ANALYSIS | Silencing the applause: culture and entertainment in the time of a virus

Fewer and fewer people will be risking their lives by venturing outside their homes as they stream entertainment from the comfort of their couches while blissfully unaware that those behind their favourite shows are going through a crippling time, writes Herman Eloff.

It is believed that iconic playwright William Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine. 

The social media folktale is that while forced into isolation, Shakespeare wrote some of his most impactful work of his career.  

Although we can’t be sure that Shakespeare was ever in quarantine or self-isolation, we do know that London was hit with a deadly plague in the early 1590s and again in 1603.

King Lear was reportedly written between 1603 and 1606.  

During the outbreak of the plague, theatres shut their doors to curb the spread of the disease that left thousands dead and bodies piling up in the most impoverished parts of the city.

It’s reported that Shakespeare spent this time writing new plays and poetry as an alternate source of income. 

The plague and everything that happened around it had a profound impact on the literary giant’s work and when the cloud of dismay finally lifted, the crowds returned to their seats to be entertained once more.  

Leap forward to the year 2020 and a deadly pandemic is spreading across the globe at rapid pace, wiping out whole generations in countries such as Italy.

It might sound like the next big budget Hollywood blockbuster, only it’s not.

It is, for now, our current state of being.  

Across the world stages are abandoned, cinemas ghostly quiet, and social gatherings disappearing.

What will the impact of that be on a society that so heavily depends on creative outlets to escape the mundaneness of life?

Even more important and heartbreaking, what will the effect of that be on those that make a living from the arts?

Not just the ones we see on stage or on our screens, but also those behind-the-scenes keeping the wheel turning. 

According to Sharif Baker from the Technical Production Services Association (TPSA) which forms part of the Southern African Communications Industries Association (Sacia) the effect of Covid-19 on the live entertainment and events industry was immediate. 

“Within 30 minutes after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement events were being cancelled and postponed.

It happened instantly,” Baker explained the impact of the president’s call to ban all gatherings with more than 100 people to curb the spread of the virus which is transmitted from one person to another through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.  

“There are currently no events taking place. Everything has dropped off the calendar,” a concerned Baker says over the phone.

“March and April are the busy months before heading into winter. There’s no plan B and people still have bills to pay.”

On Wednesday South Africa’s Independent Producers’ Organisation (IPO) released a statement echoing similar concerns: “Many of our members are battling to formulate the right action with regards to projects already in production or about to start production.

“We are all mindful of the fact that we are potentially putting a large amount of people at risk by continuing to shoot, and that we might participate in the exacerbation of this national and worldwide health disaster by not containing the spread of the virus. 

“At the same time, we, as producers, are responsible for the jobs of thousands of our freelance cast and crew and are also very mindful of the economic implications of suspending or cancelling a shoot,” the IPO said before adding: “In addition, in the vast majority of cases, legal liability would ordinarily rest with the producer.

“We are therefore the ones bearing the brunt of the risks – financial and otherwise, if we continue with a film or TV shoot in order to honour our commitments to broadcasters and clients despite the current pandemic, or if we suspend it to protect the lives of our people and find ourselves in breach of our contractual obligations.

“We are therefore caught between a rock and a very hard place.” 

The Fugard Theatre shut its doors with immediate effect and put out a call to its patrons asking for support during a time when it would effectively have no income, but still bills to pay: “The Fugard Theatre is a fully independent organisation which receives no grants or subsidies to keep our doors open. We rely on the success of our ticket sales and our bar, both of which are currently not operational due to the Covid-19 outbreak.”  

The Baxter Theatre asked those who have booked tickets for a show at any theatre or event to consider donating their tickets rather than requesting for a refund.

“The livelihood of many performing arts professionals is at stake as the world tries to respond to and manage the coronavirus pandemic. The Baxter would like to encourage that this option be kindly considered,” said the statement. 

On social media, #KeepYourTicket soon started circulating as organisers of big events and festivals hoped the generosity of its fans and followers would help them through its darkest hour.  

Shortly after Ramaphosa’s announcement South African actor and comedian Rob van Vuuren wrote : “I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bond. Next month I’ll be wondering how I’m going to feed my family.” 

If Italy, which has been the hardest hit by the virus outside of China with more than 2 500 deaths and counting, is the benchmark we’re following then it’s clear that social distancing and avoiding public space is not just “the best” option but the only option.  

Self-isolation helps in flattening the curve of the spread of the virus. Flattening of the curve refers to drastically decreasing the rate of infections over a longer period of time in order to put less strain on fragile healthcare systems.

A sudden spike in the curve would mean an influx of sick people that need urgent medical care – something South Africa simply isn’t set up for.  

News24 on Thursday reported that the president was told that a slow and inadequate response by government to the outbreak, could result in anywhere between 87 900 and 351 000 deaths in South Africa and cause the health system to be overwhelmed.

What we know now that Italy didn’t previously, is that Covid-19 is far more contagious and deadlier than the flu.  

That means that preventative measures are likely to increase.

Fewer and fewer people will be risking their lives by venturing outside their homes as they stream entertainment from the comfort of their couches while blissfully unaware that those behind their favourite shows are going through a crippling time.

A time that many won’t be able to recover from.  

The entertainment industry has been forced to leave the stage, switch off the lights, and shut its doors as Covid-19 silenced the applause.

For now, we’re hiding in isolation as we wait to see just how disruptive this deadly disease will be and how long its tail of destruction.  

But be assured, the day will come when the dragon will be slayed, and we’ll again be able to give a roaring round of applause to those that braved the storm.

What a sweet, sweet sound that will be. 

– Herman Eloff is Channel24 Editor

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