LAST WEEK, as retailers, restaurateurs, beauty, health and fitness businesses began to resume at the new Level 3, theatre spaces around Ireland remained closed, causing confusion and dismay among the arts sector.
Galway particularly, home to some of the country’s most vibrant festivals and cultural producers, will be massively affected in 2021 by the lack of performance spaces.
As the State prepared to emerge from Level 5 restrictions, the National Campaign for the Arts, and stakeholders in the industry, took to social media to express their disappointment. The decision to have a blanket closure of all theatre spaces nationally, from The Abbey to the Mick Lally, despite venues such as cinemas and galleries remaining open, has caused bafflement and distress among artists, venue directors, and those who wish to see the arts remain a building block of our future. Many have had questions as to why theatre spaces - comparatively similar in size to galleries, museums, and cinemas - are being forced to remain closed.
Level 3 could remain the norm
While no-one expected the usual pantos and large-scale productions to take place this festive season, hard work and funding have been invested this year to make theatre spaces safe for the public. Guidelines on social distancing have been followed, as well as the rules regarding cleaning and PPE. Even with these protective measures in place, the current Level 3 will not include theatre spaces, unless an allowance is made by the Government. This is an incredibly worrying prospect for the arts community, given that Level 3 may pervade as the norm until a vaccine is rolled out and proven successful.
Chief Executive of the Galway International Arts Festival John Crumlish [pictured above], cited the example already set by the industry: "In what has been a very hard year for the sector, it is disappointing that theatres have been left behind as other types of venues reopen. In August and September theatres proved that they could operate very safely. it would have been great to see them reopening now and offering hard pressed artists, producers and companies the opportunity to work again."
'It doesn’t make sense that I can teach a live theatre class with 30 students in the university but can’t go see a play in a professional theatre'
Sasha de Buyl, director of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature [pictured below], will meet this problem head on in the spring, when the literary festival traditionally takes place.
"It's highly disappointing to see the current restrictions allow for the opening of cinemas but not theatre-based arts events. Arts organisations across the country have spent countless hours adapting their models to ensure that people can enjoy live events in a safe environment, in venues that are near-identical to a cinema space. In prioritising one above the other, the Government is depriving audiences of the opportunity to support artists and experience live art."
Local theatre advocate, Patrick Lonergan, who is also Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at NUI Galway. pointed to the issue of inconsistency in the Government's approach: "I hope that common sense will prevail and that someone in authority will show the leadership that’s needed to resolve an oversight that is causing hardship and demoralisation to a key sector of our society.
'The recent omission of theatres from the list of places allowed to reopen is difficult if not impossible to rationalise'
"It doesn’t make sense that I can teach a live theatre class with 30 students in the university but can’t go see a play in a professional theatre. It doesn’t make sense that I can go to the cinema but not a theatre: indeed, a theatre company would be allowed to do a live broadcast to a cinema with 50 people in it, but not welcome the same number into their own venue. I know the people making these decisions must be exhausted and that they cannot think of everything, but this isn’t a difficult or complex decision: it just involves applying standards consistently."
The words ‘consistency’ and ‘fairness’ continue to surface amid the changing plans issued by the Government on what services are ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ to Irish society. Sport and the arts are being side-lined despite their proven positive effect on the general and mental health of our population. Minister for Arts and Culture, Catherine Martin, referred to a “complex environment for indoor live performances” as being the reason behind the decision to have theatre spaces remain in darkness.
Director of the Town Hall Theatre Fergal McGrath [pictured above] commended the support shown by the Government for the arts and events sector this year in terms of funding, but pointed out the lack of rationale in decisions.
"The recent omission of theatres from the list of places allowed to reopen is difficult if not impossible to rationalise," he said. "Theatres - well-managed, well ventilated, and well-controlled spaces with low occupancy levels of forward-facing, mask-wearing, socially-distanced, non-speaking audience members – are safe places. They should be allowed reopen, subject to their previous and significant regime of precautionary measures including social distancing, mask-wearing and enhanced cleaning and air handling.’’
Online shows no substitute for live performance
Senior members of the arts community including groups like Theatre Forum, continue to lobby Minister Martin and the Government to rethink this issue. Locally and nationally, artists and companies planning to make new work for 2021 will be halted in their activities, unless venues are made available to them to present work. Online programmes are being created but they are no substitute for a live performance in a dedicated space, purpose built for creating a special experience.
'It is difficult, under the cloud of Covid, to think about anything other than surviving'
Six months of venue closure will have a dramatic affect on the arts, possibly setting the sector back years. Allowing venue spaces to prove they can operate safely in the coming months will maintain the industry to a level that can allow for full re-establishment post Covid. Failure to do so will result in deficits of personnel and monies that will be immensely difficult to recover.
It is difficult, under the cloud of Covid, to think about anything other than surviving, but we must fight for what we want in our society, post this crisis; the things that bring us joy, moments of wonder, avenues of expression and celebration.
Dani Gill [pictured above] is a Galway based curator, writer, educator, producer, poet, and former artistic director of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature.