country are related to CCIs, the importance of the creative economy should not be underestimated.

An early assessment by SACO of the economic impact between 30 March to 4 May indicated that what was in effect a shutdown of the sector was estimated to reduce SA’s GDP by R99,7 billion (direct and indirect impact) in 2020. SACO estimated that the impact (excluding the induced impact) on the total output of the performing arts and celebrations domain will be affected by -R6,4 billion, with a drop in GDP of -R2,8 billion and a drop in intermediary imports of -R583 million.

This is why the show must go on.

While there was demand for projects for broadcast TV, online platforms and arts festivals beyond level 5, those working in these domains had to reconceptualise their means of operation temporarily. Those working in the performing arts had to reimagine the very nature of the domain.

The performing arts are vulnerable because much of the sector relies on live engagement with groups of people in a central space: performers are in close proximity when sharing a space, and backstage areas are shared by actors and crew members; dressers, make-up artists, props managers and stage hands all work together to create a live performance. Some modes of live performance might require one-on-one engagement with an audience member or necessitate a transgression of the boundary between audiences and performers. Sound and lighting booths are generally small, enclosed spaces in which social distancing is almost impossible.

Embodied engagements and visceral exchanges that foreground the sensory are central to the performing arts. The kind of attention we pay to a theatre piece and the kind of attention we pay to online viewing content is different. Whether watching a performance or performing, those who share the space are not just in space, their interrelationship shapes the shared space. This shaping of a shared space and associated embodied exchanges are at the heart of the challenge to reimagine the performing arts in the context of COVID-19.

Theatres locally and abroad are making some pre-recorded content available online at no charge or through paid ticketing. But it is apparent that recorded performances – no matter how well they are done – remain live shows that were recorded. The “languages” of theatre and film and digital media are different, so are the positioning of the audience and experiences of immersion in each medium. Augmented performances, mixed-reality works and works that use virtual reality are developing interesting languages of their own. Such performances still require some bodied interaction and/or some form of shared physical space between audiences and performers.

Artists and institutions have tried, and are still trying, to transpose what is essentially a communal, live and embodied engagement to a cellphone or computer screen. Many local artists present monologues, solo dances or spoken word art on videocasts, post recordings on YouTube or live-stream their work; writers and actors present live-streamed new work; digital media artists have collaborated with performing artists to develop a mode of performance more suitable for online viewing; and small-scale online festivals have popped up.

The National Arts Festival (NAF) took the brave step of moving entirely online, with Zoom engagements, documentaries of past performances, audio-drama, pre-recorded show footage, and fusions of theatre, dance and creative digital arts. Attendance figures, the efficacy and the financial impact of this venture are yet to be established, but the innovations demonstrated at the NAF might open up broader understandings of what theatre ‘might be’.

Yet the need for contact, engaging with somatic modes of attention and a communal experience in a shared space persists. Considering that we do not know when the virus will become a manageable disease, or whether we can expect similar pandemics in our lifetime, the show cannot go on as it did before COVID-19.

So what does the future hold? Self-taping could become the norm for auditions, with face-to-face casting reserved for the final rounds of auditions, and training could lean towards small-group interaction. Ticket sales could move entirely online, and immersive theatre might move out of bespoke performance venues to create a unique mode of immersion for online performance. Participatory theatre could shift form to use transmedia storytelling as participatory devices. Technologies and techniques that better suit the languages of theatre could be developed to enhance the experience of watching pre-recorded content, and technologies that enable synchronous performer-audience engagement in mixed-reality and augmented performances could become readily available online. Mask technology might improve to allow artists more vocal expression and nuance, while personal protective equipment technology could become more sophisticated to become integral to costume design and allow for closer proximity. Perhaps theatre architecture will be reimagined to allow for bespoke seating or viewing booths at a theatre’s full capacity. The show will go on.

While theatres and entertainment venues will likely need to be sanitised for a long time to come, the programming and the content of the work presented in them certainly should not be. Perhaps we will better appreciate the kinesthetic resonance felt when sharing a space with many other bodies in a world where the pandemic is contained, now that we have experienced what it feels like to be apart.

Professor Marié-Heleen Coetzee is an Associate Professor in the School of the Arts: Drama Department of the University of Pretoria.

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 7 August 2020.

- Author Professor Marié-Heleen Coetzee
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2020. All rights reserved.

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