To be or not to be: The fate of live performance is in our hands

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Over the past few months of lockdown, performers have tried every possible means of staying remotely on our radar. Offering everything from live Zoom plays and concerts to free video streams of some of the most popular musicals, they have continued to entertain audiences even from afar. But these virtual runs and cyber gigs come at a cost, and every day that artists are kept away from rehearsal rooms is another day of financial instability. Finally, a chance for revival has been offered: outdoor theatre, opera, music and dance events are now permitted under social distancing rules. But unless we show our committed support, come rain or shine, live art could lose the vital life support that only an active audience can provide.

Though the National Theatre at Home series has been furnishing British living rooms with some of the best shows of the last decade, sitting on sofas doesn’t require ushers, nor does it require lighting technicians or a costume department. Despite encouraging donations, theatres are making a fraction of the margins needed to fund employees currently on furlough; indeed, at the start of the month, the 400 casual front of house and backstage staff employed by the National Theatre were informed they would lose their jobs. While we may still be reaping the benefits of performers, they are standing on an increasingly unstable stage which at any moment is liable to collapse.

Unless we want to live in a future where live shows have been reduced to a dusty archive of recordings, we must be there, even if more sparsely, in the stalls. Dance needs particular attention, being reliant on both space and intimacy, both of which are currently hard to come by. Sadler’s Wells Digital Stage has been continuing to support troupes and choreographers by promoting past performances online, meanwhile solo dancers have been getting creative, with the BBC’s Filmed in Lockdown series – commissioned under their Culture in Quarantine initiative – giving rise to innovative routines such as the unlikely yet enchanting Swan Lake Bath Ballet. But without some kind of return for their contribution, ideas for saving the artform will eventually run dry.

The same goes for music: while big recording artists are still flourishing on digital platforms – with streaming giant Spotify launching a new subscription for couples – step out of the sound-proofed studio and there is a deafening silence. The live music scene has been steamrollered by restrictions, festivals and tours cancelled indefinitely or forced to remodel as online events. When it comes to freelancers, none have been harder hit than classical musicians, with conductors turning to conference calls, scheduling orchestra and choir rehearsals over Zoom, and Eric Whitacre launching Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently on the 19th July 2020 in response to the pandemic.

There are many ways show support for the performing arts in the UK, starting with fundraising for or donating to specialist charities such as Help Musicians. 1500 artist have already backed a letter from UK Music’s Let the Music Play, a campaign calling for the government to provide solid support for the sector. Big names from Ed Sheeran to Paul McCartney have put their considerable weight behind the movement, and the public are invited to join the cause by writing to MPs or sharing on social media. For those wanting to take a more active approach, Magnetic Studios has been set up to provide £5 dance, singing and acting classes, the proceeds of which help those affected by the crisis. And you don’t get much more immersive than one stage company’s launch of a Deliveroo-style service of private hire productions.

Crucially, though open-air events are returning slowly, we must think beyond our own instant gratification, further than our craving for crowd-surfing and curtain calls. Right now, we must focus on saving the people behind the performances, or we may find out the hard way that live art is not immortal, but as vulnerable to Covid-19 as any one of us.

Rosamund Kelby

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