The title of this collection is Why Theatre, and for me the answer lies in a different but related question – how to make theatre in a changing world. There have been many brilliant and creative theatrical responses from the broader theatre community during the coronavirus pandemic including the streaming of old productions and new pieces of work using digital means. But clearly this is only a short-term response and my fear, underlined by conversations with theatre and opera organisations across the UK and mainland Europe, is that most folks are simply waiting for things to return to normal. The view seems to be that if they wait long enough, what they used to do will start up as quickly and as suddenly as it stopped back in March 2020.
This perspective envisions theatre returning in exactly the same format as before with a few caveats. So, some productions have been cancelled, others rescheduled, downsized, re-directed in a socially distanced format, re-shaped into a digital format or turned into a blend of digital and live.
Under this revised business as usual approach, some organisations where there is more state support are making small changes, like the Schaubühne in Berlin which is now going to spend more money on how they film their productions in case they need to roll out the recordings in the wake of another pandemic. And in other organisations, in countries where the bailout for the arts is worse, they are making tougher economic decisions, such as the 25% staff redundancies at both the Royal Opera House and National Theatre in London.
Under both of these scenarios, the danger is, for me, that everyone is Just Waiting for the (gradual) return to business as normal, and not preparing for a different future.
The reality is that ‘normal theatre’ has been slipping from our grasp over the past decade or so without us noticing it or wanting to face it. And that is not because of the pandemic (which is in itself just a sign of a larger problem) but because the climate is changing irrevocably and at a pace startling to even the most reluctant scientist. The effects of climate change will cut deep into our societies not only changing the temperatures we live in but causing more pandemics, more mass migration, the collapse of our ecosystems, reduced water and food supplies and putting enormous pressures on our limping capitalist system.