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Patronage in the age of a Pandemic

This post was written over a week before the government advice on avoiding large venues – but we wanted to share it with you. As always – be safe, be sensible, look after yourself and each other.

Last week I went with a friend to see ‘A Number’ by Caryl Churchill at Bridge Theatre. It was a fascinating production about the relationship between a man who discovers he is a clone, the man from whom he was unknowingly cloned as a child, and their father, exploring big questions about what it means to be an individual and to have that sense of identity stripped away from you. One particular aspect of the production which stood out was the set design, a simple living room which rotated by 90º during each scene change to give the impression of examination from all angles – almost scientifically, methodically – as well as a lack of avenues for escape for the characters.

Prior to the performance, I found myself wondering to what extent audience numbers would be affected by the current COVID-19 outbreak which is (rightfully) causing global concern. Though there has not yet been an official public gathering ban from the government, people are naturally worried about the increased risk of contracting the virus that comes with being sat in an enclosed space with a large number of strangers for an extended period of time. A potential hotbed of infection, it is easy to see why people may choose not to take the risk and to remain at home – particularly as, for most, a theatre trip to London also involves a train and a tube journey, which present their own concerns.

I was pleasantly surprised by the audience size for ‘A Number’ – yes, there were empty seats, but no more than I would expect for a Wednesday matinee performance. And spirits seemed high among the patrons. As it always does, the theatre seemed to provide a welcome respite from reality for its attendees, allowing an hour’s escape into someone else’s story (and one which, helpfully, was not grounded entirely in reality). This is theatre’s power, to simultaneously hold up a mirror to the larger issues which plague (pun intended) human existence and to offer a reprieve from the specific concerns of the moment, allowing their audience to get lost in an intellectual debate on behalf of the fictional.

It is for this reason that I will continue to attend the theatre (both as a patron and in my job as a front of house assistant) until such a time that the government deems it unsafe to do so (they may have already done so since I wrote this as things are changing so quickly – please check the current advice if and before you go). Having examined the issue from all angles, this is my decision. The mass media coverage of COVID-19, constant and terrifying, has the effect of pushing us further and further away from each other – people are rushing to supermarkets and hoarding everything from toilet paper and soap to pasta and tinned goods, without a second thought for their elderly neighbours, or those living payday to payday who are unable to stock up in the same way. The message from the government – the virus is coming, will most likely infect up to 80% of us, and that the strong will survive and the weak will die – is attempting to force us to return to a survival of the fittest, every man for himself, mindset of our primitive ancestors. The theatre not only provides us with a few precious hours of relief from the bombardment of this message, it is also a collective experience. As we sit in the dark with strangers and laugh with, worry about, and feel deeply for fictional characters, we escape together, and hopefully return to reality feeling a little bit more connected.

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