In light of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, there’s a distinct air of doom and gloom hanging in the air. The last few weeks have seen disrupted travel plans, panic buying and a general wave of uncertainty spread across the entire country. The economy has taken a massive hit across all industries, from retail to air travel (Cathay Pacific has even advised its employees to take unpaid leave due to a fall in demand), and all this does nothing to lift the mood.
Perhaps it’s precisely in times of crisis like these that more than ever, we need a beacon of hope to keep us going. And one such source of that would be the arts. Often viewed as a form of escape, the arts also acts as a reminder that there is more to life than just the drudgery of the day, and with an entire audience undergoing a shared experience at the same time, the arts also allows us to emerge at the end with a sense of community, solidarity and togetherness.
The arts industry has not been spared from the ravages of the virus either. On the home front, multiple companies have already announced postponed dates for shows, such as Checkpoint Theatre with The Nuclear Family and Nine Years Theatre’s re-run of First Fleet both pushed to March 2021, while even the 2020 NUS Arts Festival and the annual I Light Singapore light art festival have been put on hold. Considering how prior to this crisis, everything has already been scheduled and put in place, from funding to rehearsals to the venue, one cannot help but feel a sense of disappointment at how all of it comes to naught because of the cancellations, after such careful planning on the organisers’ parts.
The number of cancellations has also created uncertainties in many arts groups’ and creatives’ livelihoods and plans. From performers to designers, stage crew to producers, the lack of jobs essentially puts their rice bowls on hold, such as the cancellation of school assembly programmes, and forces them into looking for alternative sources of income or cutting costs. In one year, there are a limited number of shows that are eventually produced, limiting the number of employment opportunities for artists who wish to work on a production. Freelancers operate on a tight schedule, where projects they take on have been carefully arranged to fit their calendars. While there is always the risk that unexpected developments may throw some of these off balance, a crisis as big as the coronavirus certainly affects them more than usual, and is rightly, a cause for concern. As such, many of them are now seeking additional, alternative work beyond their productions to make ends meet.
In addition, shows involving foreign artists and companies have also taken a toll with new travel restrictions. Workers (and artists) who have travelled to or from mainland China are to be placed on a mandatory leave of absence or quarantine (more details here), and with the ever-growing number of reported cases, foreign countries have also become increasingly wary of Asian travellers. For the sake of safety and security, these countries have also issued tighter regulations on immigration or put quarantine measures in place, discouraging travel and making it difficult to complete such projects. With no idea how long more the crisis will last for or how it will develop in future, this very well may stretch into a long-term issue.
Even with falling ticket sales and audience members however, there has been a valiant show of adaptability and resilience from organisers such as the Esplanade, whose annual Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts proceeded as planned. In lieu of the virus, the Esplanade also stepped up their safety and security efforts, doing last minute rescheduling of various shows because of travel restrictions and quickly implementing temperature checks across their venues, encouraging audience members to stay strong. In Hong Kong, Art Basel 2020 was cancelled, but has found a remedy in the form of the new Online Viewing Rooms (launching in March), while despite cancelling shows at the 2020 Hong Kong Arts Festival, the festival itself remains intact, carrying on with the staging of the remaining international and local shows. It’s not easy at all to put on a theatre show, and to choose to carry on despite the financial risks sends a strong message to all that the arts can and will find a way.
Take for example shows like The Rishi and Sharul Show 2 playing to a full house on Valentine’s Day, with audiences coming out in droves to see their friends and lend their support. Immersive theatre company Andsoforth, having recently wrapped up their latest production Valhalla and the Chambers of Asgard, saw success and smiles all around as audience members let go of their inhibitions, allowed themselves to just have fun and forget their worries while being whisked away to a world of Norse mythology.
But these really shouldn’t be the exceptions to the rule, and there are plenty of other quality arts events still around that audience members can and should show their support for by showing up at the theatre. Over the month of February, three of Singapore’s biggest theatre companies have or are set to open the first shows of their season: W!ld Rice with The Importance of Being Earnest, Pangdemonium with The Son, and Singapore Repertory Theatre with The Lifespan of a Fact. These are by no means small shows to put on, each one with high production value and stellar actors involved in them. In a rare show of solidarity, all three have decided to stand together and carry on with their shows, even releasing a joint press release announcing a discount for each other’s shows. This discount applies if an audience member is already holding a ticket to one of the shows, acting as a form of encouragement for audiences to come see all three. Who knows – this might even spell more future collaborations and co-operative measures between companies in time to come.
All three companies (and just about all others still putting up a show) have also prioritised staff and patrons’ safety, having implemented measures following the Ministry of Health’s recommended guidelines, including temperature screening and frequent sanitisation of premises. All the stops have been put out to ensure the safety of everyone entering the space, because these companies just want to deliver a quality show, give everyone sitting in the theatre a good time, and tell you, the audience member, that this virus is something we can and will get through together, as one Singapore (a study at Harvard University has even declared Singapore as having the ‘gold standard’ for case detection).
The human condition is a resilient one, and despite the fear and initial chaos, we’ve managed to acclimatise ourselves to the new normal, making adjustments to our usual routines, from regulated temperature checks to more frequent use of hand sanitiser. Slowly but surely, we seem to be getting back into the rhythm of things, and more than ever, it is paramount that we band together and get through this crisis as one community. As disparate as we think ourselves at times, the only way to survive is to support each other like a family, and assure each other that this too shall pass.
All it takes is someone to start, and make good on the old adage that ‘the show must go on’ for others to come out and follow suit. There is enough being done to ensure our utmost safety whenever we step into public, and each arts company is ready to put on a good show for its audience members. In spite of all the fear and uncertainty, we must continue to stand together, continue to smile, keep each other safe, and kindle the hope that tomorrow, the situation can and will get better.
The Importance of Being Earnest plays from 7th February to 8th March 2020 at the Ngee Ann Kong Si Theatre at Funan. Tickets available from SISTIC
The Son plays from 20th February to 7th March 2020 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC
The Lifespan of a Fact plays from 25th February to 14th March 2020 at the KC Arts Centre. Tickets available from SRT
For a full list of upcoming theatre shows, visit our Arts Listings here