By Rob Clark
“The show must go on…” was originally printed in the Evansville Daily Journal on September 12, 1866. It was originally meant for the circus or a theatrical performance, despite all difficulties, the show must be performed as scheduled. But what happens when the show can’t go on? What happens when the government and medical professionals step in and advise that for the health and safety of cast/crew and audience members alike, theatre performances cannot go on for the foreseeable future, and there’s no confirmed date as to when the next opening night for a performance will be. There’s job losses, financial stress, tears, and above all else, uncertainty.
People all over the world right now who have access to up-to-date information are very much aware of Covid-19, known also as the Coronavirus. The virus has rapidly and without precedent swept across the world, causing all kinds of political and law enforcement intervention, as well as deaths in the tens of thousands, and illness in many, many more. Like many respiratory infections, the virus spreads via air droplets, bacteria on the body and surfaces, and general proximity to those carrying. The situation has escalated very quickly, and a ‘new normal’ of social distancing, no hugs or handshakes, and staying at home as much as possible has come as quickly as the virus entered the mainstream media. While the information the world is receiving is changing day to day, the main theme of this whole pandemic is uncertainty. What does it mean for me? My family? My friends? My job? Communities across the world are unsure when this ‘new normal’ will end, and if it does, will things be like they were, ever again?
The Arts community of Melbourne has shown amazing resilience over the last few months. They were the first to put their hands up to raise funds for the much-needed fight against the devastating bushfires of the recent summer, and the first to bring people together in such trying times. Just look at the benefit concert Western Arts Theatre Inc. put on in February, and the numerous concerts across the nation from artists putting their income aside to help those affected by the crisis. It’s this same resilience that the amateur theatre community of Victoria is displaying throughout the ever changing Covid-19 pandemic.
Two days out from their opening night, after six months of development, process and rehearsals, the team at Fab Nobs Theatre Inc. decided to postpone their run of Big Fish to later unknown dates due to respecting the health of safety of all involved, and their audiences. Heartbreaking and devastating as this decision would’ve been for everyone putting that show together, the reactions from the cast and team demonstrated resolve, not anger at the situation. Director Sarah Tierney wrote in a heartfelt Facebook post in line with the postponement announcement, “We may be on pause for now but our message is ‘til we meet again.” That quote from Tierney began to ring true across many theatre companies across Victoria, as impending cancellations and rescheduling became an unwanted priority. Despite the loss of their opening night that coming weekend, the cast of Fab Nobs’ Big Fish did a final dress rehearsal the night before, if not to sing the wonderful songs one last time for now, but maybe find a sense of unity amongst a dividing unknown. Poignant, right?
Social distancing might be the new normal, but social media still continues to surprise and amaze in how a crisis can bring people together for a common message. Take the ghost light for example. For those unfamiliar, the ghost light is a light left on in an empty theatre signifying a placeholder until the stage is once again live with a performance, and the seats are full with an audience. It’s a symbol, underlying with the meaning: “We will return”, and as theatre companies Victoria-wide face the challenges associated with Covid-19, the ghost light is popping up in cover photos all across Facebook’s amateur theatre community of Victoria. The ghost light has been shared by Hannah Bird, Michelle Lorraine Clark and Ian and Kirsty Nisbet, just to name a few. There’s also an amazing trend of people sharing what dream roles other fellow theatre counterparts would see them in? Laura Harris-Rilen, Ben Heels and Leighton Irwin have taken part in the fun of it all. Facebook group Positive Theatre Vibes has been alive with people sharing links to livestreams of Broadway shows that can be watched at home, people sharing memes, games and remote events that people can take part in from home. Links on Mental Health assistance to those within the community have been posted, and Ian Nisbet checks in regularly on the page as to how everyone homebound is doing. There’s something new to take part in almost daily within Positive Theatre Vibes, whether that’s laughing at a silly theatre pun, or watching someone sing their heart out from their bedroom via webcam, there’s still plenty of theatre fun to be had from a distance. It’s almost as if the community hasn’t stopped at all, and isn’t that the coolest thing?
Can’t stop, won’t stop is something that’s been all too evident within this community over the last several weeks. The group at Theatre Of The Damned have been conducting their rehearsals via Zoom meetings (funny hats included!), which cast member Liam McWhinney has said has been the most fun during isolation, and Tony and Elise from the company plan to keep the momentum with remote rehearsals for their next show, Ladies In Black. The practice and growth hasn’t halted either, as Ian Nisbet has been offering vocal lessons remotely with a ‘pay what you can’ initiative, sending financial support the arts industry during this time. There’s so much happening to keep things alive and well that’s it’s almost overwhelming to keep track of it all.
“Someday a time for us. Time together, with time to spare, time to learn, time to care…”, the very well-known lyrics from West Side Story’s ‘Somewhere’, just as relevant today as they were in 1957, almost paint a picture of the “we’ll be back” notion that the Victorian amateur community is embracing throughout this pandemic. The team at CentreStage Pty Ltd were not immune from the Coronavirus situation, and when it came to the postponement of their near-ready production of West Side Story, it was done with very close monitoring of the situation, and on advice from health experts, and of course, heavy hearts from all involved. In speaking with Musical Director Daniel Heskett, he said the sense of love and care wasn’t diminished once the reschedule was announced, quite the opposite he added. Two days after the postponement went public, the cast, team and 29-piece orchestra all gathered one final time (for now) on a Sunday night, for their ‘Closing Sitzprobe’, a chance for one final singalong of the show that had become their hearts and souls over the course of a few months. Tears, hugs and handshakes were abound that night, as social distancing was not yet implemented throughout the community, and those embraces were all too special and needed based on the circumstances that made that ‘Closing Sitzprobe’ the night it was. Furthermore, the team in conjunction with Oxygen Music/College recorded a beautiful rendition of ‘Somewhere’ that features cast members Perri Espinoza, Kurt Russo, Bec Harland, Aidan O Cleirigh and Elias Jabbour, with Eric Von Ahlefeldt on the keys. The stunning video can be found on CentreStage Ltd’s Facebook page, and is a telling reminder that we’re in this together, no matter what. Time together will come, and we’ll be stronger than ever.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg in regards to the challenges the Victorian amateur community is facing, but it’s easy to put into words what this group has exhibited over the past few weeks, as there’s no hiding from the fact that everyone’s in it together. Rather than responding with frustration, anger, hatred or outright pettiness, the people within have displayed amazing unity, love and heart to one another, not shying away from the common theme, that they’ll be back, and can’t wait to share a hug on opening night once more. The ghost light might be on for now, but for this community, the theatre lights have never been turned off.