Looking beyond limbo
On March 27 Ireland entered full lockdown. The country did a quick assessment of what was deemed “essential” and pared back society to bare functionality.
One area of Irish life took a devastating blow from the curtailment of public gatherings: entertainment. The pandemic’s impact on the “non essential” arts sector was foreshadowed by the cancellation of St Patrick’s Day festivities. Halting the parades was an exclamation mark at the end of the sentence stating ‘this is serious’.
The arts in Ireland have always cut their cloth to measure, but the repercussions of coping with Coronavirus are immense. They are exacerbated by the uncertainty about the future. Now in our 17th week of lockdown things have loosened up a little in many areas, but not all.
The lockdown is causing a severe recession, an unprecedented rise in unemployment, and forecasts of greater damage. Naturally this has a knock on effect on disposable incomes and consequently, the arts suffer.
Ireland is still bruised by the grim headlines of 70 deaths per day at the end of April, rendering every other concern secondary. The spectre of a second wave casts a long shadow over any plans for social gatherings for “non essential” reasons. The byword for those toiling in the field of art is “uncertainty”.
“I have programmes from October on,” Padraic McIntyre, the Venue Manager for The Townhall, Cavan and The Ramor, Virginia, said of plans for the resumption of shows, “Before the lock down there was talk of building work starting in The Ramor, so we were scaling it back a bit until October. There’s no guidelines issued specifically for us the moment. At two metres between patrons we can only fit 27 in the Ramor and the Townhall is about the same. So to open to the general public is not feasible.”
Maintaining such social distancing regulations onstage also limit how theatre companies and bands engage in their art. The direction on the future of arts appears to be down the national agenda.
“We are in limbo waiting until we get more guidance on when we can open up to realistic figures,” said Padraic.
“We were first to close because of the social distancing. In a place like the Ramor people are very close together, so we were one of the first to go, and possibly one of the last to open. Technically the theatre could open, but financially, and every other way, can you justify opening up for 27 people?”
Planning for an uncertain future is an enormous challenge: “It will probably come back with one man or one woman shows to start with. I hope to be back by October, but that call will have to be made in August. At that stage we need to get brochures and programmes out to let people know what’s on offer.”
For some the shutdown has been an opportunity to do some housekeeping. However Cavan Town’s arts hub had just completed a considerable restoration so there was no advantage to the additional time.
“The Townhall is ready to go. There’s a couple of little things like seating barriers and safety features that were finished, new lights acquired and hanged, but theoretically we could open next week if given the go ahead.
“I started to programme Townhall [before lockdown]. We had “Long Time No See” run in there. It was just finished, the next thing to happen was the Cavan Drama Festival – that got pulled. I was in the process of programming for the summer months and into the back end of the year. All that’s put on hold.
“Even if we were given directions to open full time tomorrow there would be a lead in of about a month,” Padraic said.
The amateur sector is feeling the loss as much as the professionals. Local drama groups are also unsure of the situation.
“Rehearsals can’t happen, particularly with large cast plays. Groups like Sillan Players in Shercock were already out on circuit. They had to hold back until they know what the plans for re-opening are. Once they know they can re-mount the production.
“There are some groups that have productions that have yet to go before an audience even though they were rehearsed.”
Some groups have adapted to the change. A case in point is Millrace Drama Group in Mullagh who are presenting a series of 10 minutes plays on July 26 and 27.
“They are site specific pieces around Mullagh,” he explained. “An audience of about 10 can watch the different shows.”
For McIntyre coming to terms with the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns is the hardest part of the planning process:
“Overall we are still in limbo. The concerns about a second wave are very real at the moment. We have to consider if it is prudent to open up, if we are going to have to shut down and cancel everything again, or do we sit tight and see how it pans out? The answer is we don’t know.”
An important consideration is not artistic or financial, but the safety of the audience: “Even if it came back to 1 metre we could have 60 or 70 patrons and that would make a number of shows possible,” the venue manager says.
“Realistically our audience is predominantly in the 60+ age bracket. We have to ask if they are prepared to come out even if we are opened. They are the “at risk” category and the people who have the money to go out to the theatre. The research suggests that people in that age category are reluctant to come out and sit in a large group in a theatre at present. We have to ensure that when they do so it is in a safe and sustainable way,” Padraic concluded.