Within a few short weeks, our world turned upside down. You know the story by now: the coronavirus Covid-19 has spread across the world, leaving governments little choice but to lock down: all businesses deemed non-essential have been closed. Including our theatres.
The government advice has meant that Brighton Fringe has postponed from their usual May to the autumn, but the Brighton Festival has cancelled entirely. The Edinburgh Festivals, including Edinburgh Fringe, have since followed suit, cancelling their 2020 events. Theatres up and down the country have closed their doors, leaving only their ghost lights behind. For some of us this news has made our evenings much quieter, for others it has meant the loss of their livelihoods. Those who have chosen a career in the theatre are often used to instability; they’ve chosen to follow their passion rather than an easy life. However, being faced with a pandemic is a whole new challenge.
And yet, somehow, the show does go on.
It might not surprise you that the same group of people who can pull a Fringe show together in a couple of months or can make you believe that a puppet is a living, breathing character have enough creativity to make the most of what we have.
Plenty of companies have been putting free (with an optional donation) recordings of their shows online for you to enjoy at home. The National Theatre have started #NationalTheatreAtHome with audience delighting over streams of One Man, Two Guvnors and Jane Eyre, originally filmed for their popular National Theatre Live programme. Treasure Island and Twelfth Night are up later this month.
It’s not just the big guns offering their performances online for free: plenty of smaller companies have done the same, such as Midlands-based Clown Funeral or Bath based Egg Theatre. We've even collected a few of the best live streams out there ready for you to peruse.
Twitter is a good place to discover collectives such as the Coronavirus Theatre Club, which streams five live monologues back to back every Sunday from 7pm, and Online Fringe Festival. Whilst not exactly the same as a night out in the Spiegeltent, a highlight of many people’s Brighton Fringe, Online Fringe Festival present a full programme of previously filmed Fringe performances. To keep it fresh, shows are only programmed for a few days, so you need to act quickly to catch your favourites.
With plenty picking up on the trending topics and online chatter, perhaps theatre makers will even gain new devotees. Those who usually cower away from buying a ticket at a Fringe box office might be lured in by the promise of a free stream. There’s no commitment – even a show isn’t for you, you can simply close the tab instead of rudely trample all over the toes of row three.
Once this is all over, will we see more companies investing in a professional quality recording of their performances? As ever in the arts, it often comes down to funding. Sarah Brigham, Artistic Director and CEO of Derby Theatre, asked on Twitter:
“Discuss: after all this is over, how do we support ALL organisations to have this quality of digital archive of their shows? Lockdown will happen again- I’d like to see smaller work, regional work, new work all at same quality as @NationalTheatre”
For those who miss the frisson of live performance that a recording simply cannot offer, live events held over video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, have become the norm.
Performer and occasional Broadway Baby reviewer Annabelszki has set up a live stream cabaret show, Pick n Mix, giving audiences an eclectic mix of music, spoken word and drag. In exchange for a £5 ticket, six hot acts will perform from their homes to yours, with all the excitement and chaos of a live show promised, without the pricey drinks at the bar.
Popular comedy venue Komedia have also embraced the live stream, reviving their Krater Comedy Club on YouTube every Friday at 8pm. The event runs as ‘pay what you can’, with all donations used to support Komedia and the comedians involved during this difficult time.
Which brings us to the venues. Whilst we’ve all become very accustomed to our own sofas by now, chairs which should have been filled with happy patrons sit empty in venues around the world. As many rely heavily on ticket sales for financial support, this closure could be devastating.
So what can we, as theatre loving people, do? Mark Gordon, Marketing Manager at Hove’s The Old Market gave us this advice:
“The first is to donate, as most venues in our position basically rely on ticket income, so not having that is our biggest problem. If people have already booked tickets for a cancelled or postponed event, if they can consider gifting the price of their ticket(s) as a donation, that would be huge. Any amount though, big or small, is hugely appreciated.”
If you can afford the price of a ticket or a pint that you might have bought anyway, then consider donating it to your favourite venue so, once this is over, they can reopen their doors and continue to provide the high quality performances you’ve come to love. Seek out your favourite performers – they may well have a Patreon or a Ko-fi you can support them on. But times are tough for many – if you’re watching your pennies, is there anything else you can do to help?
“The second thing is to keep awareness alive. Just talking about the venues on social media, with others, anywhere really, keeps them in everyone's minds. If the worst happens, then at least we will have the buzz to generate further awareness”
Tweets, online reviews, Instagram posts: they’re all free, but can create tangible benefits for theatres and artists that need to feel the love right now.
So please, wash your hands and stay indoors to protect our NHS and each other. Stay safe, enjoy good theatre and show support to those who need it most.