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Socially Distancing Down the Moshpit – A Good Night Out After Lockdown

Life During Lockdown

Amongst the mountain of paper on my desk, some of it  has acquired a ghostly air since the Coronavirus-enforced lockdown in March. Here, gathering dust at the top of the pile, are flyers for theatre productions that were supposed to open last month, but which didn’t make it to the rehearsal room. Next to them are more DIY style leaflets picked up at assorted late-night dives for gigs by bands I’ve barely heard of who never got to play. Like the increasingly tattered and long out of date posters for theatres and concert halls that adorn walls around town, the flyers and brochures on my desk look like monuments commemorating another time, when you could still have a good night out without putting your life at risk.

Perhaps most poignant of all is a black covered brochure that contains details of Edinburgh International Festival 2020, set to take place in August, but necessarily cancelled in the wake of the pandemic. Where the blackness once had a sleek chicness to it when a handful of advance press copies went out what feels like a lifetime ago, events since give it a more sombre, tomb-like air.

Inside, the pages jump and dance with the promise of what was to come, filling the city’s main stages with theatre, music and dance from home and abroad. Outside of EIF, brochures for other events have become similarly poignant since the necessary shutdown of mass gatherings in March saw all theatres, music venues, galleries and arts festivals close their doors. One, for the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh’s 2019/2 season, lists the nearly-made-its and the never happened with an ebullient sense of anticipation that now looks heart-breaking.

A production of Neil Simon’s rom-com, Barefoot in the Park, didn’t make it past its first night with its co-producers at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. A revival of Life is a Dream, Jo Clifford’s translation of Spanish writer Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s seventeenth century play, due to open last week, never got that far.

It gets worse. Last week, the Lyceum announced that it would be going into ‘hibernation’ as a producing theatre for the rest of 2020, with all scheduled shows and events cancelled with immediate effect. With the theatre already closed since March 16th, more than £700,000 revenue in ticket sales and other income has been lost. With many of the company on furlough, as the scheme looks set to wind down, all staff have been given notice of potential redundancies. Without such measures, they say, it is likely the Lyceum would be forced to close for good.

Stage and screen trade union BECTU say redundancies aren’t necessary, but coming in the week that the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton went into administration, and with every arts venue in the country under similar pressures, it is clear that those in charge of the Lyceum are fighting for the theatre’s life. They are not alone. Every theatre in Scotland, from the Traverse in Edinburgh, to the Tron and Citizens Theatres in Glasgow, Dundee Rep, Perth Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness and Pitlochry Festival Theatre is in danger of closing for good.

Meanwhile, grassroots music venues in Scotland such as the Glad Café in Glasgow and Henry’s Cellar Bar, Leith Depot and the Bongo Club in Edinburgh are similarly struggling to survive. Along with more than 500 other at-risk venues across the UK, which also includes Summerhall and Bannerman’s in Edinburgh, they have joined the Save Our Venues Campaign. This UK-wide crowdfunding initiative calls on music fans to help ensure these venues are in a position to reopen once lockdown is lifted and social distancing measures eventually relaxed. While welcome support schemes have been introduced by the Scottish Government and arts funding body Creative Scotland, it has yet to go as far as the targeted support for grassroots music venues implemented by both the Welsh government and the London mayor.

A worrying potential vision of the future of live arts events was seen last week in a photograph in the New York Times. The picture showed the audience at a concert in the State Theater of Hesse in Wiesbaden, Germany. With Germany having cautiously restarted concerts, the required social distancing saw an auditorium with a capacity for audiences up to 1,000 reduced to less than 200. These were spread out in such a way that entire rows were between them.

It looked like the sort of awkwardly arranged non-crowd you’d get at an arthouse cinema for a mid-week matinee of some avant-garde classic. With the audience wearing masks, the State Theater photograph itself resembled a still from some artfully designed dystopian film.

While some performers joked on social media that they have played to audiences way smaller during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in Scotland and the UK such an arrangement simply wouldn’t be sustainable. Germany, let’s not forget, gives financial support to the arts on a level that shames the UK. As the pandemic has exposed, most arts workers are freelance, and earn a precarious living. As many have already pointed out, despite many of those arts workers now being effectively unemployed, it is the surge of TV box sets, the livestreams, the downloads and the books created by them that have helped us through the pandemic.

Beyond funding, the idea of a shared experience of some kind is at the heart of any form of live event, whether a production at the Lyceum or a gig at Henry’s. This is something that social distancing will not allow for. Over the last two months, the Coronavirus pandemic has succeeded in breaking up mass gatherings in a way that even the ideological puritans behind the Acid House paranoia of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which decreed that groups of twenty or more in the vicinity of repetitive beats should be outlawed, couldn’t manage. But let’s leave such comparisons to conspiracy theorists. Let’s think instead of how even just the titles of now unperformed plays evoke a kind of Proustian ennui regarding how, Dominic Cummings’ flagrant breach of lockdown rules notwithstanding, fings ain’t what they used to be. Oh, to be barefoot in the park again, now life really is a dream.

Life Before Lockdown #1

Sometime around the turn of the century, I went to a horrible nightclub in a small English town. I was there with a mate for a one-day music festival in the local guild hall, which was the town’s biggest, and possibly only venue of a size. Like any civic hall, its programme was out of necessity an all-purpose affair that catered for its local audience in a variety of ways.

A mix of tribute bands, cinema screenings and small-scale theatre filled its brochure. Aisle-packing comedians and touring bands either on their way up or down were also on the bill, with the occasional niche music festival like the one I was there for filling in the quiet times.

Arriving in town the night before, we spotted the club, which was close to the railway station, and had a blackboard outside with the words ‘Band Nite’ chalked on. The long-forgotten names of the two bands playing were written beneath. Keen to sample the local culture, we took a Friday night chance, navigated our way past the bouncer, and ventured into the unknown.

It was bog-standard shiny neon fare, a fairly big room, with a stage at one end of a semi-circular dance-floor and a bar area at the other. At this end of the room, a floor-to-ceiling metal grille cut it off from the rest of the room. While going for an intimate ambience, the arrangement also prevented any kind of casual interaction between those occupying the bar area and whatever might be happening onstage or in the dance area. If you wanted to watch the band, it wasn’t really possible through the metal grille, so you had to go and stand on the dance-floor.

Except, as the hand-stencilled posters on the black-painted walls bluntly decreed, there were to be ‘No Drinks Allowed on the Dance Floor.’ Which, on regular club nights, was probably fair enough. No-one wants to be that leering dad-dancer clutching onto their bottle of Becks like a security blanket. On band nights like the one we were at, however, it didn’t quite work.

If you wanted a pint while you were watching the band, you had to stay in the bar area behind the metal grille. The result of this was that the bands, both bunches of teenage lads playing a mix of Brit-pop covers and their own stuff like their lives depended on it, played to an empty space, with no interaction with their mates at the bar to egg them on, let alone anything resembling atmosphere.

This sort of thing may be standard, I don’t know, but it felt a bit like that scene in The Blues Brothers, where Jake and Elroy accidentally end up playing a redneck country and western bar behind chicken wire, and end up almost causing a riot before playing the theme from Rawhide.

The only other time I’ve seen this no-drinks-on-the-dancefloor policy at a gig was in a social club in Leith. The cheap bar prices and slightly patronising charm of seeing some wonky nouveau-post-punk combo play such a spit n sawdust venue was offset by the grumpy bloke on the door policing the dance-floor, confiscating glasses if need be, and killing any mood there was ever likely to be.

Both incidents were examples of enforced social distancing in action. There was no pandemic-induced risk of infection here, just preventative measures designed to ward off violence from the indie-pop hordes of, ooh, probably around fifty audience members tops at each. Maybe it was necessary. Maybe the week before, the small-town nightclub had erupted into a mass ruck between the fans of rival bands. Maybe this was the sort of strongarm segregation that kept the club owners, the bouncers, the bar staff and the local constabulary happy, if not those trying to have some fun together in a potentially messy manner. Just wait till they get to uni, I thought. The student union mosh-pit awaits.

Life Before Lockdown #2

Grid Iron is an Edinburgh-based theatre company who specialise in making site-specific work. By site-specific, I mean putting on stuff in spaces that aren’t recognisable theatre spaces, and which are relative to whatever the play they’re doing is about. This usually necessitates smaller audiences than somewhere like the Lyceum can take, and often involves that audience promenading from scene to scene.

Over more than 20 years, Grid Iron have done shows in public parks, climbing centres and Edinburgh Airport. This sort of thing was a good few years ahead of companies like Punchdrunk, whose similar notions of ‘immersive’ theatre became very fashionable. Their shows tended to attract younger audiences who weren’t interested in staying passive in their seats and watching things in the dark, but who craved a more tactile and intimate experience.

One of Grid Iron’s earliest shows, and probably the one that made the company’s name, was The Bloody Chamber. First presented in 1997, this adaptation of the title story of Angela Carter’s book of short fiction tapped into Carter’s sense of dark gothic fantasy. Key to this was the production’s staging in Mary King’s Close, the subterranean labyrinth beneath Edinburgh’s High Street, next to the City Chambers. In 1645, this once bustling close became one of the worst hit centres to be hit by the Plague, with some 300-odd victims claimed by the pandemic. Now transformed into a tourist attraction, Mary King’s Close is a living monument of Edinburgh Old Town’s dark past. A substantial network of underground dens of iniquity close by have been and still are used as various music venues over the last half century.

For The Bloody Chamber, Grid Iron led audiences of less than 20 deep into the darkness of various uninhabited cell-like rooms. Hunched close on benches or lined up against the wall, they witnessed actors and musicians perform Carter’s tale so up-close-and-personal you could see the spittle bursting from their mouths. As a piece of theatre, it was a big hit, won awards and played in other spaces across the UK, including London Dungeon. There was something about its chilling and thrillingly intimate experience that audiences wanted to, not just watch, but be part of. In this sense, Grid Iron turned the idea of a mass gathering on its head and transformed notions of what theatre can make possible in confined spaces.

In the unlikely event Grid Iron might wish to revive The Bloody Chamber after a quarter of a century in a post pandemic world, even with audiences of less than 20, hunched up and spittle-flecked, social distancing would not be possible. Apart from anything else, even doing a show of that size twice or three times a day would never make enough money to pay everyone involved. That’s how theatre works.    

Life Before Lockdown #3

A stone’s throw from Mary King’s Close, in Niddry Street, is a venue called the Banshee Labyrinth. As the name suggests, this black-painted venue is a warren of underground dungeons where small-scale gigs, club nights and film screenings take place. Under the name Braw Gigs, my mate Nick sometimes puts experimental type gigs on there. They’re usually quite niche affairs, and if as many as thirty or forty people turn up, the rooms are small enough to be busy.

One night a few years ago, he put this band on I’d never heard of, but it was Nick, and he puts on a lot of stuff I like, so it’s always worth taking a chance. By the time this unknown duo who’d travelled all the way from Nottingham came on, there was probably still only about ten or fifteen people there. That didn’t hold them back, and the raw power of the splenetic torrents of rage and socio-pop commentaries resembled New York proto-punk provocateurs Suicide as reimagined by the deadbeat descendants of Thatcher’s dole-queue kids.   

There was an art cabaret thing happening in a studio a few doors away, and the band played their entire set again to probably three times as many people as the first. Again, it didn’t seem to bother them how many people were there, and they never let up for a second.

Within a few months Sleaford Mods had been on telly, and when they next visited Edinburgh, they sold out the 200-or so capacity Electric Circus venue which has since closed. When they came back again, it was to play a full house of 500-ish at La Belle Angele on the Cowgate. At some point they supported the Stone Roses, playing to an audience of 50,000 in a football stadium. As audience-sizes increased, for the four gigs I saw, at least, so too did the visceral intensity of the experience. Social distancing? Forget it.

Life Before Lockdown #4

Eleven years ago, I was packed off to Sibiu, in the old Transylvanian bit of Romania, to see a stage production of Goethe’s version of Faust. This was by that country’s great theatre director, Silviu Purcarete, a big bear of an auteur renowned for his epic stagings of classic plays. His production of Faust was coming to Edinburgh International Festival, and was going to be presented on the outskirts of town in the Lowland Hall of the Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston. This bastion of highland shows and large-scale raves was the only place big enough to house such a spectacle, in which more than 100 actors took part in a staggeringly realised carnival of sex and death.  

Watching it in an old factory in Sibiu accompanied by the clamour of a live band, at first glance it looked like it could have been housed in a more regular city centre theatre, the Lyceum, say. Until, that is, walls came down and everything more or less exploded outwards and threatened to burst through whatever walls were left. As you promenaded through the action as one might in a much smaller way with a Grid Iron show, everything still felt within touching distance, so you were always at the heart of the action.

In Edinburgh, it was a very different experience. It was still an astonishing theatrical feat, but it seemed further away somehow, just that little bit more out of reach. Health and safety regulations in Romania are probably a bit different from here. Either way, imagine putting something of that scale on in Sibiu, Ingliston or anywhere else besides now?

Life After Lockdown?

I spent part of last Friday afternoon attempting to resist getting involved in Twitter arguments about how theatres like the Lyceum and venues like Henry’s should be supported to ensure their survival. These discussions came out of the appearance of playwright James Graham on a socially distanced edition of Newsnight on BBC 1.

Graham’s stage work includes This House, based on events in the Westminster parliament from the 1974  general election to the 1979 vote of no confidence in James Callaghan’s Labour government that led to Margaret Thatcher’s first Tory landslide. Graham also wrote The Angry Brigade, about the Stoke Newington-based anarchist cell responsible for several bombings in the early 1970s. For television, Graham’s recent credits include Brexit: The Uncivil War. Most recently, Quiz, based on the million-pound hoax on TV quiz show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, was adapted for television from Graham’s stage play, first seen in Chichester in 2017.

Before all that, Graham’s early plays were seen at the tiny 50-seat Finborough Theatre in London, and other small spaces like The Bush and Soho Theatre. As with every theatre in Scotland and everywhere else, it seems, except Germany, all those spaces are closed now, and may never re-open.

On Question Time, Graham argued for an ‘investment’ in theatre in order to help them survive beyond lockdown. He pointed out that every pound of public money spent on art gets four quid back, and, while he was speaking in a London context, the same applies across Scotland’s theatres and venues as well.  

There were some on Twitter who saw any kind of financial support as a bailout for luvvies. Like the funding argument, this is an old mantra reeled out by those who are either unable or unwilling to see how the cultural dots are joined. A gig at the Banshee Labyrinth or Henry’s, or a Grid Iron Show in Mary King’s Close feeds into a much wider cultural infrastructure.

This is certainly the case at the Lyceum, and has been for many years since it was first built in 1883. As well as producing its own shows since 1965 and hosting those by Edinburgh International Festival, back in the early 1970s it was the venue for Edinburgh Pop Festival. This featured the likes of Fairport Convention and Stealer’s Wheel alongside radical theatre troupe’s such as Ken Campbell’s Roadshow in a programme which these days would more likely be spread out in venues ranging from Henry’s to Summerhall.

But some bits of Twitter weren’t really interested in any of that. One post sub-tweeted a headline from the Telegraph announcing that ‘Theatre stands on the brink of ruin’ with their own words, ‘*whispers* good.’ If someone doesn’t like theatre, fair enough, but this was still a puerile and childish gesture. When questioned, the person behind the tweet expounded how ‘English theatre bores me’ and how he was ‘Excited by the prospect of a load of cheap empty spaces in central London suddenly opening up to new art forms.’

This wasn’t the click-baity brattiness of some snorting grand-child of Rik from The Young Ones thinking he’s being outrageously ‘punk’. This was the wit and wisdom of Igor Toronyi-Lalic, who earns his living as arts editor of The Spectator magazine. That’s right. An actual arts editor of an actual magazine gloated in public about the potential closure of every theatre in a country he can only define as ‘English’.

Nor did Toronyi-Lalic seem able to recognise that, rather than any closure ushering in some unicorn-led Shangri-La of the avant-garde, that property developers will be hovering over such spaces as empty theatres and other venues like avaricious vultures waiting to pounce. Or maybe he does.

Mercifully, what’s left of any kind of arts press in Scotland isn’t so dim. It does raise the question, however, of what might happen next. The emergency support from ScotGov and Creative Scotland has been a short-term godsend to many, if by no means all. The Lyceum’s announcement regarding the company’s hibernation, however, is a wake-up call as significant and as alarming as the threat to grassroots music venues. Both suggest it might be time for a reboot.

But let’s forget about artists for a bit more than a second. Let’s talk about the box office staff, programme sellers, bar staff and front of house teams, the backstage crews, the set builders and the admin staff who make the work of writers, directors, designers, choreographers and actors happen. These are the key workers in the arts who get forgotten, who get paid a pittance, or sometimes not at all. Like the artists whose work they support, they do what they do largely out of love. Some are badly paid to the point that they sometimes need to take on a second or even a third job, which possibly pays just as badly. Many are freelance. Some are not. Either way, these are the ones who, in the current climate, are easiest to lose.

In small-scale music venues, things are even more precarious. Musicians, like all artists, need to be paid, just as sound technicians, PA companies and door runners do. It’s easy for DIY promoters to lose their shirt on poorly attended gigs, and working at a micro-level, it’s easy to run out of energy.

Music venues are so often the poor relation in public arts funding roulette. There has been some movement towards changing this, but not enough. Live theatre and live music – and I’m talking real live here, not some online, once-removed facsimile of the experience which for the moment at least is all we’ve got - is all about connection of one form or another at the most basic human level.

Truth is, the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have been an accident waiting to happen for years. Like all small businesses that exist in a free-market economy - including, and perhaps especially freelancers - they are one everyday disaster away from bankruptcy. Like every financial crash ever, no-one saw it coming. Except, as the evidence proves if you look beyond the can-do bluster, someone did, and whoever that someone was, they were ignored by those they tried to advise, until the worst happened.

The lockdown-enforced destruction of jobs and small businesses in every sector is the best advert for Universal Basic Income there could be. The sooner that is put on the table as a viable alternative to the free-market tightrope-walking that is the status quo, the better.

For too long, arts venues and organisations – and I include grassroots bars like Henry’s and Leith Depot here – have been treated like the court jesters of the public funding party, thrown a few scraps on the proviso they tell a joke or dance to somebody else’s tune. This needs to change. Leith Depot, Henry’s Cellar Bar and the Lyceum are all, not just culturally valuable, but vital for the soul and well-being, and none of them should be allowed to go under.

For all the good work done by the Scottish Government in supporting arts and culture, it sometimes feels like they’re more interested in promoting Scotland the Brand at high-profile international bunfights than building a supportive infrastructure for grassroots music or arts venues at home. By all means show off the best minds of your generation to a wider world once that world reopens, but make sure that when the party’s over they’ve got something to come back to.

With this in mind, when I rifle through the pile of papers on my desk after lockdown, whenever that might be, I don’t want to see dog-eared monuments to things that never happened. I want the prospect of good nights out I can look forward to, whether at the Lyceum, Henry’s or beyond. I want to know as well that these places and the people who bring them to life are secure survivors of the pandemic.

Social distancing looks set to go on for a long time beyond any easing of restrictions, and rightly so. How we deal with that on an everyday basis, I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t want to be part of a picture like the one of the audience at the State Theater of Hesse. Sitting together apart like that isn’t sitting together at all.

Bella Caledonia, May 2020



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