Space and time
Director James Bonas describes the impact of lockdown and explains how this crisis could be an opportunity to find new ways of telling stories
It’s as if a tsunami came up from behind and washed everything away. We were left standing on our own, everything having disappeared. For a director, it crystallises the realisation that you exist only in collaboration with others. It’s through relationships that things happen. Work only exists between people – whether between the actors, the actor and audience, or the director and all the people they’re working with.
The shock of having the rest of the year’s work disappear was caustic. Those relationships collapsed. The conversations with designers in Lisbon or New York stopped. We call each other to see that everyone is okay, but the threads that would normally pull us together like a cobweb towards the rehearsal period and production are suddenly cut away. I don’t sit around being miserable, but it’s been surprisingly disorientating.
Many of my friends can carry on their work and when lockdown ends, they’ll go back to their offices, but whatever role you give culture, it’s hard to argue that you should open an opera or theatre company before you open a restaurant, and a restaurant before schools. If you ask most people about their hierarchy of needs, it is more important for them to go for a meal or a drink in a pub.
In the UK the need to bring back football has been vocalised much more than for theatre – there’s a sense that if we don’t bring back football soon there will be a riot. The conversation in France is quite different – the relationship with culture there is much more civically based. You can hear it in what President Macron says.
‘One of the good things about the arts is that we’re all doing it because we want to and therefore we won’t stop – we’ll just find ways’
The ramifications of this crisis for the arts are not all bad, but there will be many people who lose their jobs – both inside and outside the arts, especially those who are just starting out. If you just left drama school or music college last year, it’s hard. However, one of the good things about the arts is that we’re all doing it because we want to and therefore we won’t stop – we’ll just find ways.
The challenges and disruption of the crisis will force us to respond, so there will be a massive eruption of creativity. It may be hard for the oil tankers of the creative world to change direction, because they’ve got a certain momentum, but small companies that are more connected to grass roots can shift quite fast.
‘When we come back, I don’t want to lose everything we have, but I do want to find other ways to explore the forms’
This could lead to an explosion in investigating how to make art forms extraordinary and exciting, by releasing some of the parameters of the theatre and concert hall going. When we come back, I don’t want to lose everything we have, but I do want to find other ways to explore the forms. I want to throw the whole thing in the air and see what happens.
The model of classical arts consumption has shifted very little in the last hundred years. It remains mostly middle aged and older white people watching and doing things. There may be a few younger white people watching things in car parks, but otherwise it can become about a glass of white wine in the interval and ‘Where shall I park the car?’ In one American venue where I worked, most of the audience left without applauding because they wanted to avoid the queue for the car park exit barrier.
It can seem desperate when opera tries to make itself seem funky, and doing so doesn’t usually change the fundamental nature of the audience’s experience anyway, so we need to take care in our approach to broadening its appeal.
We need to disrupt the form. I’m interested in celebrating what we do in theatre and music through different media, rather than just reframing old ways or simply filming the stage. I was already doing this last year in conversation with various people and the virus has crystallised it into a need.
Filming a stage is fine but we need a form with its own internal validity. For example, we could tell the story of an opera on a phone or through Virtual or Augmented Reality. Virtual Reality is still in its infancy and quite cack-handed and expensive at the moment, but it will get better, so that’s a line of investigation. There’s also a way you can give an opera audience a partial autonomy over their route through a story – like Punchdrunk does with theatre, or as the last episode of Black Mirror series did with television. With an opera video you might watch dancers without even seeing the singers.
‘Once you’ve released the parameters, why not deconstruct the form altogether? It’s about understanding how story-telling works’
Once you’ve released the parameters, why not deconstruct the form altogether? It’s about understanding how story-telling works. Some people say, ‘A show must be longer than 45 minutes otherwise no one is going to buy a ticket,’ but if you’re doing it through a different medium you could do it in six minutes and it might be incredible. You could segment a story into different time frames.
It’s exciting to pick up this disruptive energy in a positive away. Normally, when I’m busy I don’t have much space because I bounce from one thing to the next. I’m working four or five projects ahead, as well as the current one, and making plans about others. It’s plate spinning. One thing this time has afforded me is that suddenly the plates have all fallen down, so I’ve had more space and time to think creatively and constructively.