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It is January 1st, 2020; you are probably slightly hungover from that New Year’s Eve party last night. Luckily, university only starts back up again later that month, so you have plenty of time to enjoy a life free of deadlines. You wonder how you are going to fill these next few weeks; maybe go to the cinema, go to the theatre, sit and read in a cosy café, see a concert? There is almost too much choice!
Although we’d heard rumblings of this virus called COVID-19, few feared it. We went about our lives, participating in arts and culture as normal. Campus theatre groups were continuing to practice for their end-of-term performances and coffee shops remained crammed with students unwinding from a day of study. A few weeks before lockdown restrictions were first implemented, I was sitting in a packed cinema at the Dukes watching Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Award Winning film ‘Parasite’. As we waited in the café, a jolly group of friends from mixed households were humorously joking about the coronavirus. Thinking back to that night, relaxing in the café, feeling the pre-movie buzz and basking in the atmosphere that can only be captured in a full theatre, it hits how hard everything has changed.
Seemingly overnight, the arts and culture scene across Europe was thrust into unknown territory. Theatres were closed as were live music venues, art galleries, bookshops, libraries and community centres. Many local, independent cultural organisations were naturally afraid; after years of underfunding to begin with, there were concerns that COVID-19 would be the nail in the coffin of the UK’s arts sector. Petitions, GoFundMe’s and open letters to the government filled social media.
Sitting in our houses, having little else to do other than work or eat, helped us realise something – that arts and culture is fundamental to our lives! The Royal Shakespeare Company continued their cultural education during lockdown, streaming some of their most current performances. The National Theatre ran an ‘At Home’ series of livestreams, showing critically acclaimed plays such as Nicholas Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Benedict Andrews’ A Streetcar Named Desire and Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre. We were even graced by what will likely be the first of many Covid-19 plays, with Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs; although not written with Covid in mind, its spur of the moment application of social distancing makes for a unique theatre experience.
Luckily, Arts Council England has stepped up to the fore, supporting the government’s emergency funding package and delivering their own grant funding projects. The National Lottery too must be credited for its support of arts and culture during the pandemic. With every Lancaster student’s favourite cultural hotspot, the Dukes, benefitting from these grants, we must express our gratitude. Without cultural institutions such as the Dukes or Lancaster Arts, communities would be lacking creativity, individuals would be denied an outlet, mental health would suffer, and our world would become a darker place.
Hopefully, we will soon be able to sit next to each other in the theatre. I relish the thought of having to awkwardly shuffle to my seat in the middle of a full row when I’ve trickled in a minute before the film starts! I look forward to laughing or crying with others over a hard-hitting film, sharing and living in the moment together. Hopefully, when all this is over, we will remember what eased the pain of the pandemic – it was the arts.