A Plague on Both Your Houses

True, we are seeing indications of a resurgence in creative outputs across all forms of arts and culture now that many have found copious amounts of time to explore and apply themselves to their crafts. This is thanks to COVID-19 restrictions. By helping to keep each other safe, we have also supported a new wave of Arts and Culture.

I get excited just thinking about the wonderful new movements and works we can expect due to all this compression.

That being said, live performance (music, comedy, theatrical and anything in-between) has noticeably been suppressed and pretty much absent for most of 2020. As we hopefully look towards a brighter 2021, our imposed usher of normalcy, I took some time to jump back into a proverbial rabbit hole and learn more about the history of live Theatre and the effect of past plagues on its ability to bounce back.

I was inspired by a comment made to me during a conversation with an acting professor ~ ‘The formatting of theatre hasn’t really changed much since the ancient Greeks.’ That seemed to me to be a long time for something to be so unmoving.

What follows is a retelling of what I found on my journey in, out, and around Theatre, plagues and community while in wonderland.

A brief history

In our ancient history, something magical happened– our creative curiosity met with our need for communication then merged with a basic human desire to pretend and imitate. This mixture was poured to create the foundations for the global phenomenon we now know as the Theater. Since mankind’s earliest recorded accounts of expressive arts, this sophisticated practice of myths retold has been a tool to connect communities, countries and even the world. 

What began as a primitive way to record our observations and their essences accurately steadily grew in popularity through the centuries and continued to cement itself as a necessary element in public expression, knowledge sharing, and communal connections.

History in a half shell

Since 6000 BCE, the ceremony and ritual traditions of many cultures had become more dramatic. Egyptologists dated the first ritual productions to 2000 BCE. An Egyptian desire for realistic portrayal had players even suffering from life-threatening wounds. 

A manuscript depicting the battles between Horus and Seth was written during the 20th dynasty and was performed for many years. It is considered by some to be the first example of comedy because of its political satire and jest.

By 1500 BCE, Chinese productions were musical, comedic and included acrobatics. China is credited with having built the first permanent theatre building. In 700 BCE, its purpose was to establish a place where poets and playwrights could develop their whimsical craft.

As early as 1200 BCE cult worship ceremonies for the fertility god Dionysus were paving dirt paths towards sophisticated dramatic productions in Greece. Old Grecian rituals merged with more mainstream notions over the next 600+ years and produced an incredible Theatre culture. Magnificent productions were held on hillsides with dirt stages and large rocks for seating. They were also performed in public squares on simple non-permanent structures. Plays often contained lessons about legal systems, politics, and the military.

Community members from all classes took part both in productions and as audience members. By 490 BCE, some Greek theatres had a capacity of over 14,000. Like today, the community played a large part in the atmosphere of productions. To accommodate audience members who were further back, actors wore large masks which amplified sound and facial expressions.

Romans were highly influenced by exposure to Greek theatre. As Roman territory spread all across Europe towards the Mediterranean, they carried this influence with them, and it eventually reached London.

During the early Dark Ages, specifically during the 5th and 10th centuries, Theatre disappeared from Western Europe. That was aside from some small bands of actors who were denounced by the church. By 925, churches began including vocal performances in a ceremony, but there was no acting. From 935-973, Germany was producing religious comedies. This eventually led to a surge in liturgical plays across Russia, Scandinavia and Italy. By 965-975, short plays were overseen by the church. It was only in the 12th century that plays were performed outside of the churches again.

Resurgence and growth

Religious plays were banned in 1558 by Elisabeth the 1st. This caused an evolution in writing as countries began to write from their own perspectives. This new era ushered in a revival of Greek and Roman plays too. By 1590, production crews in Florence, Italy, included artisan craftsmen who fashioned elaborately painted stage designs and closed-in playhouses.  Players participated in well-executed scene changes. Puppets and props became more elaborate. Italy, with its fine artistry, grew to dominate Theatre in Europe for 150 years.

Grandiosity and growth

The 18th century was full of grandiosity and rich costumes and gestures. In the 19th century, France introduced melodrama. Germany’s growing sense of patriotism produced plays of historical accuracy. In Russia, their plays reflected the flourishing interest in psychological realism.

By the 20th century, improved lighting enhanced productions for audiences from London to the bright lights of Broadway in New York.

So fearful were they of infection

Theatre needs her audience to be, or it will not be. Theatre’s rich history attests to the fact that it has always been a communal art form. Theatre and contagions have never mixed well. When plagues struck Europe in the early 1600s, a lack of knowledge about infectious disease saw playhouses close for months-long periods several times over 10 years.  Again, during an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the early 17th century, London playhouses closed after the daily death tolls began to climb. Plays have been influenced by the Athenian Plague, Black Death, and Polio and most certainly will be affected by COVID-19. Perhaps because of this, self-isolation and disease are themes woven into many manuscripts.

Modern times

It’s been a very long time since we’ve experienced an epidemic such as this. But, Theatre has endured. Today, even with our medical, scientific and technological advancements, many performance spaces have closed their doors. Some have leaned into the unforeseen challenges and devised new ways to develop content for smaller audiences. It seems that despite the digital programming being offered now, it may take years to recover.

When doors open again

We all benefit when our economies are successful, and our souls are tickled. Arts and culture activities bring delight and escape from every day while also helping build and maintain a vibrant community. It surprised me to learn that the 2016 Canadian census reported a total of 158,100 artists. In other words, 1 in every 116 Canadian workers is an artist. That number is greater than the labour force in automotive manufacturing or utility sectors.  Reported among their creative industry peers, the census showed 11,400 individuals working as Actors and comedians. Another 27,600 individuals included professionals related to production.

A thriving performing arts scene in any city or town brings new patrons, restaurants, real-estate developments, retail stores, improved sidewalks, and increased employment opportunities within the arts sector.

For all my exploring, I came out of the hole with a stronger belief that the Arts is ultimately one way we can share an experience that unites us and urges us to reach out, understand, and support each other as well as our community.

Long live the performance arts!

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