I have attempted to write this review several times, but the end keeps changing.

An article that originally urged people to support their local arts venues and artists, was then edited to incorporate 50% capacity crowds and is now being finished in a week when all live venues and cinemas must shut their doors at 8pm.

Serves me right for trying to be organised.

All I can do now, therefore, is reflect on how things stand, after the announcement of new Government supports a couple of days before Christmas 2021.

The original plea to support artists though? That remains the same.

This was not the year any of us had been hoping for. When the arts and entertainment world shut down in March 2020 people in the industry spoke about 'next month', and then 'next year', how everything would be bigger and better when things were 'normal again'.

But as time went on, new words emerged, words like ‘safety’ and ‘capacity’ and then it became clear that the arts would have to operate in what are perhaps the scariest words of them all, ‘the new normal’.

Supports for the industry have been welcomed but these too have had to adapt and change along the way.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes the hard-working box office staff and the artists themselves are still battling to keep the show on the road.

And so, as I look back over 2021, I'm going to use just three artistic moments to try and sum up this most turbulent of years.

The reopening of MOLI

The reopening of museums and galleries in May was a hugely significant and joyful day for the arts, leading to good-natured queues outside institutions like the National Gallery of Ireland.

For RTÉ News I visited MOLI, the Museum of Literature Ireland on St Stephen's Green which reopened with an exhibition featuring the Irish children's author and illustrator Chris Haughton.

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Haughton is one of a number of excellent, internationally-recognised Irish children’s authors and this interactive exhibition allowed his young readership to explore the museum at their own pace and level.

As Simon O’Connor of MOLI pointed out, most children are first introduced to 'Irish writing’ through children’s books and it’s a field that deserves to be celebrated.

I brought my own family to see the exhibition and afterwards we wandered out through the museum into the Iveagh Gardens, where at least three separate groups were hosting outdoor birthday parties complete with balloons and extravagant picnics to make use of the outdoor meeting guidelines.

It was a warm day in early summer, and finally – finally – we were able to gather again.

Third Féile Classical

Several months later, I was surrounded by people again, but this time indoors.

During the long quiet days of lockdown, a gig in the 3Arena seemed hard to imagine but on 28 October, there I was, singing along to Something Happens and partying like it was 1989.

There were many differences of course. We had to show our Covid certs and photo ID on the way in, we were all masked and, although the bars were open, the queues were socially distanced and we were encouraged to go straight back to our seats after ordering a drink and not to congregate - congregation being another word that has taken on a new, more sinister meaning during Covid times.

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It was also very Covid-esque to hear the Department of Arts and Culture thanked from the stage, their support for live performance has meant shows were able to take place during 2021 even with reduced crowds.

And although we could sip drinks during the performance, staff were on hand to politely but firmly remind us to pull the masks back up again afterwards.

The thing was however, no one seemed particularly bothered by any of these new rules. Yes, the night was different, a little strange, but the main thing was we were back at a gig, indoors, enjoying live music as it was meant to be heard.

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A huge amount of work was put into streaming during 2020 and both audiences and artists were grateful for it - but nothing compares to the real thing. Looking around the audience that night I could see that I wasn't the only person grinning under my mask, or even a little teary as we yelled out muffled versions of the hits we grew up to. This was what we had been missing. I went home and immediately booked three more concerts.

And then came winter, and then came Omicron.

I was lucky enough to attend the opening nights of two pantos, but shortly afterwards their capacity was reduced by 50%, and now each venue has to be closed by 8pm.

At the time of writing, venues are taking an individualised approach to the latest restrictions.

Some shows are now on early, others have been postponed and some, with the best will in the world, have been cancelled until further notice. Everyone is trying their best but the weariness in the sector is now palpable.

Nightclubs and late bars are shut and musicians, DJs and other entertainers in that sector have, once again, seen their ability to work disappear. And of course, even for those who have kept going, outbreaks of Covid itself has caused many last minute changes.

But still, the arts are persisting and that brings me to my final memory of the year.

Halved capacity for Faith Healer

When I saw Faith Healer at the Abbey Theatre in early December, it was in front of a 50% capacity crowd, but the emotion in the room was at 100% and beyond.

Those present showed Covid certs and ID but, even behind the masks, their smiles were evident.

It felt like a proper opening night, there were Abbey staff members in the lobby, some stars, a photographer, that feeling of glamour and excitement again. The play was outstanding and the standing ovation at the end felt like it was not just for the drama, but for the concept of theatre and the collective experience itself.

I don’t know how long theatres will stay open, I don’t know how cinemas and gig venues will be able to operate with restricted hours, I don’t know how long artists can continue to schedule and reschedule again. What I do know however is, that although it’s easy to feel helpless in the face of Covid, it’s our turn now.

As an audience we need to keep that standing ovation going and to continue to support the arts we love in every way we can. We can go to events when it’s safe to do so and, when it’s not, support performers in other ways by buying music and merchandise, accessing streamed events, doing everything in our power to keep the bond between artist and audience alive.

All of those involved in live entertainment have been feeling their way through restrictions and compromises, while navigating the aid that is us, the audience, to prove that we have their backs.

Because one day venues will open normally again, we will be able to catch a movie on the spur of the moment or stand with a group of strangers listening to music with nothing to worry about other than a clear view of the stage. There will be an old normal again and we will need our artists there.

Nollaig shona, and here’s to brighter days for everyone.