“It’s been a really intense two weeks,” says Jonty Claypole, director of arts at the BBC. He speaks for everyone. Most of us can barely recognise our lives from just a few weeks ago, and Claypole’s job, now that staying in has become the new going out, has acquired a sharp new focus. “When we began to go into lockdown,” he says, “I saw that the role of BBC Arts over the coming months is going to be about keeping culture alive in people’s lives.”
The BBC’s first priority, in an emergency of this magnitude, is undoubtedly factual, he adds. But he echoes the sentiments of Ben Okri on these pages a fortnight ago: that in times of crisis the arts become more important, not less.
“We know that the impact of arts and creativity on mental health is massive,” says Claypole. “And mental health is going to be a huge issue over the coming months of isolation. There are a lot of people whose greatest solace comes from culture, from books, from music. If arts and culture disappeared over the next few months, it would have a big impact on wellbeing.”
His job, as he sees it now, is to stop that from happening. The result is Culture in Quarantine, an expansive virtual arts festival running across all platforms (radio, television and digital). The task, says Claypole, is essentially twofold: first, to bring music, drama, dance, visual arts and even a virtual book festival to the millions confined at home; and, second, to support artists whose projects and livelihoods have evaporated overnight.
In practice, that has meant sending art critic Alastair Sooke into Tate Modern to film the Warhol exhibition just as it was being mothballed, as part of a new Museums in Quarantine series. Further plans include Simon Schama presenting the Young Rembrandt exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, and James Fox delivering a “visual essay” on the works in Tate Britain that resonate most sharply with the current crisis.
Peering into the nation’s shuttered galleries is something Claypole hopes to continue. “Our national collections are, to a degree, the soul of the nation,” he says. “They carry our history, our customs, our identity. To keep getting cameras in there when the doors are closed is really important.”
There will surely be a bittersweet feel to watching these films: a glimpse of what is, for the moment, lost to us. Possibly the most poignant will be footage of National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi closing down the recent Titian exhibition just days after it opened.
“Those Titian paintings were commissioned as a suite,” Claypole is keen to point out. “They hadn’t been together for 300 years, they were brought back together — and three days later the exhibition closes.”
An even keener loss, perhaps, are the live arts — all suddenly gone, overnight. “Now is a moment when we realise how important the live communal experience is and we crave it,” Claypole agrees. “And I think as we come out of this crisis, we are going to be looking for it.”
How, though, to plug that gap in the meantime? The Culture in Quarantine plans include becoming a “repertory theatre for audiences at home”. But what does that mean in practice? It’s one thing to guide a camera around a gallery, but how do you replicate the communal experience of live drama, dance or music?
One resource, says Claypole, is to expedite the broadcast of recently filmed live theatre, such as Mike Bartlett’s state-of-the-nation play Albion and Emma Rice’s joyous rollercoaster of a show Wise Children, based on the Angela Carter novel.
He has linked up too with other companies — including the RSC, Birmingham Royal Ballet and the BalletBoyz — to broadcast their filmed productions, and can draw on the BBC’s own large bank of audio and screen drama (such as Hamlet with Andrew Scott). And while the online experience can’t reproduce the buzz of watching, live, in a packed auditorium, it can bring the sort of proximity to actors’ expressions only dreamt of at the back of the stalls.
These are shows that have already made it on to the stage. The trickier issue is how to generate fresh content. With rehearsals out of the question during lockdown, all the original drama about to reach fruition has been stopped in its tracks. Might the crisis prompt different ways of working — and, indeed, storylines that reflect our current predicament? Could the video conference, suddenly a staple of daily working life, become something altogether more delightful in the hands of a playwright?
“I’m definitely in the market for that,” says Claypole. “I’d love to see that screen with nine actors doing a live reading of a great play with a great director. [On screen] is increasingly where our emotional lives are happening, so there is a huge creative opportunity there — not because it’s a gimmick, but because it’s the reality.”
He adds that artists are already finding innovative ways of working and new subjects to dramatise. David Greig’s next play Adventures with the Painted People, for instance, originally headed for the stage, is now being recorded as an audio play, with the team working remotely around the UK, and will have its premiere on BBC Radio 3. Meanwhile, a link-up with the National Theatre of Scotland will deliver Scenes for Survival, a series of original theatre pieces to be both broadcast and streamed online.
The BBC’s role as a large-scale commissioner becomes critical now, says Claypole. A new Culture in Quarantine fund, in partnership with Arts Council England, will enable 25 artists of any discipline to produce work in creative media — video, audio and interactive — under self-isolation principles. And he can see other fresh forms of dramatic storytelling emerging.
“We’re still at the start of this experience. But you can certainly imagine how you could have a room set up with cameras, as if for a documentary, and then have actors coming in at different times or being a large distance from each other. I think we will start seeing different forms of drama that reflect this period we are living through now.”
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And perhaps one upside of a very bleak period is that new ideas, methods, platforms and partnerships could emerge. Meanwhile, streaming more theatre and dance into people’s living rooms may switch a whole new audience on to live performance — even those who previously felt it wasn’t for them — when it finally comes back.
“I don’t think the world will ever be the same and I don’t think arts and culture will ever be the same again afterwards,” says Claypole. “There’s going to be a lot of difficult stuff because arts organisations are under extreme strain. But I think there’s going to be a shift in how we produce and consume culture that will stay with us beyond the crisis.”
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