IN WHICH WAY THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC CHANGED CULTRAL PRACTICES?
Until now, very few studies have been led on the ways the period of prolonged closing of venues in Montreal affected the cultural consumption habits within performance art audiences. The few studies led during the pandemic in Quebec and other national contexts seems however to confirm that, despite a clear willingness to get back to their old habits, there is still a certain reluctance to come back to an attendance level of venues equal to what it was before the pandemic.
To better understand what the situation is in Montreal, our new Information and Survey Specialist, Jeanne Bélanger, supervised by Guillaume Sirois, professor in the sociology department at the Université de Montréal, led a qualitative survey with 22 regular audience members of the performance arts (theatre, music, dance, circus).
A period of upheavals
The study first explore the first reactions of the audience members at the first announcement of the sanitary measures that will deprive them of thei favourite hobby for months on end. Most people who where surveyed said the beginning of the pandemic was a shock, but it’s not necessarily the closing of venues that affected them the most during this period of great upheaval.
Some participants however described a period of isolation, depression and even mourning, amplified by the closing of venues. Nevetheless, the ordeal of the pandemic was mostly one on the long term, which encouraged the practice of other activities, such as outdoor activities, sports, and also the streaming of series and other online activities such as conferences and exhibits.
The report dedicates an entire section to online shows, since several performance art organisations put together such products during the pandemic. If almost all of our participants declared having tried the experience, few have been convinced. Two principal factors seem to explain the difficulties linked to the transition from one medium (the living, breathing show) to the other (the online show):
- the loss of intimacy and authenticity in the relation between the audience and the artist, being mediated through a screen;
- the loss of a sense of communion with the other audience member as we find ourself alone or with a very small group in a private space to watch the show.
A very large majority of the participants to the study went back to venues as soon as it was possible, sometimes even more frequently than before. The report explores the ritual associated with a night out (shared meal, discussion, sociability) which seems to explain the strong desire to physically come back in venues.
The risks of going back to "normal"
However, the venue, whoch was before an enchanted place where people would gather to experience a collective emotion, is now a potentially dangerous location. The participants now assess the risks associated with the shows they plan to attend based on two factors : the venue’s configuration and the audience’s behaviour. As such, we can see appear a scale of a performance’ location’s hazardness this way (from the safest to the most hazardous):
- the conventional theatre where the audience stays seated in silence;
- the movie theatre or any other location where audience members eat or drink during the show;
- comedy shows where audience members laugh, discuss and heckle;
- music concerts, especially in a cabaret-style setting;
- bars where people are constantly moving and drinking alcohol.
To deal with all these different possibilities, the participants use several strategies : wearing one or several masks, chosing places which seem less exposed, and even renouncing to frequent some places or people who patronize them.
The report ends with the exploration of factors which would put the breaks on a return to live venues to a pre-pandemic level. Four main elements have been identified by those who took part in this study:
- ongoing worries regarding the circulation of the virus and the transmission possibilities;
- changes in the financial situation that forces consumers to make choices regarding their budget;
- changes in work habits with the mass arrival of remote working, which changes the cultural consumption practices;
- changes in the attitude and behaviour of venues’ audience members that some found to be less respectful, which seems to indicate some kind of tension amongst audiences.
As such, some have suggested the performance art industry should reevaluate its distribution practices in order to be less centralizing and more flexible in its offer.
This project has been realised in collaboration with Mitacs.