Theatre in Ireland has been through a lot since it was first introduced by Scottish poet John Ogilby in the 17th century. His theatre, the first official theatre in Ireland was eventually shut down by puritans in 1641. When the monarchy was restored under Charles II the love affair with the theatre was also restored. Since then it has survived and thrived despite famines, wars, revolutions, and the onset of cinema and television. It has always been on the brink, but it has always prevailed.
But we are now in uncharted waters, and the question arises again. Will the theatre survive?”
I have been impressed with some of the innovative projects of late, the Zoom play readings, the online theatre from live venues. However, all of these are missing what makes theatre unique. A live audience. What is theatre if not for a live audience, and judging by the experts it could be a long time before we can be socially close again?
As someone who has been involved in the theatre all my adult life, I have to admit that we are all getting a bit nervous. Theatre depends on a live audience. It cannot survive without “bums on seats”
I had the good fortune of talking to a couple of my theatre mates in the last few weeks, some are actors, some are backstage crew, some are front-of-house, all are getting slightly nervous.
What does not help matters is the fluidity of the situation, and the confusing and ever-changing government guideline when dealing with the public and COVID. As one producer said to me: “It’s hard when the game line keeps changing. One of the ideas I had was to put on some outside theatre and limit the people who attended. You come up with solutions in keeping people distant, but then the government changes the numbers again. So I am a little frustrated, to be honest.”
Another friend who works front-of-house for one of Ireland’s most renowned theatres has been out of work for months now and the frustration is also starting to build: “I feel like we have been forgotten. I’m told we won’t be opening this year at all and that we will have to wait until 2021. That’s a very long time.”
There have been strides made to ensure financial security for workers in the theatre industry with both the Arts Council and NCFA announcing funding initiatives.
Socially Distant Theatre
But if we are to keep theatre alive surely more must be done to help the people in the industry create their art when art is so vitally needed right now to help the morale of the people? If concert-goers can have socially distant concerts why can’t theatre-goers have socially distant theatre?
One solution may come from an initiative being tried in Brighton in the UK where they have “beach theatre.” Small numbers of people gathering on the beach to watch “Shakespeare by the Sea”. Another idea being floated about for Edinburgh fringe is a type of “Drive-In” theatre. All good ideas, all very innovative but will they be the saving grace of one of the oldest institutions in human history?
I suppose only time will tell and as John Ogilby can attest to, the theatre has a way of rising from the ashes. One just hopes it’s sooner rather than later.