Renaissance London is frequently hailed as a landmark of performance and culture. You may, perhaps, have heard of writers like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe; however, during the years of 1603 and 1613, the theatres of London were closed for 78 months due to the plague. With people trapped in their homes and terrified of becoming sick, it was difficult to share performances. Today we are facing a similar situation, but fortunately there is now a place for us to come together and experience all the theatre the world has to offer us: The Social Distancing Festival.
The Social Distancing Festival was created by Toronto playwright Nick Green. When Green and his co-writer Kevin Wong found out that their musical In Real Life was cancelled, Green reached out to fellow artists and realized that performances everywhere were being halted midway through their rehearsals. The Social Distancing Festival was born out of a desire to save those shows and give them their spotlight.
Theatre from all over the world, in numerous forms, is available to stream and enjoy from the festival website, and the response has been hugely positive, with review articles being written by dozens of news outlets. As much as we all joke about bingeing Netflix and Disney+, there is clearly a desire in all of us to be able to experience live art and theatre.
The Social Distancing Festival is a place where artists can submit their work for viewers to see and enjoy. Clicking on the "Featured" and "Live Streams" tabs will take you to pages that feature everything from spoken word to opera. The Featured page has a more curated selection, whereas the Live Streams page has a calendar option so that you can see what streams are available to you on a given day. Some streams require registration, so if there is something that catches your eye, make sure to double check that there is room available.
The festival only started on Friday March 13, but it has been growing and evolving daily, and as a result Green has needed more people to help him organize it. Matthew Reid, a fourth year student at Sheridan College in the honours bachelor of music and performance program, is one of those helpers. He met Green at a theatre workshop last summer. Like students here at McMaster, Reid found that his final semester of undergrad was suddenly and abruptly cut off. At the fifth rehearsal for their upcoming performance of Guys and Dolls, Reid and the rest of the class were told that the show was cancelled.
“[W]e all went into rehearsal on Friday and were told that our rehearsal process would be stopped and our productions were going to be cancelled. So that was a bit of a shock to the system, especially as fourth year students, because this is our last, final project before leaving school. We realized that all we had left to do was a couple of online meetings and then we were done with our degree, we were done with this whole undergrad experience, and it all happened in the blink of an eye,” said Reid.
World Theatre Day took place March 27, with theatres across the globe sitting empty. The artist community has been hit hard by COVID-19 closures. Many performers rely on theatre in order to pay their bills or, like Reid, in order to finish their degrees. Not only that, performers live and breathe theatre. It’s how they express their talent and creativity, and for many it is their driving passion. In the wake of the closures, Green saw both himself and his friends suddenly left rudderless, with the energy that they invested in their projects seemingly going to waste.
“[Green] wanted to create a platform where artists could share work . . . that had been cancelled or postponed or stopped, as a way for them to continue to create what they were creating, as a way for them to get feedback and to celebrate their work, to connect with other artists internationally. It seems people are very grateful for their work not to be lost. It's always good to have a project, especially in a weird, very unpredictable time like this, [to have] a project to focus on,” said Reid.
Theatre has always had to adapt to funding cuts and shoestring budgets, and artists are nothing if not adaptable. Green’s show In Real Life has been continuing to rehearse remotely despite the barriers put in its way. The show is set in a dystopian future where the students live in cubes and can only communicate with one another online. This hits disconcertingly close to home as we all practice physical distancing, only able to see one another through our screens.
“They are, very fortunately, still managing to meet as a cast and as a team online . . . So it's kind of like they're actually living [the show] right now. They're all doing a 30 person Zoom call and rehearsing their songs and working on scenes, and it all has to be online from the comfort of their own room[s] because that's where we we have to be right now, so it's kind of like they're method acting, experiencing the world of the cube while they're rehearsing for the show,” said Reid.
None of us know how long we’ll need to keep our distance, or when live theatre will be able to start up again. Until then, The Social Distancing Festival is hoping to continually evolve and improve to help both the artists sharing their work, and the people watching from home. As it continues, the festival is working to include not only theatre, but also music, dance, traditional art and spoken word. If you’re an artist, you can submit through their website, and if you’re not, hopefully you can find some joy in the work being shared. And when this is all over, we should all remember that the arts can play a large role in helping to get through difficult times.