In a crisis, I am not someone you would want on your team. I’ll pitch in and help, but my nature is depressive and defeatist, so I respond poorly to motivational speeches or efforts to make the best of a bad situation. Hard to see, therefore, how someone as selfish as me can contribute to the BTG web site during the current health crisis. People working in the Manchester theatres have had their life’s work ruined and their livelihoods destroyed; it seems petty, to say the least, to bang on about how dull it is not being able to go out at night.
The theatre industry has responded to the crisis by falling back on the adage ‘the show must go on’ and started posting shows online. This is understandable and even admirable—it is a generous gesture and maintains public awareness of their purpose even while they are out of action. It may raise the spirits of people who are fed up and desperate for some form of novelty. It may even stimulate interest from people who have not attended theatres before and so possibly attract new audiences in the future.
I could, therefore, contribute to the BTG site by reviewing the shows that are being made available online. The problem is: I don’t really like recordings of theatre shows. Tend to regard them at best as a development on theatre programmes: a nice reminder of a show but no substitute for the real thing.
This is an outdated and even snobbish opinion which I struggle to justify. There are people whose views I respect who regard the broadcast of theatre shows into cinemas as the best thing since sliced bread. Cinema audiences are given the best seats in the house and camera angles ensure they can see details that would escape punters in the theatre. Besides, cinema broadcasts offer a chance to see blockbusters where tickets are as rare as hen’s teeth.
However, I have always regarded cinema broadcasts as a bit of a cheat. They give the big London-based theatre companies yet another excuse not to tour their shows while creating an opportunity to generate further revenue. One of the pleasures of theatregoing is chatting with patrons—making comparisons with past versions of the show or recalling the other casts. It is disappointing when people report on shows they have seen at the cinema. They should not count as theatre—they are not the real thing.
Theatre- and cinema-going are very different experiences—when did you last applaud at the end of a film? A friend who is heavily into opera recalled the odd sensation of hearing a filmed opera performance conclude and the soundtrack blast out riotous applause only for the house lights to come up and reveal a very sparse and indifferent audience in the cinema.
Live theatre requires a degree of effort on the part of the audience. Before The Lowry could be relied upon to attract big touring productions, theatregoers from the Manchester area were accustomed to travelling to Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield as well as London to see the full range of shows. Although it is now much easier for Mancunians to get their theatre fix, we still must get off our backsides and leave the house rather than passively wait for entertainment to arrive at home.
This sounds incredibly ungrateful—criticising the efforts of theatres to provide for audiences during a crisis. That is not the case—rather this is an effort to understand why I feel so cool towards those attempts.
Whilst appreciating the efforts of the theatres, I cannot help but feel a sense of regret at what is absent. What I’m missing most during the lockdown is not the actual plays, but the sense of community generated by theatregoing. The pleasure of cheerfully griping about the inability of theatres to start on time or joining in the roar of approval when a show really hits the spot.
There is a speech in Apocalypse Now pointing out how efforts to recreate the home environment by singing songs around a campfire during wartime simply make troops miss home even more. Online theatre broadcasts have that effect on me: making me appreciate them whilst really knowing the essential ingredient of audience involvement is absent. There ain’t nothing like the real thing.
The health crisis is going to make permanent changes to society and theatre will not be exempt. It may be that the online broadcast of theatre shows will evolve to introduce a degree of audience involvement. Emoji, ‘likes’ and online chat might replace applause and interval discussion. Smaller theatre companies might find online broadcasts make their productions available to a wider audience. Theatre patrons might decide online shows are an acceptable alternative to live theatre as they avoid the grind of fighting through rush hour traffic and securing a parking space or the horrors of public transport.
However, for me, the absence of the live theatre community means the next few months are going to be both dull and very lonely.