More than a year has passed since theatres in England were forced, for the first time in modern history, to close their doors to help stop the spread of coronavirus.
While the impact has undoubtedly been felt by the hundreds of thousands of creatives who work in the industry, experts say the pandemic has given the sector an opportunity to pause, reflect and rebuild a more inclusive and diverse environment.
Speaking ahead of an event they are taking part in at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) this Friday to mark William Shakespeare’s birthday, Iqbal Khan, a freelance theatre director, and James Shapiro, a Shakespeare expert and award-winning author, share their views on the future of theatre.
“For years we have been having conversations about how we can improve representation and inclusion in theatre and while those conversations have been moving in the right direction, the changes being made were mostly cosmetic,” explained Iqbal, who also received an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from DMU in 2019 and is an advocate for the diversification of performing arts.
“Now, because our industry has been forced to pause, it has given us the opportunity to have really serious conversations about the structure and way we work, and the systematic changes needed to address the issue of representation.
“It won’t happen overnight but I think one good thing to come out of our theatres being closed for the last year is that there has been a real drive to implement important structural changes. We are finally going to see more communities from different backgrounds being represented not only on stage, but behind the scenes too.”
Having worked as a theatrical director for more than a quarter of a century, Iqbal has established a well-earned reputation for his convention-challenging work at the likes of The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), The Globe and Birmingham Repertory Theatre, as well as venues around the world.
When Covid-19 brought theatre productions to an abrupt halt last March, Iqbal was heading into a rehearsal for a play he was directing for the RSC.
“In the beginning, to me it felt like an interruption rather than an ending,” he recalled. “But as time went on, I think there was a real fear that the need for theatre would dwindle but actually the opposite has happened – there has been an ache for sharing a physical space with like-minded people and the consolation that brings.
“In the last decade we have worked hard to make a case for culture during this period of austerity and now, thanks to the pandemic, it feels like the government is recognising that in a way it hasn’t done before.”
James Shapiro, who serves on the Board of Directors at the RSC and is Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theatre in New York, says that there are opportunities to be had when building back from a pandemic – and that William Shakespeare himself did exactly that.
“This is not the first time in history that theatres have been closed for a prolonged period of time,” he explained. “Back in 1592, there was an outbreak of the plague and any time the death toll went above 30 people, the theatres would close. This went on until April 1594, so almost two years.
“At the time William Shakespeare had only written B-list plays and collaborated with other writers. But as he was one of the very few playwrights who survived the plague, he managed to stay in London and when the pandemic came to an end, he got the job of theatre manager.
“Within a couple of years he had written A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. He came out of the pandemic and created work that we are still engrossed by some 400 years later. I suspect we will see this happen again, post Covid.”
In line with the government’s roadmap out of lockdown and all restrictions due to lift in England on June 21, many theatres are starting to release their programming for May and June, subject to social distance guidelines.
“Audiences cannot wait to come back and I think they will flood back into our theatres as soon as it is safe to do so,” said Iqbal.
“I think there is enormous momentum building in the industry and actually, the students coming through DMU now will be coming into an industry that has so many more pathways and opportunities than before. I think the future looks very, very healthy.”
Iqbal Khan and James Shapiro will be taking part in a DMU Research event, ‘Theatre in Time of Plague’ on Friday 23 April, alongside author Lucy Munro and actor and director James Wallace, discussing how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the theatre industry.
Posted on Tuesday 20th April 2021