The end is in sight… but what have we learnt?


Sophie Burton reacts to the potential re-opening of the arts sector later this year and reflects on the lessons we've learnt.

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Image by nican45, 2016

By Sophie Burton

I’m sure, like the rest of the world, theatre-makers are reeling with excitement after the announcement of the Government’s roadmap and the possibility that life, and performance, could return to normal by the end of June. The last twelve months have brought incomprehensible challenges for everyone, the lives of the nation have changed in ways we never perceived could be possible, as reality and dystopia became blurred into one monotonous stretch of limbo, questioning and fear. But for creatives especially, the last year has been an ongoing battle. Fighting for financial support, answers from Parliament, even having to sustain the ‘viability’ of our careers. The move to online theatre has been gruelling, tiresome and not without its technical hitches. But, as we celebrate the prospect of the return of live performance and as a sense of normality begins to return, it’s important to remind ourselves of the positives that can be taken from our experiences and what developments we might take with us as we enter the ‘new’ normal.

Despite its challenges, the online-only way of working has brought a sense of innovation to the way the theatre industry operates. The streaming of live performances has meant that audience members can dial in from all over the world to watch. Not only does this bring potential to expand the reach of the work created, but it also has benefits in terms of accessibility. Those who might normally be unable to physically attend a venue, or who can’t afford to travel to London, have been able to watch shows that were possibly ‘off-limits’ to them before, due to budget, mobility and location. This offers the opportunity to broaden the demographic of the typical theatre audience and engage a wider variety of people in theatre and the arts. Although nothing can compare to the feeling of being physically present in an audience, merely feet away from the cast on stage, it is thrilling to see the way that online theatre has opened doors that were previously closed.

Confining as they were, the restrictions in place have also forced us to become more creative in the ways theatre interacts with technology. I know I for one have seen my fair share of zoom plays in the last year, some far more successful than others, and the thing that made the difference was the level of engagement with the platform. The ways in which technicalities including exploring with new camera angles, sound effects, perspective and interaction have evolved in only a year is staggering. It is exciting to think about how these playful experiments might feed into future work even when we are no longer trapped in little Zoom boxes. There has also been a renewed interest in the voice and the relationship with text as artists have had to reimagine a text to make it work in the new format. The time spent fine-tuning and refocusing on vocal performance, when there has been a limit placed on how one can perform physically, is something that will be invaluable in future practice and serves as a reminder of the incredible power of words.

I think it is really important to note that working online has reminded us all of the importance of knowing when to take a break. I’m sure, like myself, many of us will have experienced some form of the dreaded Zoom burnout after hours and hours sat in front of a computer. However, creative burnout is something that existed long before we were all stuck to our screens this year. Out of all the lessons to be learnt from the pandemic, this one is the most important. After spending a year spent alone forced to spend time with our own minds, we have all become more familiar with our limits and the point at which we are ready to take a step away. This is something that should be taken back into the rehearsal room, in the physical form instead of the virtual. Be kind to yourself and your peers, colleagues or collaborators. There may be a light at the end of the tunnel, but the events of the last year will be with us a long while, so yes, do be creative and enthusiastic, but remember to be mindful of the limits of your own mind and body, and the limits of those around you.