High Sheriff looks at the dramatic effect coronavirus has had on the arts

High Sheriff of West Sussex Dr Tim Fooks, in his weekly briefing on projects in the county, looks at how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the arts.

Every year, 30 million people in the UK attend a play or a musical and almost the same number attend a concert or festival. That is until coronavirus appeared on the scene.

Of the activities and occupations that have been affected by the pandemic, the impact on the performing arts has been perhaps the most dramatic.

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The lockdown has closed our auditoriums and rehearsal halls, and blacked-out stages. Professional performers have lost jobs, festivals in all parts of West Sussex have been almost universally cancelled, or deferred until next year, and hundreds of amateur music and theatrical groups have had to stop meeting together.

Jonathan Willcocks and the Chichester Singers performing their online version of Ave Maria Corpus

West Sussex has a spectacular performing arts heritage, with one of the jewels in its crown being the Chichester Festival Theatre (CFT), which was founded by a former city mayor, Leslie Evershed-Martin, in 1959. The theatre is very successful, selling over a third of a million tickets during 2018, and runs a Learning, Education and Participation programme for a wide range of people across the community.

I asked Kathy Bourne, the executive director, how the theatre was coping with lockdown.

She said: “Thankfully, in the past few years, we have been successful and have been very well-supported by our loyal audiences and so we can see ourselves coping this year.

“However, it is a very hard time for actors, musicians and the many people who are involved in making each production happen. CFT has also developed an increasingly important work reaching out into the community to young people, the elderly and the vulnerable and it is frustrating that this work has also been stalled.”

Chichester Festival Theatre. Picture: Philip Vile

In saying this, Kathy reminded me that the benefits of the performing arts are not limited to entertainment and economics. Emotionally, they are important too. Participating in creative activities can build self-confidence and resilience, improve mental health, benefit memory, and reduce social isolation and loneliness.

As one participant in CFT’s dementia friendly group said: “This was totally wonderful – imaginative, embracing, brought laughter, fun and connection.”

Singing is perhaps one of the most enjoyable and enriching ways we can be creative alongside others and, perhaps unsurprisingly, there are at least 25 amateur choirs listed in the West Sussex information website.

One of the best is Chichester Singers and their musical director is Jonathan Willcocks. Jonathan described to me how many of his singers find the choir becomes a really significant part of their lives.

Lewis Renninson, Isaac Sturge, Polly Maltby, Harvey Lodge and Jessie Page-Smith in Chichester Festival Youth Theatre's production The Wizard of Oz. Picture: Pete Jones

He said: “Some look forward to our rehearsals even more than the final performance and so, during lockdown, it became very important to find a way to make music together whilst staying apart.”

Jonathan was able to encourage 68 of his choir to record themselves singing Mozart’s Ave Maria Corpus and his son, also a professional musician, was able to meld all the recordings together.

He said: “We were all very pleased with the result and so we will try this again.”

It is certainly appropriate for the time – Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again.

Singleton CE Primary School children visiting Chichester Festival Theatre. Picture: Richard Gibbons

Sometimes, it is only through losing something that we appreciate its true value and this is surely true for live performances. The uncertainties regarding the speed at which we can be released from the lockdown, and the very significant funding streams that will be required, make it very difficult for all those in Kathy’s and Jonathan’s positions to know when normal ‘business’ can resume.

However, whether we sing, dance, act or just come to watch, listen and admire, the benefit to our collective well-being, let alone our local economy, means that we should be impatient for the re-lighting up of this hugely important part of our culture and our communities.

As a star of stage and screen, Hugh Bonneville has great concerns about the impact of coronavirus on his profession. But, as he wrote to me from his home in West Sussex, ‘the ingenuity of arts practitioners should never be in doubt, they are to a man and woman used to creating something out of seemingly nothing and fashioning new and extraordinary experiences’.

I will be one of many who look forward to the new and extraordinary flourishing once again in West Sussex.

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