The wait will be over when the beginners please
A prompt to get theatre going again
Nothing to be done.
So says Estragon at the start of Samuel Becket’s existential classic Waiting for Godot. At the moment, he speaks on behalf of the whole of the British live entertainment industry.
Theatre is sick. In some cases, it will be terminal. Fallen curtains will not rise again, playhouses will close, companies will collapse. There is nothing to be done, it seems. All theatre can do is wait for the call to action.
ESTRAGON: Let’s go.
VLADIMIR: We can’t.
ESTRAGON: Why not?
VLADIMIR: We’re waiting for Godot.
Theatre cannot just wait. It must not. If it does not act it does not exist. It cannot break the rules – though teasing them has always been part of its raison d’être – but watch this space. Live performance is impossible to pin down. It will wait and it will not. It will find ways.
The un-final curtain
Theatre will not disappear. It has danced through interminable terminations and survived them all. It will out-live this one, but not all its players will have a platform, and not all the platforms with have the people to build them, to light them, to decorate them, deconstruct them and put them together again.
Three-quarters of theatre workers are self-employed. Their services don’t need to be off-loaded; they simply will not be picked up again. The news for salaried staff looks equally gloomy. Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre has gone into administration, the National Theatre is preparing for substantial redundancies. The Royal Exchange in Manchester has announced that it faces making up to 65% of its permanent roles redundant.
Without more government help as much as 70% of theatre companies could fold by Christmas. In crude financial terms we are all the poorer. Last year London Theatre alone contributed £133 million in VAT. The loss to our aesthetic well-being will sicken us to the core.
Who will open the next venue? Who will perform the next encore? You can wait and watch theatre shrivel; or you can bravo it back to life. This is your five-minute call.
Legal restrictions are in place, but they will be lifted and when they are, we – the needy audience – will expect you to be ready. To be prepared for that you need to rehearse now.
Actor Kathy Burke has suggested the pandemic might provoke a resurgence in fringe theatre. She may be right, and it could be a crucial remedy in kick-starting the recovery. It is small-scale theatre that is best equipped to benefit from the easing of restrictions. Amateur theatre too, must play its part, as must student theatre, and community creativity. The methods that director Peter Brook labelled Rough Theatre (i.e. ‘rough and ready’ but by no means inferior) are perhaps the most suited to thrusting through tough times. These kinds of producers are the ones most used to surviving, not only against the odds, but in spite of them. Fringe theatre frequently plays to a majority of empty seats. It does not always fully pay its way, or it’s performers, and while we all crave for the shows that satisfactorily support the show-makers, some income is better than none.
It is the small-scale companies that could initiate the new momentum, put some cash back into the system and play the all-important part of reassuring audiences that it is safe to congregate in auditoria once again. Rough theatre companies are the most resilient to the reorganisation of the audience, and the least resistant to adopting pioneering practices.
Companies may have to get ultra-creative in the short term, by thinking radically about rehearsal methods and auditorium adaptations, for example setting up ‘seating boxes’ akin to those that lined some of the 18th century theatres to accommodate ‘bubbles’ of spectators. Cabaret-style seating could both reduce capacity and increase separation if done with care. Spaces in which the seating is not fixed allow for various permutations that might aide safe spectating.
Even where the layout is more conventional, thinking creatively could be both liberating and more secure. Playing through a theatrical gauze could give some additional audience protection and provoke novel experiences. In more traditionally designed theatres there may have to be carefully allocated seats in much reduced houses. For the medium and big companies these kinds of arrangements do not present a viable alternative, but small outfits are not unfamiliar with playing to audiences well below 50% capacity.
There will have to be give and take from those who run the venues, but here too, is it not better to cut the cloth more thinly and begin to generate some revenue than to remain completely dark?
Producers must think even more productively. Make the shows shorter. A one-hour performance has no need for an interval – reducing the periods when the spectators congregate. Carefully marshal the movements into and out of the venue – theatre-goers will understand. Have two, or even three, or even four, houses per day. Market the different start times to different prospective customers. Four shows at 25% capacity is the same as one full house and if done on the same day incurs little extra cost.
Operate a waiter service for refreshments prior to the performance to bulk up the takings. Charge flexibly – allowing those who can afford it to donate more. Get creative with booking and paying procedures – it has never been easier.
Of course, realistically all this depends on the regulations permitting performance to be in place, but by preparing now, the innovative can be the first to capitalise on any easing that occurs. You can be the next performance pioneers. You can prevent the tragedy cutting quite so deep. Furthermore, your innovations might spawn ground-breaking work. Theatre can turn adversity into advantage. The currently imposed dramaturgical inactivity could generate a wave of exceptionally infectious creativity. Get testing it!
If theatre just waits it will be too late for too many. In Becket’s infamous waiting play, Godot never arrives. Perhaps he turned up after the protagonists were no longer there?
Build a bus.
Let my indulgence set you free
If anyone wants to use one of my texts, I will waive performance royalties on any script, for which I have authority to do so, for companies engaged in restarting productions following lockdown. (A very few terms & conditions will apply. ) Here’s a list of what is readily available:
Could be creatively performed by two or even one.
Playing time: 80 mins
Paperback £3.49; eBook £1.15
Simple staging. Details and text from: Making Myra paperback
For the background to this show, including text extracts and audience responses, see: Making Making Myra
The Sherlock Holmes Solution
6 actors. Could be performed by fewer.
Playing time: 2hrs
Paperback £3.49; eBook £1.15
Simple staging. Details and text from: Sherlock Holmes Solution paperback
Also see: Spare Parts from Sherlock
Making the Grade
Playing time: 35 mins
Making the Grade was awarded first prize (Best play for a Youth Cast) in The Drama Association of Wales One Act Playwriting completion 2011.
Making the Grade is the story of two refugee women who need to find a source of income to remain residents in the country of their choice. Jasmine is a seventeen-year-old student dependent on her older sister India who has just qualified as a Performing Arts teacher. On the morning of a vital job interview, India is unwell following a night out, so Jasmine impersonates her and gets the job at the college where she is about to enrol as a student. Unfortunately, a mistake traps them into pretending to be each other for the next two years. Complications soon arise and they must find a way through the problems or face discovery and deportation.
This text is available for teachers (royalty-free) from: Making the Grade from DRAMAnotebook
(NB: The DRAMA notebook edition has been revised for younger users. I can provide a version with more mature language suitable for a general adult audience.)
Will at the Tower (play script)
5 actors. (Optional additional singers)
Playing time: 2hrs
Simple staging. Details and script: Will at the Tower Lazybee script
For the background to this see: Where there was a Will
(NB: I do not control the performance rights for this play but would reimburse the author royalty paid to me to any company staging it during emergence from lockdown.)
Not generally available
These texts are not currently on sale but can be supplied.
Very easily rehearsed with social distancing.
Playing time: 20 mins
Very simple staging.
A physical theatre rendition of the story of lifeboat heroine Grace Darling.
5 actors. Can be performed by 3 or even by a solo actor.
Playing time: 80 mins
What makes young men go to war: patriotism or peer pressure? Siren charts the tale of an American airman based in the UK during the Second World War. The story is told from the perspectives of the two women with whom he corresponded, one in the United States and the other in England. When he fails to return from a mission over Germany, his letters from both women are returned to just one of them. The two meet up twenty years later.
Any former colleagues, protégés or creative collaborators wishing to stage any other of my play scripts for the purpose discussed above – just get in touch and if I can help, I will.
May all your curtains be lifted.
References and notes:
 This and the preceding stats sourced from Susannah Clapp’s Observer feature 21 June 2020
 Please purchase rehearsal texts (paper or eBook) from the specified suppliers where they are available. Please credit authorship in promotional material, programmes etc.