In all the talk about Covid-19, we may not have given as much consideration as we should to the role played by pure, dumb luck. Yes, it’s essential we all take whatever health measures are necessary, based on the science and the data, and it’s a perfectly normal impulse to assert our own agency over these events.
An equally powerful instinct is to seek out someone else to blame – incompetent politicians, reckless youths – when things go wrong. But ever since the pandemic began, there has been an element of randomness to the way in which it affects some places more than others.
That represents a nightmare for anyone trying to put on any public event, such as an arts festival. Compare and contrast the fortunes over the last few weeks of the Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF), whose autumn programme has just concluded, and the Dublin Theatre Festival, which should be slap bang in the middle of its own 2020 schedule right now, but whose ambitious plans to present as much work as possible within Covid-19 guidelines were dealt a massive blow when the city and county moved to Level 3 restrictions on September 18th.
With Dublin’s theatres, cinemas and other venues shut down, and stricter rules on gatherings, some productions have been able to shift to online-only presentations. But others have been postponed or cancelled.
In a heartening outbreak of common sense, the Abbey Theatre, after "close consultation" with the Government, got the go-ahead to proceed with its outdoor promenade production of The Great Hunger at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, albeit with revised capacities and performance schedule. Let's hope that this is a harbinger of a future in which the authorities devote as much time and consideration to enabling significant one-off cultural events as they do to facilitating "elite sports".
Given that the two major theatre productions now running in Ireland are The Great Hunger and the open-air DruidGregory (part of Galway 2020), it might make sense for anyone with a taste for live drama this winter to invest in thermals, raingear and a hipflask.
Overall, as festival director Willie White has acknowledged, this year has been a bitter disappointment for Dublin. By contrast, GIAF and Galway 2020 have managed to deliver their programmes pretty much as planned. GIAF was forced to suspend its traditional summer programme in July, and the autumn event was a much more modest affair, but it all went ahead, with tens of thousands of people participating.
GIAF did announce on Wednesday that it was postponing the second stage of its flagship installation, Mirror Pavilion. While the first part took place as planned in Galway city in September, attracting about 120,000 visitors, organisers made the decision that the second part, due to happen in October at Derrigimlagh Bog in Connemara, would be better held next spring, “as current restrictions limit international, and some national visitors, who wish to view the work in Connemara”. Mirror Pavilion, Leaf Work will now be unveiled on March 20th and remain in situ until April 11th, 2021. It seems like a rational decision, made to maximise the work’s impact.
Rehearsal for nothing
This is the game of chance which every festival director, programmer and event organiser will be forced to play for the foreseeable future. A Covid cluster blooms somewhere and six weeks later a planned event is cancelled. A venue is no longer available and a production must be retooled at the last moment. Weeks of rehearsals culminate in . . . nothing.
The psychological impact of all this is impossible to measure, although it’s not as if artists and performers are unfamiliar with uncertainty and contingency. By definition, what they do is subject to the unpredictable tastes of the audience and the unaccountable prejudices of critics. But to be told at the last moment that the show will not in fact go on is a different kind of purgatorial experience.
That’s without even touching on the financial risks involved. All the events and institutions mentioned here are to some degree subsidised by the State. It’s hard to see how any of them could have gone ahead otherwise. Even before Covid guidelines got stricter, it seemed unlikely that commercial theatre or music of any scale would be returning until well into 2021.
If all indications are correct, and the current suppression strategy is with us for the next six months at least, then artists, performers and event organisers, if they’re going to continue making work, will have to live with the possibility that the plug can be pulled at any moment. The Fates have never been so capricious.