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The Biggest Event of our Time.

Guest blogger David Gibson, who has many years' experience working as a theatre practitioner in west Cornwall, contributes some thoughts on the serious challenges facing the performing arts in the present crisis.

There can be few industries unaffected by the pandemic. Those of us who work in the performing arts and theatre have been particularly troubled to find a way through several challenges to deliver work and, as yet, are still struggling.

Social distancing means much reduced occupancy in venues that must hit minimum numbers to hit financial targets, in an industry where arts funding is already crucial. Be it drama, opera, classical or rock concert - for a performance to happen, dropping to a fifth of audience numbers means the production is not viable and some West End shows work on a 95% occupancy requirement (still underpinned with arts funding). Even that conservative reduction means enormous difficulties in managing an audience in, during the show and out after the performance.

Behind the scenes the story is no better. Back stage spaces are often very cramped with performers and crew in very confined spaces and little concern over ‘personal space’. Whilst a production may look glamourous from the seating, the set and backstage is not an area that sees a cleaner come in daily, nor with enormous amounts of electrical equipment, somewhere you could spray a disinfecting solution. Microphones on and off stage mean masks would be impractical, although one proposal suggested actors would have to wear masks! Another proposal recently suggested the need for mopping the stage floor every hour where dancers are involved - they perspire, deposit and exhale a lot of fluid in their art! Likewise rock musicians perspire a lot – how used we are to seeing the water bottle and towel in a concert, almost part of the image. For classical works where the wind instruments are atomising breath into a hazy cocktail, one German plan recently proposed the need to leave a couple of metres between brass instruments and a gap of twelve metres from the audience.

A production does not happen ‘on the day’. It’s a long process stretching back through many months. Perhaps a couple of years planning to make to make dates and numbers work, a few months ago, those were thrown out of the window, along with many plans for 2021.

Then starts rehearsal. Actors attempting to rehearse the close fight scene, the arm-around-shoulder discussion or the passionate moment without making contact. Transport of touring theatre and concert equipment. Accommodation of performers and crew. It goes on in any big - or small - production.

For many venues, the lockdown closed their doors permanently. Survival depends on a constant daily occupancy through ticket sales to see shows. When shut, overhead costs do not stop and several major theatres have already gone into administration.

The performing arts in all its many facets is an industry of people who often present material of a very unstructured kind to their audiences – chaotic even. However, it’s an industry crammed full of some amazing logisticians, production and stage managers, and technical people who work to rigid structures and tight precise deadlines. They solve enormous problems very elegantly. Yet mathematically similar to the much-publicised R rate, we have a ‘C’ rate, a Challenge rate. For every solution offered to each challenge it opens a handful of further challenges – currently well over one, we need to get our C rate below one! Hopefully, we will find a way through.

In the meantime, please support the arts in any way you can, or be prepared to see a lot of live performance disappear.

David Gibson. 31st May 2020

Image - Getty Images.

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