Another day, another lockdown. As we enter the UK’s third, and most serious, COVID-19 prevention since March, theatres are perhaps not at the top of our priority list. Unlike in the last lockdown, few theatres were at the point of beginning to reopen, preventing the horrendous waste of time, effort and resources that was produced by the decision to close theatres again in November. We may be, however, seeing the beginning of a more serious problem even if we see theatre survive, especially in regaining an audience post-Coronavirus: creative fatigue.
Since theatres originally closed in March, many companies have offered a wide variety of shows to the public, in some form or another. This has been done on both a regional and national level, reflecting a commendable commitment to seeing theatre survive. The National Theatre won praise for their original ‘At Home’ series, whilst Plaines Plough actually managed to mount a short touring production and the Gate Theatre (as well as other companies) reinvigorated the notion of what we can consider “theatre” by using letters and Zoom to their greatest effect. This was a gigantic ‘up yours’ to a government who believed that theatres could be shut out of the blue with no repercussions, and emphasised the living nature of ‘live theatre’. But that was a long time ago.
Now, many companies are struggling to present work due to inadequate archival recordings, or simply a need to monetise their work. Even the National Theatre have established a new, paid streaming service, and have sold their productions to free-to-air channels such as Sky Arts. As a result, theatre has become less accessible to the general public than in the original days of lockdown. There is also a paucity of new content being created; whilst some, such as Curve’s Sunset Boulevard, have been released in recent days to rave reviews, there seems to be generally a much smaller amount of theatre available and if there is, less time and effort has been put into advertising. Engagement is thus reduced and this reduction in pace and enthusiasm might seriously harm the industry once theatres can reopen.
The impact on Spring schedules can also not be underestimated. Although the warning given for this lockdown has allowed theatres more forward planning time, the lack of a definitive end prevents many theatres from planning their Spring and Summer shows, meaning that there is less promotion, less chance of a production and fewer creatives employed. Conversely, not enough warning has been given for theatres to develop new lockdown content, and so it will be a first-past-the-post race to see who can provide new opportunities for the theatre community. This will put an even greater strain on these already beleaguered companies, and again create the sense that they must demonstrate their commitment to the arts, even at the expense of their expenses.
What about working creatives and freelancers? Many have reached opportunity fatigue; the endless opportunities seemingly offered by the previous lockdowns has led to disappointment and feelings of not-being-good-enough, dissuading some from a career in the arts, or has resulted in being overworked, and therefore poor mental health, for others. The opportunities, simply by their nature, have also begun to lose their lustre. There are only so many times you can write a themed monologue or receive a ‘no’ for submitting your script. A general lack of engagement will undoubtedly worsen the situation further.
This lockdown has prevented theatres from creating shows that will inevitably be cancelled, and from again futilely wasting valuable resources. But in doing so, it has led to a set of circumstances we’ve now seen so many times before. We are running out of things to watch; we are running out of things to do; we are running out of enthusiasm for either. If we stay in lockdown after lockdown, many doubt if we will see theatre survive, yes, but my concern lies with recapturing the audience and energy of a pre-COVID world.
Words by Issy Flower.
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