It is difficult to imagine – as we trudge past shuttered cinemas and boarded-up gig venues, theatres still displaying faded posters for 2019’s long-abandoned productions and galleries whose only patrons are security guards – that one day everything will be open again.
Having spent the past year trying to eke cultural value from Joe Wicks’s music selection and the Cajun seasoning of our overpriced recipe kits, we’re now set to re-enter a world where artistic options are only limited by our imagination (also ticket availability and the R number). It’s been such a long time since we’ve been able to share the experience of fun – a state that is likely to feel as novel to us now as it did when we first ventured out into the cultural world as teens. Such an orgy of opportunity is easy to feel overwhelmed by. The proposed date when clubs will reopen and festivals are allowed, 21 June, is being touted as some kind of Dante’s Inferno but with worse litter issues.
In reality, there’s likely to be a slow and steady relaxation of rules. Many institutions are finding innovative ways to make the most of the outdoors during spring, from the alfresco Minack Theatre’s staging of Bea Roberts’s And Then Come the Nightjars to Adura Onashile’s app-based audio play Ghosts, which takes individual audience members on a walking tour through Glasgow.
Drive-in cinemas and commercial art galleries are already welcoming visitors, but unlocking really begins on 17 May, when cinemas plan to reopen, with a huge backlog of delayed films, from the Oscar-tipped Nomadland to blockbuster reboots of Space Jam. Other venues will be opening at lower capacities or offering sit-down gigs, before things hopefully tick closer to normal by the summer. That, of course, will be dependent on virality and variants not gumming up Boris Johnson’s “roadmap” to the return of indoor venues. Arguments about Covid passports and exactly how many centimetres apart is a safe distance are bound to rumble on even after the first turnstiles are clicked and ticket stubs clipped.
Some things aren’t going to be like before. Many beloved venues will never reopen their doors, the burden of the pandemic too much to bear. For those that survive, precautions will remain in place and we will quickly get used to foyers filled with temperature guns and rapid tests. But some changes may also be positive. Before the pandemic it often felt as if globalised streaming services were having a negative impact on grassroots culture, the draw of London and Los Angeles on young artists undermining the UK underground (it’s been a while since a UK city has produced, for example, a scene as cohesive as breakbeat in Bristol in the 90s or bassline in Sheffield in the 00s). But with many creatives spending the year reconnecting with others from their home towns, we may find Covid will have a regenerative impact on the cultural landscape.
What’s certain now is that those who work in the arts are desperate for our patronage. For actors, artists and performers who were already working in the fine financial margins of a cultural career, the past year has been a travesty. Only our enthusiastic support will see them through.
So, if ever there was a moment to burn the candle at both ends, stay out on a school night, overcommit your calendar with advance tickets, it is now. It’s also a fantastic time to try something new. Ravers can seek out the opera programme at Longborough’s festival. Those more used to the Royal Ballet might want to let loose at a day festival in one of the royal parks.
Already there is a sense of fevered anticipation. Festivals such as End of the Road, Peckham’s Gala and crusty mecca Boomtown usually take months to sell out; this year tickets were gone in a matter of minutes. New events are being announced all the time, however, and the Guide is dedicating this issue to highlighting the best of what’s on offer in art, theatre, music, comedy and film – from pre-summer, Covid-compliant outdoor events to the full bacchanalia of hedonism that will hopefully emerge after the summer solstice.
Many will have concerns about the safety of venues and might still be struggling with the prospect of returning to society. But for those who feel ready and safe to do so, it’s time to reconnect with our senses: celebrate in dance and theatre the incredible capacity of the human body; rejoice with the potential of our limbs to be hurled across clubs and festival fields; or just revel in the thrill of the multiplex.
Next year, the government plans to hold a festival to celebrate Britain’s independence after leaving the European Union, a top-down moment of enforced artistry that may provide some acts of defiance. But the real festival of Britain feels as if it’s starting now, in parks and venues across the UK. Throw the doors wide open, it’s time to start over again.