The arts are in a state of crisis. How often have you heard that before? Well, this time around it happens to be true. In the age of coronavirus, it’s clear that the old way of doing things won’t work any more. Theatres, in particular, have been quick to grasp the bleeding obvious: cramming lots of people into crowded spaces has suddenly become extremely difficult. How do you fill a theatre in an era of social distancing? Short answer: you can’t.
The response from theatre practitioners has been fairly predictable. What the theatre needs, they tell us, is more public cash. West End producer Sonia Friedman says that 70 per cent of performing arts companies will close by Christmas if there is no government rescue package, reports the Telegraph. ‘Playwright James Graham has issued a stark warning about the future of the theatre industry, saying it will not survive the coronavirus crisis without an “aggressive government bailout”,’ says the Independent.
However, from where I’m sitting, this looks like a golden opportunity for the performing arts — a chance to break free from the traditional structures that have held British theatre back for years. Most of the social-distancing issues, as far as I can see, are about auditoria, not plays and players. And yet many of the finest performances I’ve seen have been staged outdoors.
The best Chekhov play I ever saw was a production of The Cherry Orchard, performed in the grounds of a stately home. We followed the actors around the gardens, as they moved from scene to scene. It was absolutely thrilling, like being in a movie. I’ve seen various Chekhov plays indoors since then, all competently done — but I’ve never seen one that gripped me like that one did. You were part of the action. It felt like eavesdropping on real life.
Promenade performances have always been popular on the Continent, and not just in places where it’s warm and sunny. In 1990, when radical circus was all the rage, I travelled to Nancy, in northern France, to watch an alternative circus troupe put on a show in an enormous council estate. I assumed we’d be in a big top, or a makeshift arena. Instead the cast convened at the entrance to this labyrinth and set off on a strange procession, like a chaotic carnival parade. People came out of their apartments to see what the fuss was about and ended up following these post-punk clowns and acrobats as they made their way between the tower blocks. I’ve seen hundreds of shows inside since then and forgotten almost every one of them, but after 30 years that night remains seared in my memory, like a scene from a sci-fi film.
During my 40 years as a theatregoer (first as a paying punter, then as a theatre critic, and now as a paying punter again) I’ve seen some amazing plays and players, but I’ve grown weary of the theatre — the uncomfortable buildings, the stuffy institutions, the cosy status quo. Despite an endless supply of talent, the theatre world has become self-regarding and self-referential. Covid will compel these players to take their plays out of the theatres, and into the real world. If the South Bank is no longer fit for purpose, why not stage a play on the Embankment? If you can’t practise social distancing in a West End theatre, why not stage a play in an open field? It worked for acid house.
Of course in wet and windy Britain it’s not always possible to do theatre al fresco (as the American comedian John Lenahan once said, Britain is a great country — the only thing it needs is a roof). Yet there are lots of indoor spaces where you can put on plays and still practise social distancing, especially in an economic downturn — empty shops, derelict factories… For the most imaginative, resourceful artists, the coronavirus crisis will be a chance to remake theatre in a manner more in keeping with modern times.
The best performance space I ever came across was a place called Tacheles, in East Berlin. It’s a model for the new kind of performance art that could flourish in Britain after Covid-19. Before the war Tacheles was a department store, a sort of Teutonic Selfridges, until it was bombed during the Battle of Berlin and ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. The East German government never bothered to repair it, so it remained a bombed-out ruin — until the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and the artists moved in.
The reason Tacheles worked so well as a performance space was that it shunned the conventional business models which shackle the performing arts. It wasn’t dependent on state subsidy or exorbitant ticket prices. It was neither capitalist nor socialist. It was truly anarchic, in the best sense of the word. It was open to everyone. You could put on any kind of show there. It cost nothing to use the space and it cost nothing to come in. There was always something going on, whenever you dropped in. Films were projected on to outside walls. The courtyard became a sculpture park. The graffiti in the stairwells was a collective artwork in its own right. Pundits fear that because of Covid-19, a lot of retail spaces will be unsustainable. So be it. Perhaps our old department stores will become ad-hoc arts centres, like Tacheles. There’s a fine British precedent for this improvisational approach, this use of unconventional performance spaces. During the second world war, Ballet Rambert and Sadler’s Wells performed in barracks, factories and workers’ hostels.
A recession is no fun at all, but it’s often fertile territory for the performing arts. Berlin was a creative hub in the 1920s, and then again in the 1990s — two decades when the German capital was in turmoil. When was German theatre at its best? In the splendour of the Second Reich, or the chaos of the Weimar Republic? London in the 1980s was scruffy and rundown — a place where artists and performers could afford to live cheaply and pursue their madcap projects without worrying about the rent. My dad (a struggling artist) paid next to nothing for a single room in a huge, ramshackle house in West Hampstead, with studio space for anyone who wanted it, where the dilapidated ballroom was a rehearsal space for an experimental theatre company. That way of living, of working, became impossible when London became a boom town. Maybe now, post-Covid-19, that will become possible again.
I don’t doubt the next decade will be difficult for anyone involved in the performing arts. Paying punters will remain elusive. Times will be hard. But out of these hard times I hope a new form of theatre will emerge — a world away from the dull conformity of our current subsidised and commercial theatre. Just imagine: a theatre of the streets, the parks, the sink estates — strolling players, roaming from town to town, like buskers or troubadours. Sure, it’s a daft romantic notion, and it’s probably completely impractical. But, in the end, isn’t that what theatre is supposed to be about?