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Outdoor Arts producers and artists are experienced at turning the most unpromising setting into a performance space, and their back-catalogue of shows is tailored for the outdoor. Could they be the first to woo back audiences in a socially distanced world? Angus MacKechnie looks ahead.

Stopgap Dance Company performing outside at the Watch This Space Festival, National Theatre
Stopgap Dance Company at the Watch This Space Festival, National Theatre

Ludovic des Cognets

One of the main strengths of the Outdoor Arts sector is our ability to gather big crowds in public spaces – the antithesis of social distancing. Under normal circumstances, we avidly count the numbers lining the streets as a parade passes through a major city centre, or those watching a dance performance unfold on a seafront, or visiting a fire installation on a rural hillside, or taking part in a community event in a town square. Our intention is to attract attention… and audiences.

Whether in small pop-up street shows, tech-heavy light nights, carnivals, circuses, melas or walkabouts, we celebrate our ability to stage events which unite communities and bring a sense of civic pride, and engage with a satisfyingly broad cross-section of society.

Our audiences are more reflective of the population than any other artform – being out on the streets, we’d be seriously missing a trick if this wasn’t the case.

But in mid-March, like everyone in the wider cultural ecology, those of us working in Outdoor Arts watched in dismay as the pandemic moved across our sector like a slow tsunami of destruction. Festival after festival announced their cancellation; funders reluctantly withdrew their investment; new work was put on hold and the notion of amassing a crowd in a public space became a civic abomination.


The timing was particularly cruel, coming at the point when enquiries and pencil-bookings were about to turn into contracts, but it quickly became clear that even a signed contract was not going to be particularly helpful.

We immediately saw the fragility of the sector. Along with everyone else, we nervously awaited news of government financial arrangements. A tiny proportion of our community are fortunate enough to be in salaried jobs, the majority are freelancers – be they jugglers, directors, acrobats, pyrotechnicians, producers or production managers. The employment is rigidly seasonal (the British weather sees to that), so alongside many causes for concern there was a quiet sense of panic. For those who rely on the international touring circuit to boost their income, Brexit was already enough of a headache; far sooner than we imagined, borders were closing and future travel looked deeply uncertain for artists who sometimes play several countries in a single weekend.

For those of us in England, Arts Council England’s response was swift and robust, and there was even a very welcome ACE Benevolent Fund dedicated to individuals in the Outdoor Arts sector. Where they could, some festivals, arts organisations and commissioning bodies were honouring contractual agreements to support the artists. It was heartening and generous, and provided some immediate relief, but the long-term implications for Outdoor Arts were apparent: no public gathering meant no work.

Some comfort…

There were a few things in our favour. One of the great strengths of Outdoor Arts is that we don’t have buildings. Apart from a few amazing creation spaces, most of the sector is intentionally roofless and physically mobile, so we don’t have capital expenses or building maintenance hanging over our heads.

Much of the work involves un-ticketed events which are mostly, and crucially, free. While there is a worrying impact for income-reliant festivals, for most Outdoor Arts artists, companies, local festivals and community events, there is very little ticket sale income in the budget to consider. These factors offer some relief and, thankfully, the sector is full of very resourceful people.

Already we hear tales of touring vans morphing into delivery vans to bolster income.

But there is a critical impact beyond the money… the reason we work in this sector, deliberately beyond the mainstream and in a different setting, is the very opposite of social distancing. One of Outdoor Arts’ main abilities is to bring people together, celebrate their local environment and unite communities. Our sector actively reaches out to those with little or no other cultural engagement and we do that physically: sat cheek-by-jowl in a park, crowded together in a courtyard or dancing in the streets, Outdoor Arts audiences epitomise the cultural ‘shared experience’.

No amount of zooming or streaming can replace that.

Green shoots

All the cultural sector is realising that it will need to evolve to survive: for reasons of both safety and public perception, none of us will be able to continue as we did. But it is increasingly looking like outdoor artists may be some of the first to be able to get back to work.

We have already seen some encouraging examples of our sector connecting with communities. Small, safe and carefully considered interventions have begun to appear, often tied in with the weekly support for the NHS. Some artists are now performing at a distance on bicycles, front gardens have become the stage for comedy vegetables and impromptu slapstick, doorsteps, windows and balconies host live concerts. Meanwhile, virtually, busking pitches, social dances and cabarets have become digital experiences and the recent Coronavision Song Contest was won by one of our most prolific outdoor artists (representing Canada from deepest Dorset).

As it appears that the virus is less likely to be transferred in outdoor environments, it may be that the outside is where we see the first cultural buds emerging. And then we can see what we can do safely. We are asking many questions. How it will be possible for dancers to work together and how will that feel to an audience starved of physical contact? Much of the work involves shared space and interaction with the audience, so what is the future of audience participation (for those of quieter disposition, this may be a blessing)? And if cash becomes a thing of the past, what new contactless method will best replace the busker’s hat?

On the front line

There is no doubt that ongoing confusion around the easing of lockdown restrictions makes it more challenging, so we are very mindful not to be the instigators of potentially hazardous outdoor gatherings. The After the Interval Survey of ticket-buying audiences found that the idea of attending a cultural event outdoors scored higher than other socially distanced options. So, while we look at reinventing how, where and why we work outdoors, we also hope to be of use to some of our indoor colleagues. Outdoor Arts producers and artists are particularly good at finding unlikely places and turning the most unpromising setting into a performance space. We have an excellent back-catalogue of shows tailored for outdoors and, importantly, many of these play in large settings – a valuable attribute for a socially distanced audience.

We may have to adapt the physical nature of what we do, but culture, connection and community are things we will need more and more over the coming months and years. And when the time comes, the Outdoor Arts sector will be on the front line, ready for action.

Angus MacKechnie is Executive Director of OutdoorArtsUK

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Angus MacKechnie