On a traffic island in the middle of Dublin's O’Connell Street, Robbie O’Connor is telling me a story.
Dressed in a high viz jacket, work lanyard slung around his neck, he’s looking down the street and all the way back to 2006, and a day of violence on Dublin’s main thoroughfare. He’s passionate and eloquent and his performance – because this is a performance – was originally designed to be viewed right here as traffic trundles past. But this piece of drama, part of Anu Production’s The Party to End All Parties which was written for this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival will not now staged in the open air, instead it will be streamed online, via RTÉ Culture.
It’s a good example of the hoops the Theatre Festival and indeed the Irish arts community has had to jump through this year as they designed shows, changed them, and, as new levels of Covid 19 restrictions were introduced, adapted them again.
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Dublin Theatre Festival underway despite Covid restrictions, via Six One News
"Scenarios" says DTF artistic director Willie Walsh with a rueful smile, was one of the arts community's buzzwords in 2020 as they looked at what they could stage, where and how. At one point during the summer Walsh thought he’d be able to plan shows with 50 people in the audience, but as the months ticked by those numbers began to dwindle and now, although The Abbey’s production of The Great Hunger is going ahead with a small audience outdoors at IMMA most of the other festival shows are online or have a digital component. It’s a very different festival but, Walsh says, the fact that it exists at all proves the organisation's ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Most importantly, artists have been able to work and audiences are getting the chance to see that work again.
Around the country festivals and producers reacted to Covid restrictions with flexibility and imagination. Audiences at the Kilkenny Arts Festival were thrilled to see Solar Bones on stage – it was a good year to produce a one actor show! – and in Galway, DruidGregory was performed in front of an outdoor audience while John Gerrard's Mirror Pavillion drew socially distanced crowds as part of the Galway Arts Festival. In the wider entertainment industry however, the situation remains very bleak. Although small productions and solo musicians can and did perform either online or to tiny audiences, bigger venues remain dark and it will be quite some time before any of us is in a crowded space again, let alone at a music festival or large-scale entertainment event. Live performances were the first to be halted when Covid 19 restrictions began and they will be among the last to return, a situation that has devastated the industry and those who work in it.
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There has been some positive news. The arts and entertainment industry have been well served by their representative bodies which include the National Campaign for the Arts and 'Epic' which represents the live entertainment industry. Their spokespeople have been vocal and innovative with social media campaigns including #savethearts and #thisiswhoweare
These are challenging times, the uncertainty around lockdown measures makes it hard to plan live events. These affects don't just impact the act you pay to see, but rather everyone that enables shows to go ahead. The industry needs support and it needs it now. #thisiswhoweare pic.twitter.com/nPknpAhAW8— Imelda May (@ImeldaOfficial) September 28, 2020
They do seem to have found a listening ear in Minister Catherine Martin, who has held a number of meetings - online of course - with the sector. And although it would be impossible to replace the sheer volume of income lost this year, supports announced under the July stimulus package included a performance support fund, and a TV drama fund. That last is particularly interesting because it reminds audiences just how important the arts have been to their lives during this year of restrictions and limitations.
RTÉ's national poll on the impact of Coronavirus doesn’t seem to contain much data on the arts, it concentrates on issues like mental health, working from home and family life. But the arts are woven into all of those things. During the darkest days when we were told not to venture more than two kilometres outside the front door our only escape came in the form of books, music, film and TV. There were times when it felt the only conversations we had that didn't involve Coronavirus centred on whether Connell really loved Marianne, that’s how important storytelling and the arts and entertainment became during those long, often stressful days.
Nothing, no live stream, no matter how well-produced can replicate the feeling of laughing, singing, dancing with strangers, the irreplaceable high of a shared experience.
Like every other aspect of Irish life, the arts have been changed by Covid, probably forever. When the crisis first hit, a lot of artists rushed to put their work online and, although I'd caution against doing this for nothing, as it could lead to devaluing of the end product, over the last few months some genuinely innovative and professional performances have been created and streamed and artists are now planning performances with the capacity for online engagement in a way that wouldn't have been considered before.
Louise Lowe of Anu says she actually enjoyed the experience of putting her Theatre Festival show online, something she wouldn’t have dreamed of doing before the pandemic. Using technology has allowed Irish artists to connect with an international audience too, one of my earliest memories of lockdown is of musician Cormac Begley taking part in a Culture Ireland project that saw him playing to the world from a caravan on the Dingle peninsula, at the edge of that world.
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Concerts by artists including Dermot Kennedy have shown that audiences are willing to buy tickets to an online show if the production values are there, and hopefully performances like this will keep the sector at least ticking over until we are all able to gather - or to use the other big word of 2020, congregate - in a venue again. And that's the day we are all waiting for. Nothing, no live stream, no matter how well-produced can replicate the feeling of laughing, singing, dancing with strangers, the irreplaceable high of a shared experience. The arts kept us going through the pandemic. It's vital that we support them now so that they are waiting to help us celebrate at the other end.