THERE was no “formula” in place for the local theatre industry should a global pandemic suddenly emerge.
But it was forced into developing one after the onset of the covid19 pandemic in 2020. Shows were cancelled, venues shut down and many pockets became empty.
But Naparima Bowl CEO Marlon De Bique said while it has been a year filled with ups and downs, those involved in the performing arts are gradually beginning to get glimmers of hope.
On March 13, 2020, there were only two recorded covid19 cases in this country. But as a precautionary measure, performing arts spaces, among other facilities, were closed.
It wasn’t until July 1 that they began reopening, beginning with Queen’s Hall. The Naparima Bowl followed on July 6.
De Bique told Newsday the challenging part wasn’t just adjusting to the new normal, but doing so in a short space of time.
“When you talk about things like social distancing – social distancing by nature does not apply to the performing arts. How do you socially distance in a discipline that requires interaction, close proximity for actors, singers – specifically chorale singers…Bands and orchestras and bands, and in some cases, dancers. How does that work?
“So we had to look at procedures and guidelines for performers.”
Performing arts spaces are now allowed to operate at 50 per cent capacity, cafeterias are closed and production crews must consist of 40 people or fewer. And as much as music may make you want to move around and dance, patrons must remain in their designated seats.
But even before these facilities were officially closed, De Bique had a fair idea of what was to come.
“We knew that when they closed the schools, Music Festival would be shut down. The majority of Music Festival is schools – a lot of primary and secondary schools…And we were in the school round, we did not even get to the adult category yet…Bookings started to cancel because no one could have said in the foreseeable future ‘I can do my show in six months’ time or eight months’ time’…”
Through “some of the bigger acts” he said, the public has been made aware of how the entertainment industry has been affected by the pandemic.
But De Bique believes the public still does not have a “clear picture.
“We might hear it from the larger, the bigger artistes because they’re more public and so on…but there are a lot of artistes who lost it who didn’t have any income – they lost income.”
For instance, costume designers and musicians who depended heavily on the performing arts and even Carnival.
“There’s no formula for this. No one prepared for this,” he said. “Prior to November, we still had events, but they weren’t live-audience events. So we had a couple of concerts and that is where the pivoting comes in… November was the real, clear opening time for us. So the whole of November, we were booked and we actually did three events back to back. We were happy artistes were still willing to do doing their shows.
“With a space like ours, you have to immediately think about how to repurpose, because we were just thinking social distancing, (which) means no audience, and we didn’t know (for) how long. So we had to pivot quickly and present ourselves as a space for livestream events.”
De Bique said a lot of people have booked the theatre for live-streamed concerts, to record audition tapes, music videos, shows to be broadcast at a later time, etc in recent months. There have also been quite a few live shows in which audiences were allowed.
He said there was “constant educating of the staff,” as they learnt new skills in the areas of video editing, landscaping and lighting as they adapted to the changes they were faced with.
In addition, he said, some performers had to learn – albeit the hard way – about copyright infringement. For instance, getting a warning notification during a live stream from Sony saying one of its songs is being used in the background of the video.
But he said many people improved on time management and innovation, mostly because they were left with no choice. The number of “blighs” that could be given before could not continue.
“The theatre is difficult in that (way) because it’s about creative direction as well,” he said. “If your play requires ten people, how do I turn that into five? You can’t tell a producer he can’t have 30 people in his show and he says, ‘My show has 30 people, that’s the piece I designed.’ So now artistes have to now reconceptualise: ‘How do I scale down this show to five? How do I scale down this big dance number I first conceptualised to three and still get the same impact?’ So that creative direction, that artistic direction side is very much at the centre of all this activity.”
The turnout at events has been good thus far, said De Bique, with upcoming events like primary schools’ graduation ceremonies, an anniversary concert for Fonclaire Steelpan Orchestra and a jazz show by Vaughnette Bigford.
There are handwashing stations at several areas outside the theatre, in addition to sanitiser dispensers and thermal scanners, and a log of all who enters is kept for contact-tracing purposes.
Many performers have been opting for the amphitheatre, as they feel more relaxed in the outdoor environment.
“Remember, you’re shifting from this live focus to a virtual focus, and even after covid, virtual will never disappear...
Before, many of the concerns for audiences were: “‘Sir, you can’t take any pictures. Sir, no chewing of gum.’
But, said, “That became the least of our worries during the pandemic. Our concerns were ‘Ma’am, please put on your mask,’ ‘Sir, please put on your mask.’ We can’t allow a slip towards our protocol.”
With covid19 case numbers currently on the rise, some businesses have been concerned it may end up being a “Peter pay for Paul” situation once again.
Asked if he is worried about theatre shutting down again, De Bique said, “It’s not a worry, it’s an awareness. And for me, as the manager here, that is something I am constantly on – every media conference, every statement…
“Thank God the Prime Minister wore his pretty shirt (on Saturday),” he joked. “When I saw the shirt I was like “Right, no lockdown, theatres could remain open.”
He said the venue has been able to work more economically and efficiently despite all the challenges faced.
“It was a challenge, yes, but in that challenge, you have to see the opportunity. You can’t just say, ‘I cya do nothing again, covid is going to lock us down.’ Covid is very real and we don’t take it lightly at all, but while that is the reality, you have to think, ‘How do I maintain relevance? How do I show our clients and artistes there is still a possibility of work?’”The Naparima Bowl has to set an example, he believes.
“We are not just a venue. We are a very integral part of the performing arts community.”