March 16: A year without theatre (mostly)

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Theatres are now gearing up for another return in June, and announcements about new or returning shows are being made every day, it seems. On Friday alone, I found myself reaching for my credit card no fewer than four times, to buy tickets for some of them.

Of course I can’t wait sitting to be inside a theatre again; for all the attempts to migrate it online, watching theatre on a screen is just not the same.

As a veteran Chicago-based theatregoer Edward T. Minieka, now aged 77, succinctly put it in an interview in the New York Times last week, “I just don’t enjoy it. I’ve been to the real thing.”

But as the interview more poignantly put it, too,

He describes this period as a “sabbatical,” and ponders what he would want to see next; at other times, he says he thinks of this as a second retirement, and that he might just move into a retirement community and stop going out. After all, he has a heart condition, he takes 16 pills a day, he uses a cane for balance, so maybe it’s time?

“I was running at full steam, going out every night,” he said. “Suddenly it all stops, and I adjust. In a way, it puts a coda on that part of my life.”

I hope he DOES return to the theatre. As do I, of course.

I’ve had to make some of my own adjustments, too: I’m not (quite!) his age, but I, too, have a heart condition — and currently use a stick, as well, after my spinal fusion surgeries last September (something that the suspension of ‘real’ life enabled me to invest in the time required to have done, without missing out on a lot).

Early on in the very first shutdown, back in June 2020, I wrote here of suffering a bit of an existential crisis when it first hit: who, exactly, am I if I’m not going to the theatre seven nights a week, and writing and thinking about it in most of the rest of my waking hours?

And of course I’ve grasped at the straws of what little has been available, as lockdowns have variously been eased (first last September) and socially distanced protocols were established that enabled audiences to be safe(r), from the London Palladium to Southwark Playhouse (where audiences were put into little isolated bubbles, separated from each other by perspex screens) and the hanger-like Troubadour Wembley Park, where a huge seating capacity meant they were able to space the audience out sufficiently to still potentially turn a profit (or at least cover costs).

I’ve also gone out of London to shows in Newbury (a concert production of that warhorse of a musical Camelot, held in the gorgeous grounds of the Watermill) and Windsor (where I saw a one-week run of AR Gurney’s Love Letters, with Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove); the latter was subsequently brought to the Haymarket, were I saw it again on its opening night there.

Back in that final full week of active and frantic theatrical going in early December, before the Tier 3 lockdown arrived again in London in the middle of the week after (from midnight on December 15), I managed to see a total of ten shows again; I was back to my pre-pandemic addiction levels!

Those shows included four cabarets at the Hippodrome, produced by Darren Bell’s Fourth Wall Live (I saw two each on the Friday and Saturday nights); and a preview for Sonia Friedman’s production of The Comeback whose doors were hastily opened to the press ahead of the official opening that fell on the first night that theatres had to be shut again.

Exactly three months ago yesterday, London theatres once again played their last performances.

Of course we’re all pinning our hopes on the rollout of the vaccine(s) to bring life back to normal, even as Europe is seeing soaring virus infection rates yet again, as I wrote here just yesterday.

So I’m now fearing that the schedule for socially distanced performances resuming in May may be another mirage.

Just as well that the migration of theatre to online outlets is still filling some of the gaps. In the last year, like most of us, I’ve watched countless online broadcasts of archive shows; I’ve watched new pre-recorded theatre shows; and I’ve watched live-streams of theatre productions that were being staged without a physical audience (from Southwark Playhouse and the Old Vic, among others), and others that had an audience present (from Chichester).

On Sunday, I found myself watching three online shows back-to-back, including this year’s WhatsOnStage Awards show, which like the Oliviers, came from an otherwise unoccupied theatre (though WhatsOnStage streamed from Battersea’s Turbine Theatre, whereas the Oliviers came from the Palladium). Essentially a musical theatre cabaret, amongst those featured were Dom Hartley-Harris and Alex Thomas-Smith [pictured above left], performing “I’ll Cover You” from Rent that they did at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre last year immediately before the shutdown that was subsequently re-purposed for digital broadcast, and Lizzie Bea, [pictured above right], who is going to star in Hairspray at the Coliseum.

I also watched a pre-recorded stream of Leicester’s Curve concert performance of The Color Purple [pictured above], which I actually had bought a ticket to attend in person back in December, but was postponed, and then re-purposed as a screen-only revival.

And I tuned in, as I do every Sunday, to Seth Rudetsky’s utterly wonderful live cabaret talkshows with Broadway stars, modelled on a live series he originated in Provincetown and which had been the joy of many summers there. Part of the joy was their utter intimacy: held in the town’s ArtHouse cinema, which seats less than 200 people, it was really like being in a living room with them.

Now, we’re ACTUALLY in their living rooms (or studies), as they live stream with Seth (in his New York apartment), and somehow the technology brings them together (it’s remarkable how they’re able to synch the sound so Seth can accompany them on his electric piano in New York, and there’s no time lag so they can sing in synch with him). His star on Sunday was marvellous Emily Skinner [pictured with him above], the original radiant co-star of Side Show, a musical about conjoined twins (it received its belated London premiere at Southwark Playhouse a few years ago); and next Sunday I can’t wait to see Jackie Hoffman, a New York musical theatre clown (in the traditions of Carol Burnett and Madeleine Kahn) whose Twitter account is one of the most hilarious of any I know.

Sample:

And when she goes for her COVID vaccine, she notes:

If anything gets us through these next few months, it’ll be this kind of spirit.

And it helps to keep my own up. I’ve been open in my social media and columns I’ve written about my own mental health challenges across the years, and not just during this crisis; but I’ve used the opportunity of the time that has opened up to invest a lot more in personal recovery programmes.

I was already a long-standing member of one addiction fellowship (alas, there isn’t one for theatre addiction, though its part of the same thing, ultimately: a need to escape my own existence into another world). In the summer of 2019, I also stumbled into another fellowship, that deals in family-of-origin trauma. (We often talk in 12-steps of our Higher Power; this isn’t necessarily God, but a higher power of our own understanding, something bigger than ourselves. And I honestly do believe, that unless we’re the ultimate narcissist, we have to acknowledge that we’re not the sole author of own destinies).

This new fellowship is transforming my life daily. I’ve come to a new peace with my past — and it is enabling to move beyond grief and isolation to a new kind of clarity about how I’ve been treated, both personally and professionally, in the past.

Part of that new-found freedom that has resulted is that I am now channelling all my writing through this website. The challenges of this last year haven’t defeated me; they’re just made me more determined.

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