Theatre is a tricky medium in a pandemic, when every measure designed to limit its spread tries to keep people at a distance. Actors and directors have been forced to rethink how they can make theatre possible, a discipline which relies on shared experiences of shared space.
But as the threat of COVID-19 wanes in Canberra and gathering restrictions are eased, there is hope local productions will be able to reach new and expanded local audiences in a period where fewer large, touring shows will make it to town.
The Canberra Youth Theatre's production of Katie Pollock's Normal will open next week in the Playhouse at the Canberra Theatre Centre, a far bigger stage than usually envisaged for one of the company's productions.
The play, which was originally programmed to open in May, was postponed and the cast had to adapt to rehearsing on Zoom.
The play is inspired by the story of nearly two dozen girls in Le Roy, New York who began to experience involuntary twitching in 2011. A controversial diagnosis of mass psychogenic illness followed, which found the symptoms were a result of heightened attention from news and social media.
Pollock, who received a play-writing scholarship which took her to New York and gave her the chance to talk to people in Le Roy (population: 7427), said there were now uncanny parallels with the coronavirus pandemic.
"I think it's quite a provocative play. It asks quite provocative questions at quite a deep level, disguised as this mystery of how this thing happened. Really the invitation is there for audiences to enter it and think deeply about those questions. Questions about capitalism, about society, about social responsibility, about ... expectations on our young people," Pollock said.
Actor McKenzie Battye-Smith said the parallels did not stop at exploring viral transmission.
"The play deals with so many of the social anxieties that coronavirus has activated in our communities - fear, vilification, and the othering of those who are seen as a threat," Battye-Smith said.
Canberra Youth Theatre artistic director Luke Rogers, who is directing Normal, said it had been positive to use the lockdown period to rehearse and prepare a play featuring emerging local professional artists for Canberra.
"I think there is also a lot of heart in the work, about the bonds that tie people. We talk about communities falling apart, but I think it also highlights the bonds that do hold us together, and those relationships. Especially those female relationships, the mother-daughter relationships, the relationships that are forged in adolescence and how that also kind of starts to define how we relate to others as our lives go on," Rogers said.
Rogers said while main-stage shows from Sydney and Melbourne were not coming there was a good opportunity for Canberra audiences to see local work.
"And I think one of the great things about this play and this production is that a lot of the work we're trying to do here at Canberra Youth Theatre is that we're producing work of the same calibre and quality as any other theatre company, it just happens to have young people as its point of focus. That's the point of difference.
"Youth theatre is not less-than theatre; it is the same quality, it is as challenging, it is as intelligent and thought-provoking as any of the work you will see come from interstate."
An August survey of arts audiences in Canberra and the surrounding region, conducted by arts consultancy Patternmakers, found 66 per cent of people would begin attending events in person when the risk of viral transmission was low, while a third of people had already returned.
- Normal opens at the Playhouse on Thursday. Tickets available from Canberra Theatre Centre.