Down-to-Earth - Live Theatre on a Socially Distant Planet
An astronaut has gone AWOL from their space station because they are feeling overwhelmed by their mission: by being cooped up in a small space with the same few people for months on end; by constantly having to abide by endless safety protocols, yet also being surrounded by invisible, deadly dangers; and by being unable to unable to hug the people they love. Desperate to see their family, this astronaut has escaped back to Earth but they are blown off course and happen to land in a primary school. Leaving their small spaceship parked in the playground, they go to ask for a glass of water and the headteacher invites them in to meet the children. Discovering how massively schools have had to adapt under Covid-19, the astronaut is full of respect. Carefully observing all social distancing measures in place, they set off around the building in their spacesuit, protecting others and themselves from risk of infection. They visit the children in their class bubbles and share some of the wonders of being in space as well as the difficulties. Perhaps most importantly, starved as they are of wider human contact, they delight in the children’s company. Having been in space since before Covid arrived, the astronaut asks the children what it’s been like living under lockdown and everyone realises that they have more in common than they imagined. The astronaut is refreshed and so are the children. Together they gain a little perspective, how their extraordinary experiences fit into the grand scheme of things. Then the visitor says goodbye and gladly returns to space.
This imaginary encounter forms the basis of Theatre Alibi’s new work to go into primary schools this Autumn under the seemingly impossible restrictions of social distancing.
Alibi’s Stage Manager, Rachael Duthie, has been talking to schools about how they are working under Covid. Teachers told Rachael how children, currently isolated in classes of fifteen in rooms scrubbed of their friendly clutter, are desperately craving stimulation from beyond their bubbles. One headteacher fed back how much the children enjoyed even the simple novelty of a face-to-face assembly in their classrooms every week. What has been surprisingly clear is that schools, often conservative in their taste for theatrical innovation, are currently wide open to imaginative ideas as to how to get theatre in to their children.
The key for Nikki Sved, Theatre Alibi’s Artistic Director, lies in the company’s experience of performing outside conventional theatre spaces over the years. A willingness to visit audiences on their home turf has always involved making work adaptable to the unique demands of each venue and group of people. If a school hall is extremely narrow or icy cold, or some of the audience are averse to loud noises or men in scary masks, performances must flex to incorporate and enjoy these variations. So why not embrace social distancing in the same spirit?
But the wider question remains: how can conventional theatres survive? It’s clear that a vaccine might not be on the horizon for eighteen months, if at all, and that socially distanced interaction might become the new normal. Yet the architecture and the economics of these buildings are inescapable - to survive financially they must fill a high percentage of their densely packed seats for each performance. And yet sitting with hundreds of other people in a confined space for a couple of hours doesn’t seem like it’s going to be very sensible for a while. The Berliner Ensemble’s experiment with a socially distanced auditorium in which 500 of its 700 seats were removed could only ever work with the German state paying for all the unsold tickets, hardly a sustainable economic model for the future. But also, news footage showed how barren the place looked, clearly devoid of the atmosphere any live venue needs to feel truly alive.
The other way that theatre has striven to stay in the game is, of course, online. There has been a flurry of performances made available, with large theatres and companies generously sharing a wealth of great shows for free. Also, many practitioners have been making work specifically to share via the internet, but to many, this medium feels a heartbreakingly inadequate channel through which to experience the magic of live performance because it accentuates exactly what’s missing – being there, in the room – not just with the actors but with the rest of the audience. Lockdown has highlighted the extent to which an enjoyment of theatre is made up of a craving to gather with other people to share the experience. There isn’t a single simple solution, but one positive approach must surely lie in theatre escaping the orbit of conventional settings and finding imaginative, new ways to meet people face to face.
Theatre Alibi has been making work for adult and family audiences from its base at Emmanuel Hall in Exeter since 1982. Described as “…contemporary storytellers, creating work for all ages that moves freely between the intimate and the epic and aspires to be inventive, joyful, moving, vivid, intricate and ambitious.”