The comfort of strangers
We evolved to gather, to socialise, to commune — so why should some invisible terrorist take that away from us?
The future? We’re already there.
The horror of it — of our future-now — is evident in the long queues for food, mounting protests, rising joblessness, restaurants permanently shuttered. And it is visible, too, in the big spaces — wiped, sprayed, sanitised, and regularly disinfected — between me and you.
Now, as we watch our reconfigured world emerge, we increasingly notice what it’s really like to exist in a 1.5m society. (Or is that 2m? And what if the virus really is airborne?) It’s a world where distance defines our relationship with strangers, masks dissociate us from one another in public places, and there’s a noticeable gap where our social and cultural lives once existed.
A world that looks like the Berliner Ensemble, a German theatre that, to accommodate the emerging dystopia, had most of its seats torn out to create a physically distanced auditorium defined by vast pools of space between patrons.
It’s a rather triggering vision of the world. One suggesting an aesthetic of absence, of emptying out. Where squeaky-clean minimalism replaces the crowd, where bumping shoulders with strangers doesn’t happen. It’s the all-white, decontaminated, hyper-sterile aesthetic of a sci-fi nightmare in which the elite — those who can afford lofty penthouses — lead parallel lives. Where social tribes keep to themselves.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. While around the world folks are figuring out how to virus-proof social spaces, whether by retrofitting them, building plastic barricades, or keeping windows open, in SA the people who bring us together in the first place are hanging on by their fingernails. If they haven’t already gnawed them to the quick.
The immediate result of sustained restrictions on gatherings is that many artists and entertainers — musicians, clowns, ballerinas, DJs, backstage personnel, lighting riggers, you name it — are wondering how to pay rent.
"In my opinion SA theatre is now dead," says playwright and actress Jemma Kahn, a recent Standard Bank Young Artist Award recipient. "If Broadway and the West End are going to struggle to survive, what hope do our theatres have?" Whether publicly or privately funded, she says, our theatres are economically ruined. "The only entities that’ll survive will be those that align with the interests of late capitalism. So maybe a theatre at a casino will survive. Is that bleak enough?"
Mid-July, Eric Abraham, founder and benefactor of Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre, announced that the space would remain closed, almost certainly until at least late-2021. "Until we can be confident that staff, performers and audiences will not be at risk, at least until the availability of a vaccine or effective treatment for the Covid-19 virus," he said. "The majority of our staff have had to be retrenched."
As much as the industry is reeling from a lack of income, it is not simply about the rands and cents.
During the global lockdown, we’ve seen the rise of Zoom theatre — virtual plays linking performers across physical space.
But it’s really not the same, nor can online performances be equated with any sort of physical get-together. "I’m not hooked by the online theatre trend," says theatre-maker Brett Bailey, whose Third World Bunfight company is internationally revered. Live performance is a different breed.
The thing about theatre —– like a rock concert — is that it’s alive. Audiences are never mere observers — they are participants, too. The whole point of assembling in a particular place at a certain time makes such gatherings a form of ritual.
You might know this feeling of ritual from the electricity that circulates at a dance floor presided over by a DJ. I don’t mind dancing in my kitchen but rocking out in a crowd is something else entirely; it’s participatory. You might experience it as heat or sweat or a desire to stage dive or dance. In the theatre you might cry or yell "Bravo!" as the entire audience leaps to its feet to applaud.
The vanished vibe
Singer and storyteller Zolani Mahola compares her role in front of a crowd with that of a shaman. "It’s 100% about connecting to the source or a higher power. Successful gigs are the ones where the people on stage and those in the auditorium are connected. Only then is the circle complete and beautiful."
Her sentiment echoes Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who wrote a stirring ode to rock concerts in The Atlantic in May: "Without that audience — that screaming, sweating audience — my songs would only be sound. But, together, we are instruments in a sonic cathedral, one that we build together night after night."
But what are we to do when coming together in the old ways seems contrary to survival? "It’s difficult to have a clear objective when the horizon is so out of focus," says Bailey.
Our current emergency has made it clear that we need to reimagine live performance. And not in ways that will — like a retrofitted Berlin theatre — cater increasingly to a privileged few.
Between health concerns and financial viability, the goal posts continue to shift, and theatre’s future is still too abstract a calculation. "I don’t know how it will change, adapt, even survive," Bailey says. "I am orientating myself to making small-scale works for presentation outdoors."
That might be the practical solution our gatherings require: Start by taking them outdoors. A return to theatre’s ancient roots.
Perhaps our stadiums, many of them empty since 2010, could become theatre spaces echoing the amphitheatres of old. Let large crowds in, but spread them out.
There have been plenty of intrepid solutions to the conundrum of large gatherings.
One German crew hosted the world’s first "drive-in EDM party" where everyone sat in their cars, tooting their hooters and flashing their lights in time to beats churned out by a DJ.
Drive-ins are, after all, a perfect metaphor for our "together alone" lockdown frame of mind: you come together but bring your personal bubble with you.
But many of us don’t want to dance inside our cars. We relish literal dance floors, dancing with real strangers.
"This dance floor drought could drag on for ages," says Adam Metcalfe (aka Headroom), a Cape Town-based psytrance DJ-producer who has had an entire year of global performances wiped from his schedule. "The restrictions on gathering creates a hole that humans naturally need to fill."
For many the craving has played into the hands of amoral halfwits — in the UK, the desire to gather has resulted in dozens of illegal lockdown raves. They’ve been held indoors, outdoors, and on the move. Some are organised by drug dealers who’ve suffered losses because of club closures. Germany’s so-called "Corona parties" have turned violent.
Metcalfe says the call to resume carefree parties is obviously louder among under-35s who presume themselves to be less at risk.
They’ll need to wait. In the above-ground industry, restrictions on numbers will constrain events for the foreseeable future. "With downsized events comes smaller attendances and reduced budgets," says Metcalfe, "and expenses would be passed on to attendees, most of whom will be economically affected by the lockdown."
Given the unpredictability of outbreaks, Metcalfe says a return to the events world is unlikely to be smooth. Once they’re permitted, he predicts at least six months of reduced-size gatherings before circumstances begin to normalise.
Logic would dictate that outdoor events will bounce back first, he says. "They’ll probably get permits before indoor clubs — if the government behaves logically."
The old-school hippie format — dancing outside, under the stars or while the sun still shines — makes sense.
Dancing strictly in your allocated spot is one way of keeping people safe at parties. Tricky though, since even in a meadow of well-spaced revellers, drinks delivered via drone, what fun’s a dance floor without dance partners?
The elitist alternative might involve introducing lengthy pre-party quarantining. Imagine a world in which — should you wish to party with 10,000 other freaks or attend a rock concert — you first need to spend 14 days in quarantine. Ibiza 2.0, anyone?
"I’m optimistic about life after this," says Metcalfe. "I do hope we at least get a chance to dance by January. Even then, we will have lost a lot of good people, including artists, promoters, and events staff. Expect new faces, new brands, new venues but hopefully the sound of good music and smiling faces will cushion the change towards the ‘new normal’."
Whatever the "new" turns out to be, what is certain is that our need to gather and share space with strangers will prevail. It is a vital expression of our humanity.
We will build the "sonic cathedral" again, wrote Grohl. "I do not know when. But I do know that we will do it again, because we have to. It’s not a choice. We’re human. We need moments that reassure us that we are not alone. That we are understood. That we are imperfect. And, most important, that we need each other."
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