As someone who works in the performing arts, I'd been desperate to get back to seeing shows after the intense lockdown. Here I share my thoughts on whether socially distanced performances actually work.
I was really quite excited to finally be able to see a performance after so long. With theatres closing and announcing redundancies across the UK, I've been hopeful that we can find a new way of making and performing work during this time. My first experience of an outdoor, socially distanced performance came at the beginning of August, with Impermanence hosting an afternoon of dance, music and poetry in the gardens of Kings Weston House in Bristol, UK.
DISCLAIMER: This post is not a review of the artists involved in this performance, rather its a review of whether socially distanced performance works from a logistical perspective. If you want to know more about the artists involved in this event, please go to the Impermanence event page.
The company kindly emailed ticket holders in advance outlining the safety measures which they had implemented, and they even provided a map of the site before you booked, which detailed how they would maintain social distancing at the venue. The company provided a clear and simple set of rules in order to keep everyone safe:
Please move in a clockwise direction around the site;
Seating is spaced specifically for social distancing purposes. On the door, and in the prior email we were asked not to move the chairs around, for this reason;
Chairs were in groups of varying sizes, so audience members were asked to find a set of seats which matched the numbers in their group, if possible.
The map was provided on the event program on arrival, as were disposable facemasks and hand sanitiser. Facemasks were not compulsory, but were provided for those who felt more comfortable wearing a mask.
As a cautious punter booking to see this show, these rules and the accompanying map made me feel very comfortable - I knew that the company had thought carefully about what would be needed at the event to keep everyone safe.
However, in practice these rules were not abided by a lot of people at the event. I saw multiple people moving seats at least 3 or 4 times, sometimes picking up their chair and moving it to the other side of the space. Social distancing was not observed in a lot of cases, and almost no one moved in a clockwise direction around the space.
In a way, I could see this as a rehearsal for social distancing in indoor theatre spaces. And unfortunately, this rehearsal didn't go well at all. I want to be clear - I don't see this as the fault of Impermanence (I don't see what more they could have done) - rather, that it is difficult to begin re-training audiences in a new way of viewing performance, when we have viewed most performances in one particular fashion for so long.
I understand that all of the imposed lockdown restrictions have changed many people's lives completely and fast, but I have a feeling that this world is going to keep bouncing back and forth between these restrictions for a while, and we need to habituate ourselves with new ways of living, working and leisure-ing if we are to attempt to reclaim the things we love during this time. I suppose this is my performance-based plea for a collective effort on that front.
We Need to Adapt
However, I realised watching this show that it's more than just the audiences which need to adapt. Specifically in the dance industry, we need to adapt our craft in a post-COVID world (or possibly a during-COVID world, depending on how long this lasts). Simply placing a work which used to take place in a theatre, onto an outdoor stage may not be the best idea. For example, in lots of outdoor venues floorwork doesn't work. If you're dancing with your whole body close to the floor, we can't see you. Unless you're performing on a raised stage, or the venue has provided some sort of outdoor raked seating - most of the audience will be unable to see your floor-based movements. If this global situation continues for much longer, we need to be creating work that acknowledges the difference between performance conditions pre-COVID and during-COVID, in order to ensure that our work can still be fully experienced and appreciated by smaller, but much more spread out audiences.
I think that this particular event was a great attempt at bringing artists back to the stage and audiences back to watch them. In theory, the mechanisms that Impermanence set up here could work really well, but only if audiences follow the guidelines.