For students of drama, whether in school or higher education, the current pandemic can feel exceptionally frustrating, with all live theatrical events cancelled until at least July. And this is optimistic forecasting: Cameron Mackintosh recently warned that all West End theatres are unlikely to reopen until early 2021, without a vaccine. Social distancing means that any large gatherings are prohibited and for theatres, the financial costs of running and operating a building means that filling auditoriums with audiences at half or one-third capacity is unsustainable. Theatres face an unprecedented crisis and most are appealing to the government and to the public to help them remain afloat. Nuffield Southampton Theatres, which have been running since 1964 and provided a valuable artistic lifeline to the area, have recently gone into administration, and it looks likely that other venues may follow. The National Theatre’s Artistic Director, Rufus Norris, recently warned ‘without support, we won’t survive’ and indicated that the entire sector could face serious collapse without significant government support.
For drama students, this can feel like a dire situation. Those hoping to enter into the industry may be worried about what will remain of the British theatrical landscape once the crisis has subsided. Furthermore, drama students cannot rehearse or perform theatre or attend any live performances as part of their studies, so they may feel like any meaningful advancement is impossible. However, while the pandemic rages and people are quarantined at home, people are relying on the arts more than ever to lift their spirits and provide an image of humanity that is rich and hopeful. Recently, James Graham’s series ‘Quiz’ on ITV draw in huge audiences, and the BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ has been one of the most talked-about series since ‘Fleabag’. It is worth pointing out that Graham, Alice Birch (the co-creator of ‘Normal People’) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (creator of ‘Fleabag’) all began their careers in theatre and it is an industry that must, and will, survive, to maintain the rich cultural landscape of this country.
So what resources are available to the drama student in lockdown? Theatres across Europe have been rising to the challenge of proving their value and producing content during the crisis. The National Theatre have launched a free streaming scheme on their website, ‘NT at home’, showing a different play weekly. The content they have selected is clearly geared partly toward the national curriculum for English and Drama: so far, they have announced showings of ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Coriolanus’, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ as well as comedy favourites like ‘One Man, Two Governors’ and ground-breaking newer plays like ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’. Students of Shakespeare have many critically-acclaimed resources to choose from: the Globe is releasing recordings of some of their most-loved performances for free on YouTube (see their website for details), and the RSC have released recordings of six of their most popular productions on BBC iPlayer.
In some ways, the pandemic has provided a far greater range of theatre to watch for free and from the comfort of our living rooms: the Schuabühne in Berlin has been releasing new recordings of their productions on their website almost every day, attracting a large UK audience as well as the already-converted German theatregoers. Social media initiatives are bringing isolated audiences together to discuss and debate livestreamed productions: the #EuropeanTheatreClub on Twitter and the International Online Theatre Festival are some of numerous examples. Zoom workshops and Q&As with actors, playwrights and directors are much more available and free than ever before, and theatres are recording online monologues and script-readings, often to raise money for those affected worst by the crisis.
While undoubtedly, any student of drama will be feeling the loss of live performance, the intimacy and shared experience of which cannot be replicated online, the next few months are a valuable opportunity to experience work being showcased which otherwise we would not have such easy access to. The importance of the arts is more evident now than ever and, when the industry is ready to rebuild itself, it will be young people leading the way.