Performance in The New Normal
Careena Fenton-Cullen 5th November 2020
Saturday 3rd October was a day of optimism and hope! It was the first day back in a theatre performing since the beginning of lockdown in March 2020. Like many working in performing arts, I watched in horror as every single show cancelled. Since then it has been a catalogue of postponements and cancellations. I have gone from a performer who used to perform professionally at least 3 times a week to zero live shows.
The pivot from working to not working, or working a little online has been harsh. Before Covid-19, I created my shows to be “immersive”, audiences were “intimate” and the atmosphere spooky. Audiences touched and held props. Volunteers were on stage. In fact, I had very few set pieces of magic that didn’t involve people being on stage with me, or holding onto mysterious objects. This is all now impossible whilst the pandemic rages on.
I tried to re-work my show “Phantasmagorical” to be an online experience, but to be honest my heart wasn’t in it. It worked in a live theatre setting and there it will stay. The buzzwords for the show were: "full immersion into the world of the Victorian Seance." The ideal performance setting for the show was a small theatre, or strange and intimate venues from museums such as The Old Operating Theatre in London, to Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol. I felt that to rip the show apart and patch it up for an online show felt like creating Frankenstein’s monster. It wasn’t going to end well. In an attempt to stay financially afloat and mentally buoyant I needed to create something new. So back to the drawing board it was! One of the benefits of lockdown is that I have applied myself to acquiring new skills. I have been working on new material that is no – touch magic with zero volunteers on stage as well as online shows for families.
Newhampton Arts Centre contacted me in September. The idea was to road test the new normal regime of a socially distanced show and audience. The brief was simple but stark. It had to be a show that was entirely no touch and with no volunteers on the stage. Could I do this? Yes, I could. Finally the new material that I have been working on would have a real live audience! The show was to be for a family audience of invited members of the public. The aim was to help people feel confident about returning to the theatre. It was also to pilot the rigorous health and safety measures now in place at Newhampton Arts Centre. As well as my first return to the stage, it was the first time the Newhampton Arts Centre opened it’s doors to an audience since March 2020. We were all on new territory.
The protection measures at Newhampton Arts Centre are exemplary. One week before the show Wolverhampton’s Covid Risk rate went into the “high” zone. We also have local lockdown so no mixing of households. I did question the rationality of performing the show under these heightened conditions. Would it be wiser to wait until the Covid risk had dropped to low or even medium before we all went inside the theatre? Public Health at Wolverhampton Council advised that the Covid-19 infection rate was higher in the home than in public areas. Plus, a quick chat with the managerial team at Newhampton allayed my fears. The Health and Safety procedures at the NAC are commendable. They include a new one way system and increased cleaning. The audiences sat at tables and chairs within their bubbles of six and remained seated for the whole show. When not in their seats masks were worn. The nearest tables of audience were three metres away from the front of the stage and I performed mid stage. The audience were not to cheer, shout, sing or dance. Clapping is still thankfully allowed! No one came on stage other than myself and no one touched anything that did not belong to them. When not performing I wore my mask too. Everyone checked in on the NHS track and trace app and all details were also held via the box office too. No precautions were missed and no shortcuts taken.
The experience of performing in the new normal was interesting but still joyful! Health and safety meant that I had to get all my props in unaided as unnecessary handling creates risk. As is always the case, it was pouring with rain and so the kit was all got in by my bedraggled self. Once inside the theatre, social distancing and mask wearing continued. Uncomfortable but necessary. The tech and box office team were on top form as always. It was fabulous to see friends and colleagues who I have not seen for months!
My first thoughts about the new theatre layout is how far away the audience were. There is a common agreement between performers that no one wants to perform on the dance floor of doom. This is where the performer is stuck alone on the dance floor and everyone sits miles away around the outside of the square. The physical distance does not create a good atmosphere. This was a little like that. The new safe capacity of the theatre is now 42 with distancing. Pre-Covid the capacity was 140 tiered and 130 cabaret. The audience were so far away from each other and also from me. It was going to be tough to create any atmosphere of conviviality. Luckily there is one thing that traverses cavernous spaces and breaks down barriers and that is laughter. Laughter has not been banned and to hear people laughing is an absolute tonic. It was great! Of course, it’s difficult to encourage children not to shout out. Other ways of interaction such as clicking fingers, stamping feet and pointing are good ways of communicating. I dropped a lot of my material because the very nature of magic for children is that you do get them to interact and they do call out. They can’t help it. Thats what kids do. In spite of encouraging the audience to wiggle their fingers or do the universal sign language of applause, the odd little shout out did slip out. Everyone sat so far apart from each other that risk of aerosol transmission was low.
I’m pleased to report that my new visual rather than participative magic was successful. It all went very well and everyone had a good time! Newhampton Arts Centre has received good feedback both about the show and how safe they felt at the venue which was positive for future performances. The downside of performing in the new normal is everything takes twice as long as it did before. The loading, unloading, tracking, going around the one way system for the loo… Also the staggered, leaving and arrival of the audience takes longer. Is it worth it? Yes, you can watch a tv programme and never leave your home and it will be enjoyable, even fun. But nothing beats the shared experience and magic of being in a theatre!
I have also performed a bizarre magic Seance themed show at Magic Alley walkthrough attraction in Stratford Upon Avon. For two nights the attraction hosted myself and another magician. The audience were only allowed to purchase group 'bubble' tickets for staggered group 'bubble' arrivals and multiple staggered shows. Tom performed his own socially distanced show in his own room, then the small audience bubbles made their way to my room for another show. This meant we were performing shows for groups of twos, threes and the maximum group at any time was a group of four. Again my entire performance was no touch and socially distant, I was also behind a perspex screen. Before the show went ahead at the end of October 2020, the law came into effect that all people must wear masks whilst in an attraction, museum or shop. With that in mind, some audience members wore their masks whilst watching my performance. This was unsettling to me whilst performing. Unable to see facial expressions and reactions was disconcerting. In a seance theatre style performance, audience reactions are different. I don't encourage an audience to applause. Each effect and sequence of performance isn't delivered as a "show" but rather as an experience. Facial expressions are very useful in gaging the effect of an "experience."
The staggered performances for small audiences impacts finance. Pre-Covid the "bubbles' would have sat all together and watched as one. In the "new normal," smaller audiences impact the financial gain versus time dilemma. With a government that deems my profession as "unviable", I am digging my heels in harder. The viability of my profession has meant I have paid taxes on my income for 25 years. Viability is that I now perform online in different time zones. If viability is live events for smaller audiences for longer, then so be it.
bizarre magic, covid, seance, engagement, theatre, bizarre, entertainer, magic
How to Cite
Fenton, C., (2021) “Performance in The New Normal”, Journal of Performance Magic 6(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.5920/jpm.826