As we tentatively emerge from our third lockdown in the course of the strangest of years it is possible to glimpse the ways in which our cultural lives might be returning to some kind of ‘normal.’ For example in recent days, we have seen the first steps towards the return of audiences and participants at sporting and social events. Mark Selby lifted his fourth World Snooker Championship crown in front of a capacity crowd in Sheffield; football has been played in front of fans, V&A Dundee welcomed visitors back with an exploration of the relationship between club culture and design: Night Fever, Designing Club Culture and some of Liverpool’s clubbers were able to dance a night away while simultaneously providing an opportunity for policy advisors and policy makers to test the waters regarding wisdom of enabling us to emerge from lockdown and make a return to our former patterns of cultural and social engagement. In these events – and the managed return to co-proximity and co-presence that they signify – it’s possible to recognise and return to what can seem as a former life (though, Brighton Pride has been cancelled for the second year running demonstrating that the route back to ‘normality’ is not free of obstacles).

 

While successive lockdowns have presented cultural and sporting sectors with very significant challenges over the course of the preceding 18 months it is notable that the new normal has also compelled these sectors to explore alternative avenues of audience engagement and, to develop and embrace a variety of different ways to enable access to culture and sport. Tokyo 2020 has already been rescheduled to take place in 2021. It has been confirmed that live audiences will be limited to local spectators and speculation about the likelihood of the Games going ahead persists (though recent successful test events have provided some encouragement), Early on in lockdown, some live football was made available on free to air television and, recently, although the crowds have largely been absent, a number of sporting events have been able to proceed (with safeguards in place). Progression towards a more normal sport-spectating experience has seen the annual suffer-fest that is the Boat Race take to the water in rural Cambridgeshire rather than central London, the European Championships in Rowing and Gymnastics went ahead in Varese, Italy and Basel, Switzerland.

 

While some sport has resumed albeit without – or with far fewer – fans, sectors such as theatre and cinema currently remain closed. Plans for socially distanced reopening include reduced capacity, staggered arrival times, enhanced cleaning and ventilation, shorter running times and the absence of intervals along with regular reminders for audience members to continue wear their facemasks while seated.  This is not to say that theatre has been absent over the course of the pandemic. In fact, the opposite has been the case. The National Theatre launched National Theatre from Home as an initially free (now subscription-based) service streaming plays on the NT’s YouTube channel and offering the opportunity of participation in a regular National Theatre Quiz Night compered by the likes of Helen Mirren and Lenny Henry. Available worldwide, the At Home service was a significant virtual hit, screening 17 productions and garnering more than 15m views from audiences in more than 170 countries through its first months of operation.

A variety of festivals and events have transitioned towards online delivery. V&A Dundee’s current exhibition extends an invitation for would be clubbers to ‘Tay Late’ and party into the night (online).  The second edition of the Paisley Book Festival was an entirely virtual affair, Glasgow’s Film Festival also made the leap to online. While their attendance at their 2020 event exceeded 43,000, the 2021 festival reached a comparable audience of 41,191. Edinburgh International Film Festival took a Drive Thru approach to delivery. It was recently confirmed that the city’s world renowned International Festival will return this year in a reimagined format utilising temporary outdoor pavilions ‘to safely reunite artists and audiences to rediscover the magic of live performance.’

As we continue to emerge from lockdown and, to negotiate our return to social, cultural and sporting participation it will be hugely interesting to see which of the changes and adaptations made (or expedited) as a response to the pandemic remain and are developed further and, which among them fall away. Will changes in audience behaviour prove to be permanent or temporary? Have hybrid approaches to engagement reached new audiences and/ or successfully maintained ‘old’ ones? Can the organisations delivering sports, festivals, events, arts and culture do so in a manner that is financially viable?

Over the coming months, the answers to some of these questions will become clearer, likely providing much food for thought along the way and, for some time to come.