Fri 7 May 2021

Vida Adamczewski interviews the artistic director of the Young Vic and considers the future of a crucial industry that defies social distancing. 

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As the world begins to open up again, theatre doors seem more firmly closed than ever. Across the country, theatres are beginning to make redundancies, including 100 redundancies at The Theatre Royal Plymouth alone. 

According to Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of The Young Vic, the problem is that an essential part of theatre is  “the smell of the funk and the feel of the sweat”. It is about intense, armrest-turf-war proximity with your fellow audience members, it’s about breathing the same air as the actors. What used to count in its favour now counts against it; with Covid-19 about, who wants to be sprayed with saliva at The Globe? 

In response to lockdown, many theatres released archived footage of plays online for free. Many of my peers, young people who have a keen interest in theatre but can’t afford to regularly attend, responded enthusiastically to this move. As Kwei-Armah puts it; “lockdown has taught us that there is a huge appetite, even simply for our mental health, for digital content.” 

With cinema, you don’t feel like you’re insulting anybody if you leave the room […] Without an audience, we cannot do it. We cannot do it and call it theatre.” 

Kwame Kwei-Armah

But theatre-makers like Kwei-Armah know that recorded performances are limited; “It’s better than nothing but whether that will be satisfying in six months?” he asks. “Film knows how to exist in two-dimensionality and how to hold your attention. Theatre exists in the abstract.” Simply put, you have to be there. 

There have always been, and always will be, people who cannot come to the theatre in person (even in a utopia of affordable seats).In such cases, when online access is the only viable option, mere transliteration is not sufficient. We need to find ways, as  Kwei-Armah puts it, for theatre “to exist legitimately in the fourth space”. Embracing interactive technology such as AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), and XR (cross reality) might be the answer. 

Breaking the Fourth Wall

There are theatre makers who are already exploring a remote audience. Eve Leigh is a disabled playwright who wrote Midnight Movie, which played at Royal Court in December. The play explored the (sometimes fraught) interaction between a disabled person’s physical body and their virtual body; the way that the internet can be an important space for self-determination and respite from physical pain. It integrated close captioning and British Sign Language into the action on stage, and (self)consciously acknowledged the absence of the writer’s body, positing the actors as avatars in her place.

Most interestingly, Eve Leigh created a series of multimedia resources that were sent to audience members who could not attend in person. This consideration seems almost clairvoyant now. None of the online resources were a recorded version of the play. It was a unique remote theatre experience. She demonstrated that digital theatre can have a rosy future, but it requires more creative thought than straight recording. 

“As much as I miss analogue theatre, I am thrilled by the formal and political possibilities of mainstream theatre embracing the digital space,” Leigh says. “The question of access has always existed on multiple, intersecting planes of identity, including geography, disability, and class. As frightening as this moment is for theatre, it is also full of creative potential.” 

Alongside creative use of the digital realm, theatre-makers are also thinking about how to get people back into physical theatres. Kwei-Armah emphasises the centrality of the live audience to the theatre experience. “With cinema, you don’t feel like you’re insulting anybody if you leave the room […] Without an audience, we cannot do it. We cannot do it and call it theatre.” 

So, to return to the funk and the sweat, how can we make live theatre safe again? The Young Vic artistic director lists ways of building social distancing into the show without sacrificing the aesthetic; while the weather holds and in countries with warmer climates, theatre will naturally migrate to outdoor venues, in the rather rainier UK, we might employ a found space model with a more disparate audience, or play formats that keep the audience moving through a space (like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More). But Kwei-Armah emphasises that the hard work will be to make these alternatives feel new and purposeful. To make them not “smell of social distancing”.

As Eve Leigh’s Midnight Movie demonstrated, digital and live theatre can co-exist. The pandemic presents a unique challenge for theatre-makers to rethink and rebuild. It is the perfect opportunity to encode accessibility and diversity into theatre’s very heart.  

Kwei-Armah predicts that this change will not happen overnight. The first few months, years even, there will be a nostalgic but understandable desire to approximately recreate a ‘normal’ theatre experience. But theatre does not really have a normal. It is in constant flux. And the change will have been seeded. Somewhere, someone will put on a show that everyone wishes they had seen. 

Opening the Doors Wider

As everyone in the industry grows increasingly desperate for work, even very established cast and crew will be prepared to downscale, to take significant pay cuts, and work with smaller venues. This means that emerging talent, who are comparably inexperienced and therefore risky, are in danger of being pushed out. Add to this, small venues and theatre companies struggling to survive, and events like the Edinburgh Fringe that provide good exposure for new shows being cancelled, the very spaces in which much emerging and diverse talent earn their stripes are closed.

 The Young Vic has managed to maintain its Directors’ Programme. Other similar smaller programmes have not been able to continue. Understandably, there is a certain despondence among those who were just starting out in the industry and have been stopped in their tracks.  

Most importantly, significant bridge funding from the government is needed to keep theatres afloat while they wait for their ticket income to return. Without bridge funds they cannot invest in new shows, or maintain their outreach projects. As Kwei-Armah tells me “that fight [to protect accessibility and diversity] is raging. How much of it we win will depend on how civilised our government is.”

According to Arts Council England’s 2019 report based on data from the Office for National Statistics, as of April 2019, the arts and culture sector contributed £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy. The report also states that the sector contributes £2.8 billion a year to the Treasury via taxation, and generates a further £23 billion a year and 363,700 jobs. Clearly, the reinvigoration of the arts is essential to economic recovery. 

Looking beyond the numbers — excellent, thoughtful and probing theatre is crucial to social progress. The cathartic power of theatre can aid the learning and unlearning needed to tackle our society’s pervasive racism. 

Kwame Kwei-Armah is not worried about the long term. Theatre has survived for thousands of years. 2020 isn’t going to kill it. “Theatre, as a form, hasn’t existed this long because it is a nicety, it has existed this long because there is a human need for it.” As he puts it, “a nation without soul, is a nation you don’t want to be part of.”

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