What Theatre Teaches Us About Preparing for Disaster

By David Finnigan

People have described COVID as a rehearsal for the oncoming crises of climate and global change. If it is, it’s a very particular kind of rehearsal that theatre-makers know as the “stumble through.”

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In the process of rehearsing a new theatre show, one of the key moments is what’s called the “stumble through.”

Rehearsals start with script readings sitting around a table, or improvisations to create new scenes. From there you progress to “blocking” – determining how the performers move – and character work. At a point, when you’ve looked at all the individual pieces of the show, you’re ready for the stumble through.

This is the first full run of the show, from beginning to end. In a typical rehearsal, you isolate an element of the show and focus on that in detail. But in the stumble through, you include everything: lights, sound, choreography – all of it.

It is, without fail, an exhausting and humbling experience. The show you thought was coming along well turns out to be a total mess. The jokes aren’t funny, the story is incoherent, and the tech doesn’t work. The best you can say about the stumble through is that it’s the low point in the process, so at least things tend to improve from there.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many people have described COVID as a kind of rehearsal for the oncoming crises of climate and global change. But in my view as a theatre-maker, it’s not a typical rehearsal – it’s a stumble through.

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The early phase of the pandemic was a perfect illustration of governments utterly failing to rise to the challenge before them. In London, the early weeks of March saw COVID cases rise on a steep exponential curve. You could see the wave coming towards you, knowing it was going to break right over your head, while the politicians insisted that we weren’t going into lockdown, no matter what.

I was due to perform at a UK festival in mid-March, and it was clear to everyone involved that it was going to be a disaster. And yet, no-one felt like they could walk away first. As an artist, if I cancelled my spot while the festival was still going ahead, I would breach my contract and waive my fee. If the festival canceled while the official health advice was still to proceed, it wouldn’t be covered by insurance for its losses. So everyone waited for the government to acknowledge the obvious, and the government… well.

Of course, when action finally came, it was drastic, it was extreme, it was far less effective than it could have been, and it was already too late for tens of thousands of people.

The feeling of dread in those early weeks of March was horrible, but also familiar. In some ways, we’ve lived our whole life in March 2020. The wave bearing down on us is clearly visible, but our governments and institutions can’t acknowledge it except in the most trivial ways. When the balance of power finally tilts towards real action, then we’ll see an abrupt transformation of our lives that will feel like the 2020 shutdowns on a grand scale. Our freedoms and rights will be suppressed in the name of climate action, aggressively policed by many of the same governments that have contributed to the crisis through their action and inaction. The chaos of the early months of 2020 is a perfect snapshot of the future ahead of us.

But it wasn’t a complete disaster. Reading Adam Tooze’s Shutdown, an in-media-res history of the pandemic so far, several examples of competent leadership shine through. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these emerged when we’ve had a chance to learn from similar crises in the past. In other words, when we’ve rehearsed, we perform better.

The example of China is an interesting one. After initially failing to control the virus in the first days of January (indeed, actively suppressing news about it), the government in Beijing abruptly switched to action.

In Western media at the time, China’s extreme measures were seen as a sort of natural offshoot of an authoritarian state. But in fact, Chinese authorities had never attempted anything like what they did in January 2020. No one had. In the space of a few days, the entire country was shut down – travel was banned, businesses and schools were closed, and millions of volunteers were recruited to turn each neighborhood into a contained zone. The 11 million inhabitants of Wuhan were locked down, while 40,000 construction workers built two huge emergency hospitals in a matter of days. In Poyang County in Jiangxi, local officials turned all traffic lights permanently to red.

At that time, the nature of the virus was still unclear, and there were no easily available tests. In Hangzhou, the authorities banned the sale of painkillers to prevent citizens from self-medicating and force them to seek hospital treatment.

The scale of the response was the result of China’s previous epidemic in 2003. Where many Western governments were comparing COVID to influenza, China treated it like SARS. The shock of the SARS epidemic had completely shaken the government back in 2003, and some of Xi Jinping’s entourage had risen to power as a result of the political fallout. Whatever the response to COVID, they knew that there was no such thing as too fast or too big.

The United States’ response to COVID was a spectacular failure on many fronts – but in one area at least, they succeeded admirably. In late March 2020, global markets were on the verge of a complete collapse. The fact that this didn’t happen is largely down to swift action by the US Federal Reserve. When bond markets began to falter, the Fed responded by pumping huge amounts of additional liquidity into the system. This kept governments all around the world from running out of money, enabling them to keep spending on their own crisis-fighting efforts. It’s hard to overstate how catastrophic the situation would have been if not for that intervention.

The fact that the Fed was ready and able to deliver this critical response is due to the lessons learned during the financial crisis in 2007-08. The fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis and the collapse of Lehman’s was the dry run for the seismic shock of the pandemic.

Playwright David Finnigan

Upheaval is now a given. The question is: what kind of upheaval? In the last two years, all of us have been in non-stop crisis management mode. But the crises are not going away. This is the beginning of a steep upward curve of crisis upon crisis, lasting for decades if not the rest of our lives. We are going to be improvising our way through new crises in the midst of responding to existing ones.

But for everything we’ve lost in the last two years, it’s possible to hope that we’ve learned some crisis management skills along the way.

So what might we learn from the COVID stumble through that we can take forward with us into future crises?

HOW LONG IT LASTS

It’s surprising to many people, but in the theatre, when you begin rehearsing a show, you don’t know how long it will be. A 50-page script could turn into 15 minutes or 3 hours on stage, depending on the rhythm of the language and the staging choices. The stumble through is the first time you get a real sense of how long the show will be (and how much cutting you need to do).

In the same way, COVID has provided a valuable benchmark for how long a global crisis really takes to unfold. In the early days of lockdown, my partner and I used China’s lockdown as a benchmark. Wuhan was locked down for 76 days, so we figured that our lockdown would last a similar amount of time. Around 250 days later, when London was in its third lockdown (and the nightclubs in Wuhan were packed), it hit home to us that this was a different order of experience.

Now two years after COVID’s appearance, it’s starting to sink in how long a global crisis really takes to unfold. And of course, it never really ends. COVID will never be “over,” we’ll never return to “normal.” Instead, we’re going to have to build our lives within crises, in whatever ways we can.

HOW IT FEELS

However you imagine a theatre show will look and feel when you begin rehearsals, the reality always turns out radically different. The stumble through is the first moment where you experience how the work feels, how it flows from beginning to end. Compared to the vision you’ve been carrying in your head, the reality is pretty disappointing. But it’s a good moment nevertheless, because this is where you start shaping and working with what’s really there, rather than dwelling on a imaginary future that doesn’t actually exist.

In a similar way, COVID has shown us what a global crisis really feels like. For people on the frontline, working in hospitals and care homes, it’s a visceral shock. For the rest of us, it’s a more muted experience of being stuck at home, our lives on indefinite hold.

In coming years, each of us will get our own close-up experience of crisis – fire, flood, storm, drought. We’ll all get a turn on the frontline. But more often, these crises will take place at a distance, and we’ll experience the secondary shocks. Which will play out as being stuck at home, unable to travel, unable to work, unable to see the people we love, watching the news, and waiting. We all know how that feels now.

Indoor quarantine is likely to become a regular feature of life for many of us in years to come. In the Middle East, India, Australia, frequent 50-degree weeks (in Celsius) will force us indoors for more and more of the year. The tactics we’ve developed to cope with lockdown will be deployed again before long.

HOW TO LIVE WITH UNCERTAINTY

One of the best things about live performance is that it’s inherently chaotic. When you gather people together in a room for an event, anything can happen. The early rehearsals for a show take place in a controlled environment where you focus on specific elements. The stumble through is often your first bruising encounter with the unpredictability of the live event. The sound doesn’t work, performers forget their lines, the venue won’t let you use the backstage door… it’s a humbling reminder of your lack of control over the event.

At some level, I always knew the world was unpredictable. But still, I came to expect a degree of certainty in my life. I could book a flight for six months in the future, or sign a contract to do a festival performance, and expect them to happen. The last two years have demonstrated how much of an illusion that was. Now we see what was really always there: predictability is the result of millions of invisible systems all working together, interlocking seamlessly. As those systems start to splinter and break, our ability to plan and predict our future dissolves. Our horizons shrink, and we realize that the plans we made for next year are little more than stories we hope will come true.

For a good proportion of the world’s population, living in constant uncertainty is nothing new. For the rest of us, COVID is giving us a chance to practice getting good at it. Which is helpful, because the future we grew up expecting has long since evaporated, and we don’t know what will take its place.

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There’s one key difference between the COVID crisis and a stumble through for a new theatre show. Unlike in the theatre, this stumble through isn’t in preparation for an upcoming performance. There’s no opening night – or else it’s always opening night. And there’s no audience to applaud us if we get it right, or to laugh at us if we fumble it. The only people we’re performing for are each other.

But that doesn’t stop us from trying our best. In any stumble through, you’re trying your hardest to do a good job, not for your own sake, but for the sake of your fellow artists, the rest of the company – to hold up your end of the show so they can hold up theirs. And if you do a good job, you all get to knock off early and go get a drink together.

(Photos by Jordan Prosser)

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David Finnigan is a writer and theatre-maker from Ngunnawal country in Australia. He works with research scientists to produce theatre about climate and global change. David’s 2017 play Kill Climate Deniers was awarded the Griffin Playwrights Award, and has since been presented in 10 cities worldwide. His six-part performance series about planetary transformation, You’re Safe Til 2024, has been presented at the Sydney Opera House, ArtScience Museum Singapore and will appear at the Barbican in 2022. David is a Churchill Fellow, an associate of interactive theatre company Coney in the UK and Boho Interactive in Australia.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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