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Future Fusion – What Does The New Normal Look Like For The Arts?

4th December 2020

No industry is unchanged by the events of 2020 – as each sector tries to reclaim some semblance of pre-pandemic life, our so-called ‘new normal’ presents its own unique challenges.

This is particularly true of the arts, which have been deeply impacted by closures, social distancing measures and lack of funding in the past few months. But equally, they have provided a coping mechanism for millions worldwide who have sought solace in film, literature, music, and even theatre in digital forms.

In our latest blog, we look at which changes could be here to stay, and what further changes lie ahead as the industry carves its path towards a new normal.

2020: An Artistic Reflection

The most significant problem for many has been the loss of income, with many performers operating on a freelance basis and relying on the gig economy. The financial hardship is deeply demoralising for these creatives, but the loss of an audience has been felt just as keenly.

Yet comedians in particular have been leading the way in online adaptation, finding alternatives to in-person gigs and open mic nights. One of the most successful digital comedy events throughout lockdown has been The Covid Arms, a virtual pub which provides guests with a space to interact and experience live entertainment for a small fee, with funds divided between performers and The Trussell Trust.

The venture was set up by comedian Kiri Pritchard-McLean, who said in a BBC interview that she had lost as much as two-thirds of her income due to COVID, but added, “something I didn’t anticipate is how much I needed comedy, and needed an audience.”

And whilst The Covid Arms isn’t the only virtual comedy streaming opportunity of its kind, it was one of the first to engage a live audience who could interact with performers and respond to sets in real time. For a comedian this makes a significant difference – the laughter of the audience is the most important way to gauge the success of a performance and it’s near impossible to experiment with new material without it.

Events such as these may not be hugely profitable, but they are creating community environments which allow creators to hone their craft and continue to perform in unlikely circumstances.

However, a number of similar endeavours have sustained access to the arts whilst raising donations to support the industry. Amongst them, The Shows Must Go On!, a YouTube channel which, between April and July, made various musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber available for free online. In return, viewers were asked to make voluntary contributions to various performing arts charities, and as the series’ original run ended back in July, Lloyd Webber revealed that the effort had raised over $500,000 for The Actors’ Fund.

Future Fusion – What’s Here To Stay?

From freelance creators to famous names, musicians were amongst the first performers to adapt to lockdown, with Zoom open mic nights popping up across the web, and livestreamed performances from band’s living rooms appearing on every imaginable platform.

And as social distancing extends even to gigs, it looks as though live streaming could become a part of the norm. A recent performance by synth-pop outfit Hot Chip in Margate garnered attention for its unusual ticket options – whilst the live audience was limited to just 250 people, further tickets were available to fans for a one-time live stream of the show. The show was not available on demand and viewers were not able to pause or rewind – instead they simply streamed the show from the comfort of their living rooms as though they were there themselves.

Fans could be forgiven for being sceptical about this set-up, but positive reviews indicate that little was lost of the traditional gig atmosphere, with “both bar staff and customers dancing euphorically.” Could audience’s thirst for live music be all it takes to overcome the challenges of socially distanced live events?

A further unfortunate downside to this is the inevitable hit to ticket sales, with limited availability. An alternative to Hot Chip’s approach took place at Newcastle’s SSD event over five weeks between August and September (the event was sadly cut short by local lockdown restrictions).

Organisers created around 500 small ‘pens’ which had a capacity of around five people each and were equipped with tables, chairs and fridges to give fans as comfortable an experience as possible.

This ingenious setup could be a great way to enjoy the festival experience with friends in the future, but there’s no denying that the sparse capacity will make the yearly scramble for Glasto tickets even harder on fans!

What Lies Ahead?

This is the £1.28 billion question, especially for theatres. In the last few months, many theatre companies and performances have undergone a transmutation of sorts, converting to online formats not just to reach out for help, but to connect with audiences for the future – whatever they may look like.

But how will theatres operate? Some have already begun to host socially distanced performances, but like the music industry, many venues rely on full houses and sold-out shows to keep the stage door open. In an era where audiences are forced to social distance, their revenue takes an inevitable hit, with many establishments operating at 25%-50% of their former capacity.

But as with the music industry, all is not lost, and in fact, many innovative concepts have brought theatre to living rooms in intensively creative ways. Amongst these, Creation Theatre’s Alice: A Virtual Theme Park.

The production pushed the boundaries of Zoom with live performers, greenscreen effects and of course, a live video audience. The event, which had a limited run throughout August, even included an animated and interactive Cheshire cat which viewers were able to converse with.

Producer Lucy Askew described this new form of theatre as an opportunity to “put real people into a digital world.” And if, as theatre director Andrew Keates believes, the magic of theatre is in its “shared experience”, could digitised experiences like this one, as well as The Covid Arms and livestreamed music performances, represent not simply a substitute to theatre, but an alternative in its own right?

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