Postcards from Lockdown
We invited Theatre Research International editorial board members to let us know how they've been getting on during the coronavirus lockdown, and what's been happening with theatre in their regions, institutions or homes.
11 June 2020
The correct day to send this postcard never seemed to arrive. Some perspective on my travels through the COVID-19 lockdown was my notion, and perhaps Fintan’s, when he asked me to contribute. I’ve made several attempts to write and send but kept getting stymied by the rush of events. I thought about a quick photo-in-prose of New Jersey when it became a coronavirus ‘hot spot’ last month, with infections rising at a rate second only to New York City? We have a good governor who gave us clear directives, yet over 12,000 people have died in this state, while the death toll in the country, roiling under the chaotic mismanagement of the national and many state governments, is 115K and rising. Early on it was clear that people like me (white, still employed) may very well not get the virus unless we made a mistake. But more significantly, the virus—to use the pervasive theatrical cliché—has lifted the curtain on the chronic health disparities in US society. People of color not only have limited access to decent health care but also poorer outcomes. The old saying here, ‘when White America gets a cold, Black people get the flu’ has never been truer. Supposedly Covid-19 knows no color yet it disproportionately affects people of color for the simple reason that they’ve been in its way. African American and Latinx people in majority numbers work in semi-skilled service sector jobs. Not accustomed to seeing themselves as essential to American society, home health aides, hospital cleaners, bus drivers, grocery check-out clerks, slaughterhouse employees are now labeled ‘essential workers.’ And they’re paying dearly for it: 21.3% of New Jersey’s coronavirus deaths are of African Americans though they make up just 14% of the state’s population. (In Chicago the stats are staggering: less than 30% of city’s population is black yet they account for 72% of the deaths from COVID-19).
Into this stew of misery and anxiety comes George Floyd’s murder on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, another unarmed black man killed by the police, in this case Derek Chauvin who crushed the back of Floyd’s neck with his knee for almost nine minutes. Floyd yelled out ‘I can’t breathe’ just as Eric Garner did back in July 2014. Past is present and probably prologue. We’ve learned nothing. Certainly the police unions which obstruct reform and protect dirty cops have learned nothing. So another curtain lifted, though it was never really down: added to racism and chronic conditions of poverty that exacerbate the pandemic, here is police violence again in the US. The familiar names of Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Trayvon Martin are joined daily by others. What I can’t get out of my mind is Chauvin’s affect of concentration on the task of suffocating George Floyd. He stuffs his fist into his left pocket to increase the pressure of his left knee on Floyd’s neck. People are marching everywhere because of the racism and sadism behind that pressing knee, behind Chauvin’s willing performance of cruelty though bystanders were filming him and begged him to stop.
And yet, I’ve heard unprecedented things recently, four to be exact. First, someone explained the phrase ‘structural racism’ to Joe Biden two months ago. Moderate duffer he may be, and a frequent malapropist, he nevertheless correctly used the words ‘structural racism’ in an English sentence on national television. Second, within 24 hours after the killing, Chauvin and his fellow policemen were fired and by the end of the week Chauvin himself charged with murder and arrested. It took New York City five years to fire Daniel Pantaleo whose choke-hold killed Eric Garner, and he was never brought to justice. A third jaw-dropper: in a veto-proof majority, the Minneapolis city council announced their intention to ‘dismantle’ the city’s police department and invest in community-led public safety programs. Can we set this sentence to music? A crescendo on ‘veto-proof majority’ and a fermata on ‘dismantle’? Fourth, this morning’s New York Times described the ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone’ in Seattle as ‘part street fair, part commune’. Commune, eh? I wish my now-deceased colleague, urban geographer Neil Smith, had seen this. Trump tweeted to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan that if she wouldn’t purge the ‘domestic terrorists’ who had ‘taken over Seattle’, he would do it for her. She tweeted back: ‘Make us all safe. Go back to your bunker.’ Another fermata, please, on ‘go back’ and ‘bunker’!
But now I’m being a spectator.
I’m sending this postcard asap before something else happens. Thousands of people have died of COVID-19 who might still be alive because we have incompetent leaders. But we are responsible for allowing our lives to be taken over and cheapened by white supremacy and police violence. We’ve all signed that postcard.
~ Elin Diamond
19 May 2020
‘I don’t know if I should go see Endgame now, I have tickets for tonight?’ This was one of the last interactions I had with one of my first year students, on Friday 17 March, a few days before my institution finally decided to suspend face to face teaching in the absence of clear government guidance. I had chosen to put this play on the syllabus just this year, not imagining for a second how its depiction of haunting isolation and morbid catastrophe would come to resonate with all of us so soon.
The few days prior had been an awkward teaching experience with students fretting about going home, hand sanitiser stocks and if classes should be happening at all. The anxiety from the streets to the home was palpable – rumours of a government strategy of herd immunity, visions of mass infection rates and up to 600, 000 dead and hesitancy on how physically close one could actually be to friends or strangers in the street. Theatres and universities started closing of their own accord with no guarantees yet in place for their survival or staffs’ wages, as nervous comparisons were made between the UK’s local laissez-faire attitude to the much more stringent rules of neighbours, the Republic of Ireland and France. Meanwhile, Italy’s death-toll seemed to rise at a relentless pace and it was difficult to see already if the UK was going to avoid a similar fate or worse.
The following weeks have seen death rates of people of colour increase up to four times that of white people. Asian, Black and Arab nurses and doctors, vilified just weeks earlier as unwanted migrants, are suddenly hailed as heroes as one after the other they lose their lives holding up the healthcare system of the former imperial centre. They are also overrepresented in the trades that Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to see return to work from Wednesday 13 of May onwards. Sunbathing in the parks of English cities, a welcome escape for households stuck in overcrowded apartments, is suddenly an offense deserving of fines and endless social-media shaming. The week the UK’s death toll became the second-largest in the world, the press led with the affair of one of the government’s chief advisers who had broken lockdown measures to visit his mistress as well as pushing for the early lifting of quarantine restrictions.
It is hard to consider theatre when one feels one is constantly angry and constantly grieving – pre-emptively and posthumously. This is not to say that many initiatives have not been welcome in providing a welcome break from endless Netflix offerings for many of us lucky enough to be able to stay at home. The National Theatre is offering an online programme of past productions, an initiative also taken up by Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Live Art Development Agency website is awash with resources ranging from filmed performances, to artists talks to general public health guidance. Forced Entertainment meanwhile have partnered with Hebbel and Ufer in Berlin for a three-part YouTube broadcast named End Meeting for All, in a typical attempt to diagnose our present dominated by Zoom videoconferencing. To the delight of many colleagues and friends, Berlin theatres are also making large amounts of performances available, leading to collective viewings and WhatsApp commentary – finally we can dissect shows together as they happen. Yet perhaps the most necessary transformation has happened at The Yard theatre in Hackney Wick, which has repurposed itself as a hub for community support for local residents, coordinating food shops, prescription pick-ups and other essential services for self-isolated individuals. This move mirrors a general trend in the country which has seen hundreds of mutual-aid groups spring up in the face of the state’s slowness to act in the benefit of those made most vulnerable by this crisis. This phenomenon of immediate solidarity may be one of the reasons to hold on to a cautious hope in the current moment.
Yet as I write this postcard, Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre has gone into administration, the first but probably not the last in the country. Many institutions are now partially relying on crowdfunding, and many cultural workers find themselves cut off from any income that may have been generated by the casual or freelance work these theatrical institutions relied on. While Equity has negotiated that actors involved in the National Theatre’s streaming programme should receive a nominal fee, this does not apply to the thousands employed as shift workers throughout the country. It is hard to envisage how, even after this crisis, the precarity of these individuals will not worsen in an economy which has overwhelmingly generalised insecure contracts, from social care to universities to the operating of theatres.
As for me, I have been reading Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums, an author who predicted just over 10 years ago the threat that avian flu posed in an age of cost-cutting global capitalism. It paints another bleak picture of the perverse ways international connections are made to favour the health and lives of certain people while others struggle in the most unsanitary conditions. I would like to imagine that the current escalation might reconfigure how we build something akin to real international solidarity – if not, it is hard not to imagine the wasteland of Beckett’s imagination becoming the permanent state of affairs for the Hamms locked up in their gated communities as the bodies of others rot just beyond the window.
~ Caoimhe Mader McGuinness
New Delhi, India
17 May 2020
From where I teach, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, the last few months have been intense. Anti-CAA anti-NRC protests, student protests against fee hikes, attacks on students and teachers in Jamia Millia Islamia University and JNU, the Delhi elections wherein the right-wing faced defeat, immediately followed by orchestrated riots against Muslims. COVID-19 followed. India has been in lockdown since March 25th. All the educational institutions were closed and students asked to head home. Teachers were directed to stay on in Delhi and hold classes online from residences, an ultimate neoliberal pipe dream. JNU is a public-funded institution that draws students from all segments of society. The stark digital divide, the lack of access to internet by a majority of the students at their homes is crystal clear. Even when students have technological access, their precarious conditions at home and the paucity of digital resources of performances and other library resources that cannot be made accessible to students has brought teaching and learning process to a virtual standstill. Added to this is also the loss of academic interactions based on transcultural scholarly exchanges and dialogues, which is a critical aspect of our pedagogy.
The responses to the pandemic have been varied, and are felt differently depending on one’s location. At a fundamental level, one recognises that as distinct from physical distancing, ‘social’ distancing is menacing as it can easily fold on to restaging of caste-based oppression. My home-state, Kerala, has so far achieved containment of the pandemic with tremendous success even after being the first to record confirmed cases. The response of the central government, on the other hand, has been predictable. Theatrics abound: collective banging of utensils, lighting of candles, military showering rose petals on hospitals. Arrests of activists on trumped-up charges of sedition. Islamophobia.
While social distancing became the norm for the privileged, distressing images emerged in the media of home-bound migrant workers assembling in tens and thousands first at the bus depots, and later as they started walking home hundreds of kilometres afar. Day before yesterday, sixteen migrant workers on their long walk died crushed under a train. The prognosis that death by hunger might trump the virus haunts. Predictable—violent, indifferent, fascist. I am glued to the streaming options opened by theatres across the world, and try to keep up with the spree of online discussion on theatre. Even an activist theatre group such as the Jana Natya Manch (Janam) which performs primarily for a working class audience in Delhi has done a few successful play-readings, poetry readings and an even a day-long event using online platforms.Komita Dhanda, an Excom member of Janam, noted that they have to think of continuing with some form of engagement in the virtual form at least until public gatherings can become a possibility, or even thereafter. Yet, they are clear that currently they are not able to address their working class audience. It isn’t even clear what this audience might be after the lockdown: some states have increased the working hours from 8 to 12 hours, exempted establishments from all obligations under labour laws, and have even blocked the travel of migrant workers to ensure availability of forced labour. It is in addressing these emerging forms of control and confinements, one hopes that theatre rekindled from and as the debris of our times will be relevant for a world truly without social distancing.
Within Delhi, where the confirmed cases have been increasing, I sit within the guarded JNU campus, which seems fresh due to the reduction in the infamous Delhi air pollution. The landscape has been taken over by dogs, cats, peacocks, nilgais, porcupines... At some point, the campus will again be full of students, their chatter, slogans, and dialogues, reinvigorated with the experiences of their own ecologies of the pandemic. I wonder how they might be welcomed by JNU’s own companion species. I wonder how a new ecology might be imagined where the pre-pandemic ordering need not be also the only horizon.
~ Ameet Parameswaran
15 May 2020
I can’t run to theatre. Nor music. We’re allowed out for exercise in Australia, and to date I’m 50km or so into an audio version of Roberto Bolaño’s vast novel 2666. By a rough calculation, I have another 280km to go, or 93 laps of my local park. The novel claims enough of my attention to take the edge off the discomfort of running, while leaving room to enjoy the greenery and open spaces. Being so long, the narrative unfolds expansively enough for me to find my own pace. I’m not fast, but I can run further to this literary ultramarathon, than without.
Theatre is better for walking. The back and forth of dialogue reproduces the rhythms of conversation that walking with another draws out of us. As I rounded the southwest bend of the park on an early solo jaunt, the closing conversation of Act One of Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance between Mrs Allonby and Lord Illingworth snapped sharply into place. Cheri Lunghi and Martin Jarvis, respectively, chewed the scene up in unison with my progress, which was hampered only by an awareness of oncoming promenaders looking askance at the idiot grin that had crept across my face, as the flirtatious excesses of the characters’ biting anti-romance gathered pace.
Act One was enough, though, for that walk, and I’ve since substituted recorded walking companions for actual. Act Two awaits, as do the remaining scenes of any number of streamed performances I have launched into at home. I haven’t written them off completely; but nor did I feel compelled, as circumstances in the theatre inevitably dictate, to see them through in one go. One of the last shows I saw before the theatres went dark in Melbourne was Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, an autobiographical performance by the avant-garde pianist Margaret Leng Tan. It was part of the successful but prematurely aborted Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts (AsiaTOPA). As might be expected of a onetime muse and major exponent of the aleatory works of composer John Cage, Tan’s show was preoccupied by the relationship between performance and temporality. ‘I don’t think anything happens by accident,’ she said in the show, ‘but it has to happen when you are ready to receive it.’ During a period where ‘…in the time of’ has become the prefix of choice for any number of discussions of the social impact of COVID-19, it is comforting to accept that now need not be the time of theatre. We just have to be ready to receive it.
Except: COVID-19 has also crystallized the fact that time has long been out of joint for Australian theatre. Despite the arts being amongst the hardest hit industries, and in contrast to many comparable societies, the Government has failed to offer a stimulus package for the arts. JobKeeper, its nationwide plan to keep employees of affected businesses afloat, is structured in such a way that the majority of arts workers, who normally get by on short-term contracts, cannot access it. It is hard to fathom the exact reason for such antipathy on the part of the Government towards an industry that, by its own reckoning, contributes 6.6% of GDP: significantly more than other industries, such as aviation (2%), which have seen bail-outs. However, the unfortunately-timed early-April announcement by the Australia Council for the Arts of which organisations had been granted coveted four-year funding, cemented the perception that the ruling Coalition’s attitude is characterised by more than benign neglect. With fewer organisations funded than in previous rounds, and many manifestly strong organisations defunded, it has become acutely apparent that the Government is unwilling to fund Australia’s arts sector adequately.
Theatre scholars can hardly ignore the plight that theatre-makers find themselves in. They are our collaborators, our inspiration, and our friends. Their work is integral to the education we provide our students, and the research we produce. Most importantly, their unique ability to give voice to who we are, and form to ways of living together, will be all the more necessary as society looks ahead to recovery. It’s going to be a complicated, bootstrapping dance: one in which performers labour to imagine new ways of being, even as they seek alternative models of support, and help Australia pay off the debts arising from the lockdown largesse that was denied them.
I’m put in mind of Lucky’s dance in Waiting for Godot: at once cruelly compelled, chaotically organised, and liberating all the same, making a virtue of its disjointedness. For maybe theatre is always out of joint. Running the other day, a key plot detail of 2666 passed me by. I was about to learn why one character, a famous painter, had chopped his own hand off. But something in the narrative triggered an image override: at home, I’d been watching a streaming of the kabuki play Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees by the National Theatre, Tokyo, where, at the end of a long scene, a faithful retainer does a series of claw-like gestures with his fists to show he’s really a fox-spirit in disguise. The reason for the painter’s self-mutilation passed me by. Even – perhaps especially – when least expected, theatre punches through.
~ Paul Rae
12 May 2020
It feels as though, during these strange days, all personal updates must be first preceded with the new social ritual of blessing-counting: I have my health, I haven’t lost my job, I have somewhere safe to live, I don’t have to juggle work with caregiving responsibilities, my loved ones are ok. Whatever my personal or professional anxieties during this frightening time, they distinctly pale next to the stories from collaborators in the arts who have are facing into unknowable months of unemployment, or friends who must care for their children without a break whilst also meeting the heavy demands of their jobs, or non-contracted colleagues whose already precarious positions are now even more vulnerable.
Prior to all of this, I had been serving as one of the judges for the 2020 Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, and was attending an average of 2-3 productions per week around the country. I ruefully remember grousing about the demands of this scheduling; how my empty evenings now seem to yawn out endlessly by comparison. And how petty those concerns seem when viewed next to the grief (for it is grief) of those working in theatre, as all planned rehearsals, productions, and festivals around the country fall in a seemingly endless slew of cancellations. In the Irish government’s roadmap for reopening society and business, phase 5 (from 10th August, the final stage of their current plan) is nominally the stage when theatres and cinemas can reopen, albeit with social distancing in place. However, that date signals a false hope for most theatres, since social distancing would restrict audience numbers by a factor of 10 (so the Abbey theatre would go from seating 494 patrons per performance to just 49, based on current social distancing guidelines). For most theatres and cultural centres, that is not a fiscally viable model. And so the industry must wait, without a timeline for hope; there is no roadmapped stage that would allow the industry to return to normal until a vaccine becomes available. The hasty announcement of a €1 million government fund for artists to make new work during COVID-19 drew scathing responses, not least because of how paltry the amount is compared to the arts investments made by neighbouring European countries in response to the crisis. In response to the widespread criticism, an Advisory Group has been convened to advise the Irish Arts Council on how to address Covid-19 crisis in arts sector. In the last few months, theatre companies and performers have attempted to find technological ways to reach their audiences and provide employment for artists, such as the Abbey Theatre’s Dear Ireland series of short filmed plays.
In my work at the Technological University Dublin Conservatoire, the switch to remote teaching and student support proved staggeringly labour-intensive, and I am exhausted most days (Zoom fatigue; what a darkly descriptive neologism). However, whilst the online platforms may offer an imperfect translation of in-classroom teaching, I do find my spirits raised by the enthusiasm of my students in our weekly online seminars; I shall miss them after this last week of teaching ends. In the midst of exhaustion and worry, I have taken comfort from two timely and reassuring articles from Aisha S. Ahmad via The Chronicle of Higher Education—‘How to Salvage a Disastrous Day in Your Covid-19 Quarantine’ and ‘Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure’—which served as a balm to professional anxieties, and a reminder that just getting through the days right now serves as a mighty victory.
~ Tanya Dean
Montréal and Stockholm
12 May 2020
In her seminal book Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater (2005), Jill Dolan famously celebrates ‘the generosity of the performer’. Through the means of performance, theatre artists share their personality, artistic skills, desires and political investments. Moreover, they often extend themselves in post-performance talks or similar outreach activities to strengthen communities and affective bonds between the members of these communities, efforts that are propelled by the shamelessly romantic hope of creating a better world. In this short postcard, I wish to add an additional dimension to the myriad ways in which this generosity manifests itself in the current pandemic.
I live and work in Stockholm, but started the year with a research leave in Montréal that was supposed to last until 1 April when I started teaching again. Once the global effects of COVID-19 led to the closure of borders and cancellation of flights, my head of department agreed that I should avoid any unnecessary travel and stay in Canada, not least since all teaching activities were moved online. Many colleagues will recognize the drama of those weeks when we frantically rearranged our course syllabi, ensured that students had access to electronic literature, rescheduled deadlines and faced the pedagogical challenges of the digital seminar space. Usually the class room is my own stage and when I teach, I perform. Once this embodied component was taken away from me, I was forced to adjust my professional identity and come up with new ways of stimulating students’ learning processes – in addition to balancing the six time zones between Sweden and eastern Canada. Imagine my thrill and gratitude, when one of Sweden’s foremost directors reached out to me and volunteered to give a guest presentation in my undergraduate course on postcolonial theatre.
Farnaz Arbabi is the co-artistic director of the Stockholm-based theatre company Unga Klara that, as of 1 January 2018, is the official national stage for children’s and young people’s theatre in Sweden. The ensemble’s productions are characterized by an explicitly anti-racist agenda and seek to oppose the accelerating xenophobia, Islamophobia and neo-fascism that has been sweeping over the country in recent decades. Like many theatres across the world, Unga Klara has made recordings of several previous productions available online to provide us with cultural nourishment during the pandemic (ungaklara.se). Thanks to an agreement between The Swedish Union for Performing Arts and Film (Svensk scenkonst) and the Swedish Performing Arts Association (Teaterförbundet), all of the involved artists have temporarily renounced any remuneration.
The generosity! At a time when the cultural sector is struggling to survive and theatre artists have lost or are at risk of losing their jobs, such initiatives are awe-inspiring and add new meaning to our understanding of artists’ generosity. The fact that my students could watch some of these performances, coupled with Farnaz’ presentation of Unga Klara’s rehearsal process and political agenda – a seminar for which she refused to accept an honorarium – resulted in a pedagogical success. On behalf of my students and my department, I wish to acknowledge this act of generosity and highlight it as one of many instances of how theatre communities during the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing to reach out to audiences and uphold vital bonds with scholarly communities.
~ Dirk Gindt
10 May 2020
#CanadaPerforms signals the National Arts Centre (NAC)’s $700,000 partnership with Facebook to provide $1000 stipends to professional Canadian artists for online performances. The goals of the fund are ‘to help ease the financial strain for Canadian artists impacted by the closure of performance venues across Canada related to COVID-19, and to lift the spirits of Canadians during the crisis.’ There are dozens of performances—on some days, there is one almost every hour—but music predominates. In fact, only 18 of the very many scheduled in May are tagged as theatre. In the province of Alberta where I live, the arts-champion Rozsa Foundation has posted web-based resources for artists (including the Foundation’s own grants of up to $15,000 for Calgary-area arts organizations for online programming and $10,000-20,000 towards defraying costs of contractual obligations for cancelled shows) as well as links to online events created by Alberta artists/arts organizations, but the theatrical collection is sparse. Elsewhere in Canada, the Stratford Festival has launched ‘watch@home’ (presented by insurance company Sun Life), opening with Robert Lepage’s production of Coriolanus. Cirque du Soleil staged a gala performance as a fundraiser for One Drop, their international non-profit supporting water initiatives.
My streaming practices have been far more global than national or local, however. Since we locked down very early in March, I’ve been to the Schaubühne, the National Theatre (London), L’Odéon Théâtre de L’Europe, Teatro Real and the Metropolitan Opera among others. This is a privilege of high-speed and reliable broadband and, of course, time. Yet only one of the many performances I’ve watched was written and/or directed by a woman: Katie Mitchell’s Orlando. So much high art and so little diversity. As Daniel Pollack-Pelzner notes in his 25 April essay for The Atlantic, there is a ‘danger of this necessary shift from local, in-person performance to online global broadcast in the pandemic moment: a homogenization of culture that reinforces power structures that might have seemed to be on the wane.’ At least I have a ticket for Victory Gardens (Chicago) streamed production of Fun Home later this month.
But it’s impossible not to worry for the future of theatre. Will theatre aficionados now expect performances to be available digitally? And for free? Will this dominance of the dramatic canon shut out new work and more diverse performances? Even as those of us who live outside major theatre cities have newfound access to global mainstages, must this threaten the local? Can Canadian theatres compete in this international marketplace? The country’s largest institutions, like NAC and the Stratford Festival, have been able to keep their (and their corporate sponsors’) names in front of audiences, but few other Canadian arts organizations have stayed in view. A very very rare exception on #CanadaPerforms was Pawâkan Macbeth, an adaptation presented by Akpik Theatre (the Northwest Territories’ only Indigenous company). Indigenous artists are already too often absent from Canada’s stages and festivals and local Canadian theatres too often in the shadow of “big brand” performances. NAC, other cultural institutions, all of us must strive now to ensure Canada’s theatre artists and their audiences return to good health in a post-pandemic world. It is a daunting, but vital, task.
~ Susan Bennett
8 May 2020
As in many other countries, the virus had been in the news for a while – more or less comfortably distant – when on March 13, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, declared the first wave of measures to fight the spread of the virus and to prevent a melt-down of the public health system. Since then, the public life has come to a halt, schools, universities, restaurants, hotels and all forms of public events are prohibited, including sport events, services, and, of course, all sorts of performances. The citizens are called to avoid any form of social gathering. After implementing further measures such as a closure of borders, the situation has eased after Easter. The current discussion about the economic, social, and cultural consequences is accompanied by a juridical and political discourse calling for a balancing of measures to fight the pandemic against the de facto suspension of many political rights. (As a consequence, we have now seen scattered demonstrations in various German towns with two dozen people, standing at a required distance of 2m from each other.
Allow me a remark before continuing: As much as the current situation is threatening and discomforting, partly because we lack any experience in dealing with catastrophes of this sort, I am fully aware of the fact that Germany was hit less by the pandemic than many other countries. Under these circumstances, any complaint would be highly inappropriate, so I consider the following as a humble sharing of observations.
While the public attention turns increasingly to the economic consequences, the situation in the cultural sector is ambivalent: While the often-praised German system of public subsidies guarantees economic security for those artists who hold a contract with a public theatre, orchestra, or ballet, many free-lancing artists find themselves in an insecure situation with dire perspectives. Although the government (on all levels of the federal system) has created programs to support freelancing artists, it is unsure how the situation will evolve further. In the field of theatre and performing arts, this is true not only for performers themselves but also for those who contribute to the performing arts as set or costume designers, media artists, photographers etc. It is ironic but one point of consolation is that there is an increasing sense of appreciation for the cultural field – now that it is almost non-existent
German universities – most of them were caught by the pandemic during spring break – opened in mid-April, offering online-classes and turning themselves in virtual institutions and scholars and faculty into digital neophytes who stare at their screens, trying to re-invent academic life. Here, universities mirror the strategy of many theatres who have started extensive streaming projects – surrogating the experience of performing arts (or scholarship) with digital tools.
The deep-reaching impact of this crisis is still hard to grasp. Although Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Žižek and other usual suspects have quickly offered instant-criticism (’Just add water…’), the lasting effects on society, culture, academia and social relations is still to be observed and described. Only one insight seems to dawn: Most of these instantaneous explanations will not hold through, or as the Latin proverb says: ‘Si tacuisses, philosophus/philosopha mansisses…’ (‘If you had remained silent, you would have continued to be a philosopher…’)
I like to close with two remarks: If I would get paid each time someone recommended Camus’ The Plague, Bocacchio’s Decameron, or other plague-inspired text, I would be rich. But is this really the best we can offer? Where are tales and figures of resilience, resistance, or even mourning? While media coverage seems to indulge in the iconography of catastrophic films, the cultural discourse might rather be called to seek for a counter-point. (And I don’t mean cheap escapism…)
Secondly, somewhen during the crisis the Schauspielhaus Düsseldorf announced that the festival Theatre of the World, scheduled for May, was canceled. Our department in Cologne had long worked in anticipation of this festival. The bi- or triannual festival offers an aesthetically challenging program as well as a critical perspective on our current situation. For this event, we had planned an international seminar, bringing together students and faculty from partner institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, Northwestern University, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and the University of Ghana. This combination of an intensive experience of a great variety of performances and a unique, polyphonic scholarly experience was exciting and utopian for us. Now it has become utopian in the literal sense of the word: it does not have a place. In conjunction with the cancellation of the annual IFTR conference in Galway – also an inevitable, responsible decision – this means that our international cooperation also come to a halt and are delegated to digital media. This is not meant to be a snobbish complaint but an admonition for us not to allow the crisis to thwart our solidarity and commitment to a genuine global community. Vis-à-vis a political discourse that reinforces borders and emphasises the national horizon, it becomes very evident that our international activities are not a luxury but a quintessential element of our personal and scholarly life. Fighting the virus also on this level might be one of the main future challenges.
~ Peter W. Marx
5 May 2020
On some mornings I do yoga while listening to BBC Radio 4. I never know exactly what I will hear; at times it’s the sound of Ian McKellen’s voice reciting Wordsworth; at other times, it’s the news of the latest COVID-19 death toll and the chronic (or rather criminal) shortages of PPE in the UK hospitals.
From where I stand, from my room, my window, my balcony—the trees are flowering and the birds have become louder. Occasionally, ambulance sirens wail towards the district hospital—a reminder of the parallel reality somewhere out there. We know of it, we always have—of those working, healing, or dying in IC units in the UK and across the globe, of those with no homes to #stayathomeandsavelives, of those whose homes are dangerous places, of those risking and at risk… This parallel reality has always been there, the virus has only heightened its presence and the possibility that the lines might actually cross not ad infinitum, but possibly here and now…
Not even on the bleakest of days has a personal lament felt appropriate. For there is a difference between things cancelled and things lost. What has been cancelled can be brought back, revived, retrieved… In the parallel reality, there are no metaphors, the losses are palpable.
Theatres have been cancelled, but not lost. Once this is over, we will want to congregate, we will crave to venture out of the two dimensional experience of screens, streaming, and online gatherings. Notwithstanding, some thought-provoking theatre has streamed into my living room in the past few weeks: Kulyabin’s sign-language Three Sisters, Butusov’s punk-rock Seagull, Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People, Rao’s Lenin, Rimini Protokoll’s Uncanny Valley…I also have a theatre gang to congregate with— Lisa Fitzpatrick, Yana Meerzon, Joel Beddows, Nenad Jovanovic… led by our professor Veronika Ambros, whose Czech Theatre course (and others) we had all attended at the University of Toronto more than twenty years ago. Every Saturday, our class resumes. As if no time has passed and no geographical distances stand between us we discussed our homework,-—our theatre viewing assignments of the week. Not sure how these retreats into the past and the pandemic connect, but they most certainly count as pleasures of the lockdown.
The lockdown has put a new twist on the performativity of walking, or rather made us see what has always been there—walking is political and can mean many different things. Our recreational walks, allowed under the lockdown, often reveal vastly different landscapes as our pedometers count the steps and verify the productivity of the walking. Meanwhile, in the parallel reality, Indian migrant workers have walked hundreds of kilometres, following the Modi government’s somewhat sudden implementation of the lockdown that left them jobless, destitute, and with no public transportation to return to their villages. What would be the images on their lockdown postcards taken on their long walk home? Would there by any similarities to this one?
~ Silvija Jestrovic
The picture taken during my lockdown walks of the Saxon Mill fields in Leamington Spa – instead of a title, I’ve given it stage directions: ‘A country road. A Tree. Evening.’
30 April 2020
Singapore is known to be the third most densely populated country in the world. Its resident population of 5.8 million are packed on a land mass of 721 square kilometres. It is, as such, implausible to find empty streets, vacant restaurants and unpopulated malls. Space is, literally, a luxury in Singapore. COVID-19 has, however, shattered the expectedness of everyday life in this ‘City of the Future’. Like in many other places, it has put the brakes on Singapore’s uninterrupted wealth and frenzied vibrance. Having spent most of my life here, the weeks in lockdown have become a lived experience of ostranenie.
Singapore has been in lockdown since 6 April, and while it was due to end on 4 May, the government recently decided to extend this till 1 June. Called a ‘Circuit Breaker’ (or Coronavirus Circuit Breaker) by the Prime Minister, its acronym ‘CCB’ paradoxically captures most Singaporeans’ sentiments about all that is happening, and it has also become a popular meme on social media platforms. In the Chinese dialect Hokkien, CCB is an acronym (‘chao chee bye’ in full) for a commonly used vulgarity which loosely translates as ‘foul-smelling cunt.’
The unprecedented nature of this crisis has reified the government’s affection for (benevolent?) autocracy: it passed a new Bill to restrict the movements of residents both in public and private spaces. Gatherings of any size in any space are prohibited even in one’s own home. Still, there are moments of dissensus, ruptures by individuals who refuse to submit to the State’s police/ing – foolishly or otherwise – and who continue to linger in public spaces or gather for a game of football.
Like all entertainment forms, theatre and performance here have been classified as ‘non-essential’ and all public performances thus cancelled. The National Theatre’s acclaimed production of Warhorse has been postponed indefinitely; the famed annual Singapore International Festival of the Arts, which has been running since 1977 in various manifestations, is also cancelled. In response, the government has invested US$39 million through an ‘Arts and Culture Resilience Package’ for the arts community: Arts organisations can receive support for wages, subsidies for training, deferred income tax payments, and rental waivers. Freelancers are entitled to benefits tailored to them, and a new Digitalisation Fund encourages new digital projects to be commissioned.
In this time of bio-precarity, theatre companies and practitioners have nonetheless been clinging to the popular dictum, ‘the show must go on,’ and have been finding ways to turn their performance digital. Yet this rush to embrace technology has excavated deep insecurities of theatre’s place in Singapore society, especially since theatre has long believed itself to be the advocate of social and political change, more so than any of the other performing artform here. To be deemed ‘non-essential’ causes theatremakers to interrogate performance’s value and purpose. That process does not sit well with many local theatremakers.
Perhaps theatre in Singapore is not as life-changing as we would like to think, especially in a time where life is laid bare in this state of exception. Yet this crisis presents an opportunity for a reassessment of Singapore theatre and theatre in Singapore given how, in the last decade, there has been an explosion of performance opportunities, practitioners, and companies, with the consequence being a scene now saturated with festivals and shows that Peter Brook would readily term ‘deadly’; truly impactful, life-giving performances have become far and few between as theatremakers converge on the commercial and the conventional. And so as difficult as it may be, pausing, reflecting and mourning theatre’s ‘irrelevance’ in moments of crisis may be necessary to herald new creative realisations stemming from deep interrogation and honest reflection about how theatre can, and should, be in a post-pandemic Singapore.
~ Marcus Cheng Chye Tan
The Arabian Peninsula
28 April 2020
For theatre-makers in the Arabian Gulf, 2020 opened abuzz with festive activity. The Saudi city of Jeddah hosted the 5th Gulf University Theatre Festival. Bahrain’s pioneering Awal Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary. A one-hour-drama competition stoked friendly rivalry between troupes from across Oman.
In the United Arab Emirates, actors from Morocco, Egypt, and Palestine performed alongside their Omani and Emirati counterparts in the yearly showcase of two-character drama held in the tiny exclave of Dibba al-Husn. Dubai’s local theatre community staged 115 ten-minute plays during its 8th annual Short + Sweet festival, and a troupe of twenty male singers, dancers, and drummers presented an Arabic re-visioning of Le Chanson de Roland at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Qatar, still blockaded by most of its neighbors as a result of the GCC Crisis of 2017, and thus uninvited to regional galas, focused instead on the second annual installment of its School Drama Festival.
In Kuwait, the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts—a key institution for training the region’s theatre practitioners—organized an Academic Theatre Festival. The lavish Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed Cultural Center hosted an Arabic adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Price, and the Dasma Theatre provided audiences with a comedic reflection on the latent socio-political power of Al-Kumbars (‘The Extra’), a metaphor for marginalized groups within Kuwaiti society.
All that in January and February.
By early March, COVID-19 concerns were mounting. But the Sharjah Theatre Days Festival—the Peninsula’s premiere annual theatrical event—went on, packing audience members into the Institute for Theatrical Arts for most of the thirteen plays in its seven-day stretch. Social distancing and face masks weren’t yet an obligation, though we’d begun to feel uneasy about things like other audience members coughing. In the foyer between performances, we updated each other on delays to imminent events on the theatrical calendar—just for a few weeks or so, just till the virus’s spread could be contained.
On March 10th, I attended a performance of Emirati playwright Basima Yousif’s Banat al-Noukhadha (‘The Captain’s Daughters’) at the Cultural Foundation Abu Dhabi. I was certain it would be cancelled. It wasn’t, but the theatre’s camel-leather seats were mostly empty. Afterwards, director Elham Mohammed proudly told me she was the only Emirati woman currently working as a theatre director. Given the subsequent bans on public gatherings, I wonder how long it will be till she can bring another show to life.
In mid-March, after the WHO confirmed that Yemen had till that point escaped the ravages of the novel coronavirus, Yemeni theatremakers gathered in Mukalla for the Festival of Yemeni Theatre. Six troupes, representing four of Yemen’s governorates, performed. Three weeks later, Yemen confirmed its first COVID-19 cases in Al-Shihr, a port city about an hour northeast of Mukalla and home of one of the participating troupes. What an uncontained outbreak would mean for a country already devastated by years of aerial bombardment, war, cholera and hunger is beyond contemplation.
Under such circumstances, I can’t say I wish you were here. But I hope you’re safe and well.
~ Katherine Hennessey
Scene from Banat al-Noukhadha by Basima Yousif, dir. Elham Mohammed. Cultural Foundation Abu Dhabi, 10 March 2020. Photograph by Stephen Steinbeiser.
18 April 2020
COVID-19 came to Japan quite early in late January and early February with various cases including the cruise ship, Diamond Princess. I was quite alarmed about it but continued to attend theatre until the end of February. When important theatre events took place, I even made a few 3-hour train trips to Tokyo, by then a hotspot in Japan. I had an intense fear of contracting the virus in trains and theatres, but nonetheless, I still went and suffered from the guilt of trying to enjoy theatre in a crisis. Japan has shared my inability to be decisive about the crisis and there is still no lockdown like in other countries. Only recently on 7 April, has the government asked for voluntary shutdown of various businesses with the issuance of a state of emergency.
While the government has been slow, there was already a lot of pressure on theatres to shut down in late February. This was because of several clusters of COVID-19 patients who have been linked to clubs and concert halls. As a member of the Asian Women Performing Arts Collective consisting of theatre practitioners and researchers in Japan, I have heard that many artists have lost their livelihood as a result of these closures. In late March, a group of artists made a petition to the government for compensation for their losses and protection of culture. Prior to this, Hideki Noda, a leading playwright and director, issued a statement against the shutdown of theatres. He was apprehensive of a difficulty in re-opening them once they closed, which could lead to the ‘death of theatre’. His statement was in response to rising criticism of theatre makers who did not close their shows. Noda’s statement was echoed in the comments made by Oriza Hirata, another artist representing the contemporary theatre scene; he writes that even after the pandemic ends, cultural industries might be permanently damaged.
Some practitioners have been adapting here. Theater Commons Tokyo, an important annual event providing a platform to explore social issues, had several readings and talks among practitioners that were shown as web videos. Hirata has recently opened a new theatre in a town that is far from the city centers, but he staged the first performance with the audience members sitting 1 metre apart from each other. Watching the news about this performance, I was torn again by my worries for the audience and my fear about the future of theatre.
~ Nobuko Anan
16 April 2020
There’s a forgotten play - not a very good one really - written in the 1950s by a Chilean playwright who was also a doctor: La Jaula en el Árbol (The Cage in the Tree). In it, a man who has a hidden dove, refuses to hand it over to the authorities even though he knows it could cause an epidemic. I have been thinking about that play.
When the new virus and its effects were confined to Asia, it seemed very remote. It was summer in Chile. January is a month of intense theatre activity and, then, in February, most people go on holiday.
Chile had been mobilised since October. It began with students jumping the turnstile on Santiago’s underground railway in protest against a fare increase and grew into a national movement demanding far-reaching political and economic change. As of the end of January, the results were mixed. We had obtained a plebiscite for a new constitution (originally set for April 26 but now postponed until October) but repression remained brutal: over 400 people had suffered eye injuries due to various forms of police violence.
Many theatres had to close because of the curfew, the tear gas, the fires and the shooting and, in response, collective street theatre performances, with both professional and amateur players, sprung up, transforming Chile’s cities. In other words, the theatre became both obsolete and profoundly necessary. Some theatres were putting on plays about couples’ problems, which seemed to have little to do with the situation in the country, while - in what now looks like a premonitory decision - at Teatro UC, we scheduled The Accidental Death of an Anarchistic, although we had to cancel many performances. As artistic director of one of Teatro UC, one of Santiago’s most important theatres, I had to make many emergency decisions with my team and it was not easy to know if they were the right ones. Despite everything, theatres found ways to adapt: some became first aid posts; others used their facade to support the movement
So when the epidemic reached Europe and, in Chile, the issue of closing theatres arose, it was no surprise that many artists saw it as another strategy of a corrupt government to deceive the population, or thought there were more important things and we were exaggerating. Moreover, after last year’s theatre closures, many artists were in a difficult financial situation and desperate for ticket sales
The first case of the virus in Chile was confirmed on March 3. We had just started the new season but decided to close the next weekend, even though this was still not compulsory. It is odd to work in theatre and want to close it, but our decision helped other theatres to close early. So far, if we believe the government -which is not easy- the virus has caused few deaths in our country.
Returning to The Cage in the Tree: we don’t necessarily know which things are important for our mental health until they are taken from us. It’s easy to mock older women who suffer because they can’t go to the hairdresser’s during quarantine, but it's no more ridiculous than any of the other things we cling to in these times. It is not easy to practise understanding and generosity. We have seen that many people can exist for a long time without going to the theatre, so we feel superfluous. The work of many artists is in danger and most theatre people are without income. Meanwhile, our government goes to the aid of big business, facilitating layoffs and offering low-cost state-backed loans.
We make theatre not only because the public needs it but because we need it too. We should stop for a moment and let the confinement weigh on all of us. I fear that our incessant offer of recorded and online theatre reflects the despair of not being able to cling to what gives us our mental health - the practice of theatre - rather than the needs of the public. I am afraid that if we insist on the importance of culture and the arts during the confinement, their beauty will, in the end, help to silence the news and their pain, stupidity and corruption. We need to address those stories now. We still have to find a way to adapt to these new times.
At the same time, I can only be grateful to the theatre, the community of people who are interested in my well-being, the value of the corporal practices and manual work I learned from the theatre and which now rescue me from despair. The time for political mobilisation will return, the time for theatre will return but, perhaps, for now, we should surrender our dove in order to save us all.
~ Andrés Kalawski