Collective artistic experiences are one of society’s safety valves

Latest Government announcements have delayed the promised increase in audience size for theatres and cinemas

Todd Almond (centre) in Girl From the North Country by Conor McPherson. The production was wowing audiences on Broadway but  closed after just nine days as the pandemic shut theatres. Photograph: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Todd Almond (centre) in Girl From the North Country by Conor McPherson. The production was wowing audiences on Broadway but closed after just nine days as the pandemic shut theatres. Photograph: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

 

Recently I was reminded of Brian Eno’s quote that culture is everything you don’t have to do. “You have to move around,” he said, “but you don’t have to dance.” I rather think he’s wrong. A year of not going to gigs has underlined how much we do need to dance – together.

Arts workers are well versed in making arguments for what they do. When tourism is part of the arts portfolio at Government level, the arts brings in visitors. When heritage is along for the ride, the arts bed down Ireland’s rich cultural traditions. More generally the arts are tasked with doing general good, and that is not empty rhetoric. Right now we need what they can provide more than ever.

It might seem greedy to be wheedling for exceptions as Covid remains a life and death threat. But as things open up, I have been aware of rising levels of anger, and of despair. Things bottled up in isolation are coming to the fore as we interact more with others. Incidences of road rage, aggression in the checkout queue, and sudden openings up from casual acquaintances unmask the state we’re in, and it’s deeply troubling. Life is seldom smooth and easy, but the collective pleasures of a concert or performance have always been one of our safety valves, releasing tension as we leap about, or more quietly allow that blanket of empathy to spread, connecting audience members no matter what the tempo of its source.

Today sees a step forward with Gavin James, Lyra, Denise Chaila, Sharon Shannon, Wyvern Lingo and Wild Youth playing to 3,500 people (socially distanced, antigen tested and in pods) at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. While theatres and cinemas have reopened, indoor music remains off the table.

It’s a tricky one as music is an incredibly broad church. What harm, one might wonder, could a string quartet really cause? On the other hand, might all that breath in the woodwind section wreak havoc? And if you allow calm classical, where do you draw the line? Stirring Beethoven? Heavy metal? Hard core punk?

Of course it’s not the music itself that is the problem, but the behaviours associated with them, and it is perhaps unfair to expect hastily drafted and reactive legislation to allow for the differences – however much one might wish it were otherwise. The same thing happened with sport earlier this year – when there was a blanket ban that ignored the differing levels of risk between, for example, contact team sports and a round of golf.

So, our seeming inability to be very good at nuanced thinking ends up leading to outright vetoes. And to confusion. Alongside the more headline-grabbing row-back on reopening indoor dining, the most recent Government announcement also delayed the promised increase in audience size for theatres and cinemas, which currently caps them at 50 (and 100 for larger venues). It also paused a wider opening up of what you can do within their walls.

Music and theatre

Theatre Forum, the go-to organisation for the sector, has been working hard to parse the latest advice. Their most recent bulletin, issued last Tuesday, underlined that cinemas, theatres and arts centres can open “only in so far as they operate as a theatre or cinema”. This means activities within theatres and arts centres that are not performance, “including workshops, classes, training, exercise and dance classes” are on hold, with an expectation that the Government will devise an implementation plan for them by July 19th, almost certainly involving vaccination certification.

However, programmers are also wondering if you can have shows that include music on stage. In the now almost un-rememberable pre-Covid days of 2019 and early 2020, music was knitting into theatre in intriguing ways. Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country, based on and including the music of Bob Dylan, was wowing audiences on Broadway. It closed after just nine days as the pandemic shut theatres. A New York Times review had just declared it to be “as close as mortals come to heaven on earth”. Meanwhile, Ursula Rani Sarma and Annabelle Comyn’s Evening Train had turned Mick Flannery’s concept album into a musical at Cork’s Everyman. It had felt as if a new, more thoughtful wave of musical theatre was in the making.

Being fortunate enough to see Girl from the North Country in an earlier incarnation at New York’s The Public Theatre, I couldn’t agree with the New York Times reviewer more. To be floral about it, I felt as if my own soul had been listened to, and I felt both elation and release. Of course, Dylan isn’t for everyone, and neither is McPherson, and so to each their own. If folk music is your thing, that’s almost certainly what you need most right now. If it’s opera – go for it. But music’s power reaches beyond the music itself to the importance of a shared experience of it. Right now, I suspect, even though we may not realise it, our collective hearts are yearning to be allowed to dance.

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