How in the misery of the lockdowns, the arts did what the arts do best

People in the arts will certainly talk about a hesitation in the air still; there are people who used to go to the theatre who simply haven’t come back yet.
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And that was always one of the great worries as the lockdowns lengthened – the fact that theatre-going and gig-going are a habit. And habit, by its very nature, is something we are prone to lose.

But as we contemplate the third anniversary of the national lockdowns today, as we try to make sense of those awful few years, there is one fabulously comforting thought: when we needed them most, the arts did what they do best. They didn’t shrivel and die at a time when so much seemed so impossible; instead, they reinvented, they sustained, they consoled and they offered hope.

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At a time of universal grimness, the arts offered a beacon of light. It’s so easy to dismiss the arts as frivolous entitled luxury when times are good, but when the chips were as down as low as they could get, the arts offered a nourishing, empowering hug to us all. It’s odd that that era of closed venues survives now in the memory as a time of astonishing resilience, a time of remarkable resolve. Who can forget the spine-tingling a capella version Stand By Me that Chichester Festival Youth Theatre recorded. It was vital to so many – me included. My father died on the day before the first national lockdown back in March 2020. The bereavement was tough but it was certainly made tougher still at a time when all the bereavement bureaucracy was made pretty much impossible by unanswered phones in virtually empty offices. And that’s why the optimism, the determination, the sheer ‘we’ll meet again’ness that Chichester Festival Theatre exuded in those times were a comfort to so many. And this at a time when it was devastating for so many in the business. Of course, it was hardest for the emerging actors and for the free-lance behind-the-scenes people. The whole industry disappeared overnight, and sadly there are so many of them that didn’t make it back, people who went off in other directions instead and never returned.

Chichester Festival Youth Theatre's Stand By MeChichester Festival Youth Theatre's Stand By Me
Chichester Festival Youth Theatre's Stand By Me

But for those that were already established, it was a chance to take stock, to reflect why they do what they do and to come back even stronger. And it struck me at the time just how much confidence there was even in the very darkest days. So many actors were convinced that one way or another we would get back to it all. They were convinced because they knew they were catering to one of our most basic, primal, instinctive needs. Theatre is story-telling, and we all love to hear a story – and so many people in the industry drew comfort from that simple fact. You can trace it back thousands and thousands of years, to the story-tellers around the camp fires. It’s a direct line meeting a direct need all the way through to our modern theatres. And that’s why so many performers retained hope: the fact is that we are never not going to want to listen to stories. It’s absolutely at the heart of what we are as human beings. And that’s why for those in the arts who tried to look beyond the abyss of the lockdowns, it was always going to be a question of when, not whether – and maybe more importantly how. The story-telling would certainly continue, but would it take on new forms once we managed to enter a post-pandemic world?

A lot of people in the business were convinced that the Chekhovs and the Ibsens would disappear for a while, the sturdy classics would be eclipsed in the new landscape, that we would enter a new era of much more modest productions, with much more modest casts. There was a lot of muttering that theatre would creep back gently and very small scale when it finally got the chance to do so. That’s not how Daniel Evans saw it. As Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director, he saw re-emergence as a new era of massive statements. The CFT came back with South Pacific – a show on a huge scale. Theatre was back, undaunted and undiminished – and South Pacific was designed to say exactly that. Daniel lost his enter 2020 summer season. It seems hugely significant that so many of those shows have now seen the light of day, with more to come this summer. Daniel made us all see the power of hope at the bleakest of times. And that’s why his tenure at the CFT will be remembered as such an important one. And remember just how grim things were. When things were starting to ease up towards the end of 2020. Daniel judged that a spring season was possible for 2021. He put it together, it was released to us on embargo and the details were ready and waiting on a page of this newspaper in time for a January announcement. But tier three put paid to that. Lockdown tightened and Daniel found himself lumbered with the worst possible distinction: he became the only Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director ever to have to cancel a season before he had even announced it. But somehow it never seemed a defeat. The point is that he had tried and he had hoped. Weeks of planning vanished into nothingness with one government announcement. Of course we had known it was brewing. But for Daniel, packing his bags and going home was never an option. As he used to say, it was all about hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. Daniel used to joke about his hope-ometer. Whatever the pandemic threw at him, it never dropped. At least, not by too much. “The show must go on,” is the old adage. To it Daniel added “even when it can’t.” His point was that without hope, we had precious little during the pandemic, and it was a measure of Daniel’s unshakeable positivity that he made us share it.

I will always remember what I did on the day the first lockdown struck three years ago today. My father died on the eve of that first lockdown. On the day the lockdown was announced, I was allowed in through the window at the nursing home where he had died the day before – and I was allowed to empty his room. I was not allowed to enter by the front door. It was the grimmest day of my life. But the arts – and Chichester Festival Theatre in particular – sustained me in the months of mourning and endless uncertainty ahead. The CFT showed that hope was possible; they led all our Sussex venues in that respect. They pretty much led the country too. It was the most wonderful example of the arts doing what they do. So many performers – not least Joe Stilgoe from his shed in Brighton – started podcasting daily online. With endless resourcefulness, so many creatives – think Sophie Ellis-Bextor and her celebrated Kitchen Disco – found fabulous new ways to connect with us. It was a time of rethinking, of reshaping, of reinventing – a time of realising what mattered and clinging to it. And it’s because of that we are now in an era of guarded optimism. Yes, there is still hesitation; yes, sadly, there are still plenty of people who haven’t returned to our theatres or to our concert halls. But the arts have done what the arts do best: in our very worst moments, they enlightened, they inspired, they encouraged and they sustained. And that’s such an important legacy of the lockdowns and all their horrors: they helped us realise just why the arts are so crucial.