This post is dedicated to theatre-makers everywhere in the world [1].

In his book, Epidemics and Society, From the Black Death to the Present, Frank M. Snowden makes an important observation: “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning. Every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.” [2]

This current pandemic gave us a lot to think about and evaluate since it has presented us with a rare opportunity for vivisection. It has exposed blatantly and painfully our society’s vulnerabilities: the blind spots of a global economy measured solely by constant growth, expansion and exploitation; the price we pay if whistle-blowers are silenced and experts are ignored; the true extent and impact of the climate crisis; the inequalities in our societies we preferred not to notice or when we did, we offered moral judgment instead; the thinly worn and torn fabric of our public health and social care systems; the inadequacy of our under-funded state schools (the crowded classrooms, the crammed buildings, the myth of being able to offer adequate digital education to everyone); and those values that couldn’t be monetized (compassion, loyalty, solidarity) which were, therefore, deemed useless; and so on and so forth. The virus connected complex problems in our society and concentrated them into one point of focus, to draw our attention to them and help us recognize what went so tragically wrong.

Like a magnifying glass, this pandemic has made us see all that. It has also brought attention to what really matters: forgotten values that are vital for the sustaining of a society, the importance of a reliable news service, and most of all, the importance of key workers whose work is essential for our society. Suddenly we have seen the people whose work we took for granted: people in the health sector, carers, teachers, farmers, delivery drivers, cleaners, etc. – people who have been always around us, working for us under difficult conditions and receiving low wages for their services.

This crisis also highlighted another issue: theatre’s role as a public service.

We have forgotten about this. Recently we talked about theatre as a luxury or business or place of entertainment. Sometimes we seemed to remember that it can be useful for education, but we overlooked its other functions that have come to the forefront when people have had to stay at home. Theatre can keep us company, offer solace, respite, comfort, consolation, knowledge, and spiritual sustenance. It enables us to feel and share compassion, makes us laugh, or helps us grieve. It can help us reflect, deal with difficult and complex issues, and it plays an important role in our recovery and healing on both personal and societal levels. Theatre is instrumental in social cohesion, and it will play a crucial part in helping us revive our communities and re-weave the broken fabric of our society after the pandemic. As a public forum, theatre will also have the duty to amplify those people’s stories we did not hear about whilst being locked up in our homes.

People affected by the Zagreb earthquake, the forest fire in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, or Orbán’s authoritarian power grab in Hungary – to name just a few. We’ll need to hear the ‘story of collective euthanasia’, about terminally ill Hungarians, who were forced home from the hospitals by an absurd and cruel decree given by their prime minister to free up 60% of hospital beds in a country, where the official Coronavirus death toll has not yet even reached 200 [3]. We’ll need to hear the story of those care home residents in Spain, who were abandoned to starve and die alone. We’ll have to learn the stories of businesses that took advantage of people’s miseries and used this situation of emergency to gain extra profits. We’ll have to hear about organizations that effectively stopped functioning. We’ll have to hear about politicians who misused the trust and agency they were given by the people and acted in incompetent, irresponsible, selfish or greedy ways. We’ll have to tell all those stories on our stages and more!

We’ll have to hear about ordinary people who were as confused and fearful as the rest of us yet acted when action was needed. We need to hear all those stories of courage, bravery, compassion and solidarity. We’ll have to share these stories and make sure that they are not forgotten, because we can only build our future if we know our past.

I hope that we’ll use this pandemic to rethink, remedy and rebuild a society that is better than the one that was so painfully exposed by this virus. To re-examine our priorities and our way of living (on personal and on systemic level), and how things could have gone so spectacularly wrong.

In the ghost lights burning on the stages of our empty theatres today, I can see the light of hope for a better and fairer society.

But hope is not a passive thing, it is action. In her book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes: “It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.” [4]

Theatres will have a key role to play in this action. This is an important public service. Let’s no longer forget about it.

 

Notes:

[1] As a playful gesture coming from my desire to reconnect with the discourse offered by these eminent thinkers, I decided to choose for each title of my journal entries the title of an essay on dramaturgy I found inspiring. I hope their authors won’t mind me recalling their work this way. Today’s title is borrowed from an essay by Suzan-Lori Parks, published in her book, The America Play and Other Works (Theatre Communications Group, New York, 1995).

[2] Frank M. Snowden, Epidemics and Society. From the Black Death to the Present, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2019., p.7.

[3] 19 April 2020 data.

[4] Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark. Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Cannongate Books, Edinburgh, 2016., p.xi.

This article is part of the Dramaturgs’ Network’s Invisible Diaries series.

This blog entry appeared on the Blog of the Dramaturgs’ Network on April 20th, 2020, as part of the Invisible Diaries series, and has been reposted with permission. 

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.