For me, it started with a cancelled seminar in my department. Back in March, I didn’t think much of that one talk getting cancelled, but then many followed suit. One by one, every event I was going to attend in the following three months was cancelled or postponed, with apologies being sent around on mailing lists and negotiations starting on when to reschedule. Part of me thought everyone was exaggerating – surely it wasn’t that bad?
A mere week later, I was proven wrong when the West End went dark for what was going to become its longest closure in history. So much was going on, the outbreak had been declared a pandemic and so many livelihoods were at stake, but still, for me, the greatest sinking feeling came from the realization that I would have to cancel the shows I had planned for Trinity Term. It feels strange writing this because even to me it seems selfish but I don’t know what else to say: in that moment it felt very, very real.
Student theatre has a way of taking over our lives and minds so intensely that we would happily spend all our non-degree time (and a worryingly large amount of degree time) putting on shows, rehearsing, planning, and dreaming of creating something which we could share with others. The stories told on stage, friendships made, emotions shared and tears shed make student theatre a wonderfully chaotic and all-consuming hobby, with which it is genuinely very hard to part ways. In March, and following on to Trinity Term, we all got forced out of it, and this took a massive toll on our lives and mental health.
I have been a student producer for about three years, and I have now had to cancel or “indefinitely postpone” three shows and plans for a fourth, all within 8 months. First, there was Little Shop of Horrors: an escapist musical about a man-eating plant and a morally-questionable florist. It was going to be staged in Pembroke College in May, and after all attempts to reschedule it this term failed, we finally buried it, rather fittingly, on Halloween. Uncle Vanya was meant to be a joint student/alumni production at the Oxford Playhouse in June, giving students a chance to work with young professionals. It too had to be postponed indefinitely. Fast forward to the end of October, the second lockdown cancelled our shoot for My Dearest, a new dance-based film about creative expression and mental health. Some of these may come back stronger in the future, but I can’t help but wonder why I keep trying to fight the cruel grasp that this virus still has on the world and not just take a break until it is all over.
The truth is that I probably could; but, for students, it’s not that easy. Some of us are only here for three years – four years, if lucky. Time is ticking and the 24 weeks of the academic year are passing. We know that a missed year of student theatre hurts our prospects of going professional after we graduate and we also know that the sweet spot of theatre experience vs. free time in the life of an Oxford student – when we put on our most ambitious projects – only really lasts one year. All this means we can’t just give up, but should adapt and overcome.
We see this happening already. As a community, we have started fighting institutional knowledge loss by training freshers, so that when they are allowed to put on theatre, they will be ready to. OUDS is working on writing courses and mentoring schemes, TAFF has started backstage theatre families. I took this opportunity to start workshopping a new musical with Jazz Hands Productions and to experiment with film. Elsewhere, student companies are putting on radio plays, streamed shows, virtual play readings, online showcases – creatively incorporating the Covid-19 restrictions into their show plans and turning adversity into opportunity across the table. More widely, the theatre industry is literally fighting for its life, with brilliant (socially-distanced) work thriving against all odds.
2020 has been a huge array of setbacks and obstacles, some of which are still insurmountable. Looking forward, with your permission I will repeat, but slightly modify the cliché that has become a mantra for everyone in the performing arts: the show must go on, but it needs help. Theatre has been one of the most affected industries during the pandemic, and the end of the disruption is simply not in sight yet. It needs financial support, clear guidance and a change in attitude from the top. Once these extra puzzle pieces are in place, I have no doubt that creativity and passion will prevail and allow curtains to rise again, but it would seem disingenuous of me to say that all the theatre professionals out of a job right now can keep going on creativity alone. As for the new generation of theatre-makers, we will keep setting the scene, learning and performing, and we look forward to being able to join the industry on its long road to curtain call.
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