I’ve struggled to write about theatre at this time. To be honest I’ve struggled to write anything about anything. It took me weeks to get my head remotely functioning. And even then, what do I say?
But it also feels remiss to say nothing. To not mark it somehow, this blog has been a diary of theatre-going for nearly a decade now in one form or another. And this is the longest I’ve gone in a decade without going to the theatre.
It’s been what, more than six weeks now? Seven? I actually have no idea.
I was inspired to write by, of course, Stephen Sondheim. Who else? at the 90th Birthday celebration on YouTube. In it, Brandon Uranowitz changes ‘With so Little To Be Sure Of’ to a love letter to theatre. And I was struck by the lyrics:
‘It was marvelous to know you
And it isn’t really through.
None of it was wasted, all of it will last’
And, as Brandon says in the clip, while it currently might not be around, we have Stephen (and others like him) and its legacy. But I feel that after the initial shock, then the clamour for ‘what do we do while we’re closed’ the collective sense of sadness is creeping in.
It is collective mourning, but also a collective uncertainty. It might only be an interval but it’s an interval following ‘technical difficulties’ and a show stop; none of us knows how long it will last.
Our world stopped a week before the rest of the country. We saw it coming, we watched Broadway go dark with the certainty of those about to tread the same path, with the only question being ‘when’. And we held on. Some people might say foolishly. I don’t deny it was a risk that the theatres stayed open as long as they did, I don’t deny the failings of our government in not halting us all earlier than they did. But that isn’t what that last week- that last weekend was about.
There was a collective feeling among us as a community of ‘go now before it’s too late’ a last gasp at sucking in the world we were part of before it disappeared for however long. Those of us who could silence our fears long enough to sit in the dark and share that one last time. For ourselves, and our community. I realised I never wrote about those shows. There was a stark feeling of pointlessness in a ‘review’ at that point, but maybe that’s wrong, maybe they need recording.
It’s taken me a while to put down any thoughts about theatre. I’ll be honest I’m struggling to have any thoughts about any of this. Some writers channel their fears into the present moment, responding here and now. I channel it into other things. I revisit it later. I won’t be writing Corona monologues because I don’t have it in me, I don’t yet have the words.
For me, as the lights went up on the last play, I admit to a certain level of fear and doom-mongering. I saw Roger Allam (and Colin Morgan) in the final performance of ‘A Number’ Allam was in the first play I ever saw on stage, and as the lights went up, for a moment I thought ‘please don’t let this be the last’. And while in part fear for the industry, let’s not forget the very real fear for our own lives that bubbles under this. It’s morbid yes, but maybe a necessary truth, that thinking ‘this could, in fact, be the last thing I see ever. I could be the last thing any of us in this room see ever.’ And if I’m honest it’s a weird dark thought that creeps in ‘well if that’s the last, then at least you managed some neat symmetry’ the OCD part of me thank you randomness of a pandemic. But in all seriousness, our world has stopped in many ways.
It’ll be some time before we as a community fully take stock of who, and what we have lost. From people like Terrance McNally, known worldwide. To our own personal community losses, like that of Othniel Smith here in Cardiff. Along with that each one of us is dealing with personal losses. It’s an irony- a cruel one at that- that at such a time we are deprived of the one thing that gives us both escapism and activism. During the AIDS pandemic theatre rose up. It became a voice, a tool to shout but also to collectively mourn. And we, a community that not only thrives on it but needs that, are deprived of it.
And it’s been a time of ups and downs. Of wild optimism and crushing defeat. Of brilliant creativity, and a sense of ‘it’ll never be the same’. Of constant, exhausting speculation.
It’s fascinating to me, as a scholar of the AIDS epidemic and theatre that I’m struggling to put anything into words about the two. In part because we’re not finished here yet, and it’s impossible to response in the middle of the trauma maybe. Or maybe it is just that- the outlet I’m used to having, the tools I usually have as a writer have been silenced. And so, I’m struggling.
And I cannot have been alone on that dark Tuesday, of going into a day job, and having to face the world while the bottom had fallen out of mine. Yes, I have (well had now) a job to go to, unlike many of my freelance friends. But there was a certain level of grief to the having to carry on as normal when it felt like your whole world disappeared overnight. And we can argue whether any one thing should be your ‘world’ another time, but for those of us who work in it, and those of us who love it, theatre is in our bones. And without it we are lost.
I realised in a profoundly lonely weekend, six weeks in, just how empty my world is without theatre. And that’s not just the act of going there- though of course that’s part of it. But the world I’ve built around it. My friends. It’s not that I don’t have friends I realised after the dark depression lifted a little, it’s just my friends are tied to my love of theatre and we’ve all been set adrift. And while the rest of the world talks about going to the pub, and parties when ‘it’s all over’ us theatre crowd are left wondering just how long it will be until we see each other again. The last friend I spent time with was at the theatre. And even as the theatres are dark, my theatre friends are seeing me through. They might live in my phone for now, but we’re a community. We’re a family.
And yes, theatre is a huge part of my life, in work and play. And maybe there are better ways to build a life, but this is the one I have so there’s not much to do about that now is there? And actually I refute that. Theatre and the world, the friends I’ve built around it has given me so much more than this temporary loss. Maybe my world will take longer to get back to normal, maybe that hole will be in my life a bit longer. But that’s ok, because when it’s back I know I’ll be the better for it. I’m willing to wait if it means I can have the thing I love back.
And what do we do? Largely we veer between severe realism- the thing we barely let ourselves say out loud about just how long it will be. And optimism. The idea we will be in an audience sooner than we let ourselves dream. And we let ourselves dream because that’s what theatre is.
We dream about the first show we’ll see, the opening chords or the opening line.We dream about hugging our theatre friends in the foyer again.We dream about seeing our favourite performers and our friends on stage again.We dream that the show we’ve bought tickets for and waited months already for still happens.We dream of seeing our own play on stage as planned.We dream of stepping on stage again.
Me, yes I dream of all those things. I dream of Come From Away the first night it’s back, I dream of holding my friends’ hands again while we watch it, and crying on each other again (and again). Yes, I dream of the production I worked so hard for of my own still happening. I dream of singing with choir again. I dream creepy David Tennant play still happens. I dream Marianne Elliott play with audience participation I’m terrified of happens. I dream of a coffee at the National, and a walk down 46th street again. I just dream of being there again.
Only an interval for sure. The longer we’re out strangely the stronger my resolve gets. It may not be any time soon. It may look really different for a while, but theatre has never let us down before. It’s resilient, it changes with us.
And I applaud everyone who is trying to fill the void with creativity. It’s a mark of our ever-evolving nature. And it’s a valid experiment. But don’t burn yourselves out with the need to fill the ‘now’, leave something for after the interval. We’ll need you more than ever then.
I’ll see you after the interval.