Scene: Bridge of the USS Enterprise
Klingons on the starboard bow, Captain!
On screen. All stations, Red Alert!
Umm Captain… “Red Alert”. I was just wondering, the bit about diverting power to the main shields – last time that meant I didn’t have hot water in my cabin. So maybe we could leave that bit out this time?
Yes, Captain, while we’re on the subject, I’ve got quite a packed social calendar right now, high pressure job, need to let off some steam, so it would be great if the whole “man the battle stations” thing didn’t apply to me this time round.
While we’re at it, Captain, these seatbelts really chafe my sensitive skin, so I’d like to be exempt from wearing them. In fact, perhaps you could remove them all now I think of it?
Also Captain, do you think we could tone down the whole “Red Alert” message over the tannoy? We don’t want to cause panic, and there’s a theory that the Klingons will have evolved to become less aggressive…
Bridge explodes in a cataclysm of bad acting.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Prime Minister of the UK took up another chunk of our time yesterday evening to announce that he would not hesitate to take any necessary action to combat the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the action in this case being to hesitate about making any decision about taking action.
While he fiddles away, the nation’s theatre industry is smouldering ominously. Theatres across London are being forced to cancel performances as a result of Covid outbreaks among cast and crew: 25 West End shows are currently dark according to a recent estimate. Even where they are clinging on and remaining open, sparse attendances and drastically reduced ticket sales are being widely reported, as audiences understandably prioritise their health over their entertainment. Well-intentioned artists currently arguing that theatres must be kept open at all costs are hardly helping public confidence on this front.
At present, it seems that you can either shut the virus down, or it will shut you down.
The huge problem with the latter approach is that short of a government-enforced closure, many insurance policies will not cover the cost of cancellations. And while theatres are in theory allowed to stay open, the Government can also deny any obligation to provide them with targeted financial support. It all feels very much like March 2020 again, right down to freelancers bearing the heaviest financial brunt: far from reforming standard agreements to protect their fragile freelance workforce against the current crippling uncertainty, many employers seem to have made things even more precarious – and this despite the fact that some of the cancellations have been a result of the freelance workforce being depleted by the first waves of the pandemic, many of the most experienced workers having been forced to switch careers and take their frequently irreplaceable skills elsewhere.
This is all quite perplexing to those of us who worked so hard over the earlier months of this year to produce “Covid-safe” shows, at a time when community cases were far, far lower. It was an artistic and emotional strait-jacket: masks in rehearsals, no socialising outside of work, sanitising props, two-metre distancing on stage and off at all times. It often felt like threading a needle blindfolded; but we all recognised how vital it was in getting the industry back up and running, cancellations and Covid outbreaks were extremely rare, and there was huge support and understanding from audiences in sold-out theatres, and even from critics, or at least the more discerning ones.
You can’t help but get the impression that the industry looked at the success of all those precautions, and decided that it meant that the precautions were no longer necessary. (As with the Millennium Bug, where the hard-of-understanding often wonder why computer engineers bothered doing all that work before 1st Jan 2000 to prevent it causing disasters, since looking back no disasters ended up happening…) Admittedly, we now seem to be facing a variant of SARS-CoV-2 which is much more transmissible and faster moving; but even so, for example, I was in a show in June where the full team of understudies were kept away from the rehearsal room at all times – so even a full wipeout of the main cast shouldn’t have brought the show to a halt. Failure to plan is a plan for failure.
As an industry, we’ve been shutting our eyes and hoping Covid has gone away. It hasn’t. And barring a miracle, it will keep coming back again and again. The comforting idea that those successive mutations will gradually get milder in nature leans on an awful lot of wishful thinking which ignores the basic principles of evolutionary pressure. (The less reassuring inference of those pressures is far more likely to be that the virus evolves to evade our existing precautions; in fact, we’ve seen it do just that three times already.)
The strong likelihood is there will be another wave after this one. By the time it hits, we need some cold, hard thinking.
Learning to live with the virus does not mean ignoring its existence. Quite the opposite, in fact. It means studying and accepting the fundamental nature of its life cycles – already some sort of pattern seems to be beginning to emerge – and working out how our business model and working methods can adapt. Let’s say we reach an endemic equilibrium which requires a short, slightly unpredictable closedown once every year or two, to buy time to roll out the latest vaccine. How would a theatre industry adapt to coexist with that?
In terms of the Omicron wave, the horse has already bolted, and we’re left going cap in hand once again to a largely unsympathetic government. But before the next wave hits, our industry leaders need to open their eyes, go back to first principles, and be bold and imaginative. Two years into this pandemic, not having a Plan B is surely no longer forgivable.
It may involve the need to persuade audiences to pay more for a smaller scale, more flexible product; a less precariously efficient, but more resilient, model. A far more intelligent approach will unarguably be needed to retaining and safeguarding the freelance workforce, in terms of job security, sick pay, cancellation clauses, to name but a few. And companies will have to put some long-overdue hard work and investment into reassuring audiences that their venues are safe; I’ve been writing for eighteen months about the dearth of studies into ventilation and crowd movement in this country’s theatres and concert halls. They remain conspicuous by their absence.
Less realistically, we also need our political leaders to extend their foresight beyond the middle of next week. Many Asian countries dealt with even the first wave of Covid with stunning speed and effectiveness; that was in large part down to the lessons they learned from dealing with the original SARS epidemic. They’d already had the hard conversations about how to deal with such an outbreak collectively, what their priorities were, who and what to protect, and what freedoms they were willing to sacrifice temporarily. There are no right and wrong answers to those questions; but they are hard conversations which any mature society needs to be willing to have, so that when the need arises for a national Red Alert, everyone understands and accepts what that means. It demands clarity, guts and leadership from those running the country. That won’t be easy, nor universally popular; but it’s what we pay them to do.
In the UK we, meanwhile, are still arguing about the seatbelts on the Starship Enterprise. And the Klingons are once again looming on the starboard bow.
Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy
“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine
“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine