INTRODUCTION — WHERE WE ARE
Live theatre, opera, dance and music at every level are under very serious threat. They form an industry disintegrating in the face of continued uncertainty over the timescale for when it will be safe for large gatherings of people to congregate indoors, and the same is as true and devastating at amateur level. As winter approaches, and the second wave starts to take a hold, the WHO has said ‘there is no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be’ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-53643455).
Before our eyes in the UK a hugely talented, globally successful, ever-evolving workforce is drifting further and further away from the industry into either unemployment or other forms of work, and at the same time communities are denied showcase space.
All around us beautiful, empty and treasured buildings — expensive to maintain and staff — that were arguably already struggling to be fit for purpose — are standing empty. National institutions as well as local companies, choirs, comedy clubs and orchestras, dance troupes, bands and an army of freelancers — everyone involved in the live performing arts — is on their knees, exhausted, and struggling to find the right ideas to take us forward.
We are united in one thing at least: we have to do something. But what? And how?
One proposal doing the rounds is ‘Seat Out to Help Out’. Following the lead of its restaurant-trade pre-cursor, Eat Out to Help Out, it involves a second government bailout, this one of £500 million. It would carry us through to April 2021, and allow venues to fill themselves a third full, receive matching support for another third, and therefore work with revenue equivalent to two thirds of normal capacity. It hopes to bring us back to something like the way things were, in other words, for a fixed period, by bringing socially distanced audiences back to viable levels.
And it could work, albeit at a high cost. If the government can be persuaded, it could extend the period that our performing arts institutions can survive, and encourage people to return to theatres, as the Eat Out scheme encouraged people back to restaurants. A hugely positive step, and one which I think the public could readily grasp.
But I have a contentious question. Is it really what we want?
Is this enforced period of reflection going to lead to nothing more than a return to the way things were, or a passive, government-backed hanging-in there until things improve? Are we giving up on a more radical re-think of the way we bring culture to our communities? Do we need, for instance, to think less about how we bring people to our urban centres and more about how we take our live performances to the people where they are, providing in one stroke a platform both for top professionals and for local showcases? Apart from trying to stay tuned to a broader shift in the way society is already changing, with a shift to a more local and community-based way of living, are we sure that the kind of evening out that a 1/3rd full theatre in a largely deserted city centre can offer is either attractive enough or what we want to be encouraging?
While we should be grateful for any scheme that gets us back making work, and treasure every single one that comes along, it is vitally important that we ask bigger questions than just, how do we survive. Because the answers we find might unlock a better world for the future, a more genuine, vibrant, thriving relationship between people and culture, and a relationship more like the one we want to see.
And I mean bigger questions. Like, what is culture, in the end? What is its benefit to society? Who owns it, has any rights over it? What is the value of storytelling, of live music and live comedy, and how is it best done?
I believe people are hungry for genuine experience. Who are we speaking, playing and singing to? How do we use this opportunity — this responsibility even — to refresh our relationship with the artform, with the audience, with society in general?
A NEW VISION
Imagine a world where live theatre, dance, comedy, live music were woven into local life. Where you didn’t have to travel far to see them, where they didn’t cost the earth, where there was variety and the highest quality, where every schoolchild had access (and it was fun), where everyone felt welcome, no matter their age, background, adherence to accepted norms, religion or race. Where, if you lived there, it could be for you, and our great national enterprises — the National Theatres, the Royal Operas and Ballets, the big names touring the big (now empty) stadia, could be providing content alongside local schoolchildren.
Imagine a world where a storytelling experience could be intimate and powerful for everyone, no matter who you were, where music never failed to touch the soul, where a sense of belonging was fostered, where process could be shared, where creativity was taught and encouraged, where storytelling once again did what it has always been there to do: bind, identify, entertain, educate, stimulate.
Imagine a world where culture works across the board with and for people.
How do we bring that world into being?
Firstly, I think we have to examine what we have inherited in terms of performance venues. We have to look at what our growth-centred, 19th century expansionist ancestors decided was most fit for purpose: large proscenium-arched concert halls and theatres mostly in the centres of large cities; buildings that impress with their architecture, and give off a distinctive whiff of glamour and power; an approach to performance where size and volume work best and bring in more money that intimacy and tenderness, a process that has resulted in our own time with arena gigs where huge symphony orchestras mime to pre-recorded tracks (‘No rehearsals!’, ‘Perfect every time!’, ‘Could you smile more please?’ https://thenationaldigest.com/the-story-of-milli-violini-and-the-miming-orchestra/); countries with tens of symphony orchestras and no music in the school curricula; opera houses where — however hard we fight against it — a sense of exclusion is never far from the surface.
It’s not that live music and theatre can’t be large scale, it’s that they can often function even better on an intimate one, where the audience and the performer connect, where a sense of presence and community is nourished. And it’s not that symphonic repertoire — to continue that example — shouldn’t be heard, perpetuated and valued. Not at all. It is that variety and a sense of communication to as wide a base as possible are not just ideals, they are an inherent quality of what storytelling and music making is about. If it is not for the people, what is it?
What we need is to unleash the creativity, talent and power of our creatives, our singers, our players, our dancers, our composers, conductors, directors, songwriters, choreographers, choirs, arrangers, improvisers, for the public benefit, and give them the opportunity to perform as often and to as many people as possible.
We need to build the audience into our creative processes, to make them feel that what we do is for them and about them. And we need to do it soon, and we need to do it in a way that works.
One of the challenges that has been facing us for many years now is the extraordinarily rich variety of venues that we have, not just in this country but around the world. Small and large, glamorous and not-so-glamorous, every venue is not just different on the outside, and in its foyers and bars and toilets and atmospheres and auditoria, but technically, in terms of the way they enable content to be presented. In this respect they vary hugely. Unlike cinemas, equally varied in architecture, unique, tied to and representative of their localities, but critically universal in their capacity to show the same film in every one, our theatres and live performance venues require touring companies to reinvent their shows wherever they perform. This can take days, and add hugely to costs. In this respect, the cinema industry — while so different in many ways — has something vital to teach us. It has managed to provide a technical means (the hardware) for its content (the software) to work from the tiniest backroom in a pub to the grandest giant-screen multiplex in exactly the same way. The buildings are different, as are the films themselves, but the technical means of presentation are identical.
What if we were to introduce a more standardised theatrical format, technically? What if it were possible to design and build an affordable, local platform, which can host intimate, exciting live performances of every kind, from the world-class and international to the local and amateur, safely (with social distancing built in) and accessibly, that feel full, that can fit inside existing spaces, theatres, factories, warehouses, atria of skyscrapers, as well as parks and other public open spaces, and that can put on the same performance in each one? With multiples in every city, in every town, a self-contained space that is unique on the outside but identical technically, meaning a show can tour to two or more venues a day and not have to reconfigure its technical requirements at every venue. Ultimate flexibility, minimum expense, no wasted time.
Thousands of people re-employed, an industry revitalised, a public served, live art forms reinvigorated, refreshed, rebooted.
A platform that enables leading national organisations and local groups to perform on the same day, side by side. A platform that works for all genres and encourages the best in every one.
What if such a design already existed, and it captured the greatness, the buzz, the timelessness of pre-19th century performance spaces, like the Globe, or the Wanamaker? And what if it could be provided at a fraction of a cost of a scheme like Seat Out to Help Out? I’m talking a FIFTH of that price, to provide enough spaces — moveable, recyclable, top quality — so that nobody in the country was ever very far away from one, but they were easily moved, recycled or sold on if things changed. What the scheme I am proposing below would need in terms of initial financial outlay is far smaller in comparison, and its legacy could be far wider-reaching, than current alternative proposals.
A NEW PROPOSAL
In an effort to stimulate discussion, and see what was possible, I recently met and spoke with Aidan Ridyard at Burrell, Foley and Fischer https://bff-architects.com/aidan-ridyard. He drew up some plans based on the discussions we had. Here is what he came up with.
I love them. They feel like spaces I would not only love to direct shows for and perform in, but also see live performances of all kinds in.
We have called these proposed venues Opera Box Theatres. They suit a multitude of art forms. And they are made of shipping containers.
The proto-type Opera Box Theatre is a 220 capacity hexagonal venue on three levels, recycling shipping containers for the primary structural elements. The overall footprint is 18m x 15m with a height of about 7.5m. It has social distancing built in at 1m, but at the same time atmosphere and intimacy, by stretching upwards as well as away from the stage. They would feel full, and beautiful, and exciting. They would provide what all good theatre and storytelling needs, and they would provide it in a safe way.
Multiples of these could be located in disused buildings, parks, disused theatres, atria of disused office blocks, often more than 1 to a city, with many across the country, with hugely varied (including the highest quality) touring shows: theatre, opera, comedy, film, community shows, chamber music, folk music, acoustic bands, talks.
They would have potential for local involvement and decoration, but essentially (and crucially) technically they would be the same, allowing for greatly reduced get in/tech time.
In that way an organisation could invest in a show, RnD and rehearse it, then, instead of a short subsidised run, tour it for a season, making the work both economically viable and serving the necessary goals — bringing theatre and music into local communities, and keeping a huge cultural workforce doing what they do best.
We go to the audience, they don’t come to us. The critical, post-Covid change, and it works economically through repeat performances, like film can and does, rather than in gathering thousands at a time (a model that of course could always re-start when the pandemic is over). The larger institutions can do several shows at once, often potentially performing twice — in different places to different audiences — on the same day, and the Royal Opera could follow Zurich’s example and livestream a live orchestra at the same time, possibly even to more than one venue, with different live singers in each. School performances, comedy shows, TED talks, family shows, film screenings, the world’s greatest performers — the whole palette recycling on a weekly basis.
Globalism and quality on a local scale, economically and culturally viable.
A possible future.
May 2020 (latest update Sept 28)