The Future of Performing Arts Societies in a Socially Distanced World

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Rehearsals of King's Opera 'The Magic Flute' and King's Musical Theatre 'Big Fish', which were both cancelled due to Covid-19. Photography by Saffy Sey and Xanthe Stonehouse-Pope

Roar writer Elena Veris Reynolds discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the future of KCL’s performing arts societies. 

We’re lucky to have a lively student performing arts scene at King’s, including many musical, dramatic and dance societies. However, the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic posed a real problem for many of these societies, as many of their activities rely on close personal contact at rehearsals, workshops and shows. In the case of the Dance Society, King’s Opera and King’s Musical Theatre, large-scale shows and concerts mere days away had to be cancelled. Plans for the rest of the academic year had to be put on hold. The future for next year is also uncertain, and with very little in the way of guidance for close contact activities, even the existence of these societies may be under threat.

Despite the difficulties that social distancing imposed, many performance societies have done their best to adapt to online activities. The KCL Jazz Society are currently organising several virtual performances, including of Sammy Nestico’s ‘Strike Up The Band’ and Glenn Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade,’ featuring musicians from across multiple departments at King’s. Similarly, the Modern Music Society held a virtual performance of John Cage’s 4’33”, which they say was a “bonding moment” that allowed musicians to appreciate the universal experience of silence.

Another alternative some have turned to is written media. The leading student theatre society, The King’s Players, are organising a ‘zine’ that will allow members to showcase their creative pursuits, and are dedicating it to the many theatres in the UK that are on the brink of shutting down (they are looking for graphic designers to collaborate with). Similarly, KCL Comedy Society have founded a new satire column in conjunction with Roar News called ‘Maughan Hub’ and are currently recruiting writers. Social media has also been a useful tool, with Dance Society holding online dance and yoga sessions on Facebook and Instagram. They told Roar they wanted to focus on mental health and introduce their members to different coping strategies, as well as raise money for good causes along the way.

Unfortunately, there is only so much that can ever be done online, especially in societies that are traditionally focused on shows and concerts. Many had concerns about how the logistics of their societies would function. The Rolling Tones, King’s female a cappella ensemble, told us that not being able to meet in person would be difficult, as “so much of a cappella is about the blend of the group’s voices.” KCL Breakin’, who have been holding street dance classes and battles online, told Roar they are only a “pale imitation” of in-person activities.

Perhaps an even bigger worry relates to the fact that a lot of these societies get the majority of their funding from the revenue of ticket sales. Many expressed concerns that if they are unable to put on shows, their societies’ finances will suffer, with the King’s Players telling Roar they have to majorly rethink where they will get their funding from in order to sustain their projects next year.

A lack of guidelines from the government or KCLSU isn’t helping with any of these concerns, leaving these societies in a precarious position and making planning anything for next year very difficult. When contacted about guidance, KCLSU said they were unable to confirm any details regarding capacity, times or guidelines for societies, other than that student groups should “plan for digital activities for now” and wait for more information.

The GKT Music society, who run a non-auditioned choir and orchestra, told Roar they have contingency plans to hold all rehearsals and concerts online, but expressed that this was far from ideal. Other societies, such as the KCL Symphony Orchestra, are planning to hold smaller scale ensembles and rehearsals. Another blow came in the form of the Philosophy Bar shutting down. The KCLSU venue, which will not open again in September, provided a vital informal performance space. KCL Comedy Society expressed their sadness at the closure, describing it as “cosy hub for a lot of performing societies.”

It is clear that life at King’s will look very different next year, and performance societies may have to adapt and change very quickly to keep up with the situation. However, there is hope, and the online activities organised by these societies so far have not only provided some solace through the lockdown, but have laid out a blueprint for how things might function next year.

All interviews were conducted virtually.

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