With most of the UK emerging from a cold snap, the idea of taking culture outdoors can seem a little optimistic just now. Not that that stopped early modern Londoners, who entertained themselves mightily on the Thames when winter held it frozen for months at a time, as visualised with such verve by Virginia Woolf in her novel Orlando.
Nevertheless spring will come, summer will come – and so too will come continued restrictions on large gatherings indoors, and perhaps also outdoors. That likelihood has already been anticipated by the cancellation of the 2021 Glastonbury festival. Such cultural events, unlike TV and film production, have not been underwritten by a government-backed insurance scheme. Planning such a huge event as Glastonbury with confidence, under the distinct possibility of cancellation, clearly presented an impossible risk for organisers.
Nevertheless, it is known that the risks of transmitting Covid-19 are greatly reduced in the open air. Experiencing the arts outdoors, albeit at a much smaller scale and at a safer physical distance than could be countenanced at a music festival of Glastonbury’s size, presents a hopeful short-term future for cultural experiences – and a more realistic one for arts organisations than sitting back and hoping for things to “get back to normal”.
Some arts organisations are of course already based in the open air – think of the breathtaking Minack theatre, set into a Cornish cliff face; or Regent’s Park Open Air theatre and the Globe in London, or, on the south coast, Brighton Open Air theatre. After all, the Greeks invented theatre as an outdoor artform, albeit in a Mediterranean climate. There are also Britain’s outdoor visual art venues, such as the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and organisations like Jupiter Artland near Edinburgh, not forgetting such remarkable landscapes as Chatsworth in Derbyshire that blur the boundaries between “garden” and “sculpture garden”.
The British weather does not always help. A valiant “drive-through” production of La Bohème staged in a car park by English National Opera last year did encounter problems owing to high winds: sometimes the elements cannot be entirely outfoxed. Nevertheless, the more sagacious arts organisations are looking ahead to alfresco possibilities: as reported this week, the Arcola theatre is hoping to build a temporary open-air structure near to its main stage in east London; and Nevill Holt Opera in Leicestershire is building an outdoor performance space for its August festival. Edinburgh international book festival is taking a new tack, too, shifting its operations to a new venue in the city’s art college with plenty of open green space.
What about all the Victorian and Edwardian bandstands that adorn Britain’s municipal parks – with the necessary social distancing in place, could not music be heard in these often beautiful pavilions, preserved as they are, but hardly used? As for the weather – well, as the Scots and Scandinavians are fond of saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.”
This content first appear on the guardian