Sally Shuttleworth: “Contagion Cabaret in the Time of COVID” (Keynote lecture)

Contagion Cabaret was a performance event, originally created in 2017, that interwove music and drama with short talks from medical experts and historians.   Devised by the ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ research project at the University of Oxford together with the professional theatre company, Chipping Norton Theatre,  Contagion Cabaret created a fun and fast-paced exploration of attitudes to contagion in the past, setting the dilemmas of modern medicine in a new perspective.  Conceived and performed in a pre-pandemic world, when it was possible to be light-hearted about the possibilities of infection, Contagion Cabaret took on new urgency in the face of the grim realities of COVID-19.   Since live performance was impossible under lockdown, we created a film, which made an artistic virtue of the lockdown conditions under which it was created, re-envisaging the project for the era of COVID. 

This talk will explore the research and creative decisions which lay behind the original theatrical production, and the challenges and possibilities opened up by the film version.   The original production thrived on intimacy, involving the audience physically as well as mentally, as actors moved amidst them in their ‘hazmat’ suits.  How could that intimacy be recreated in a lockdown production, where even the actors would not meet, and the infectious laughter of an audience was to be replaced by solitary viewing on a computer screen?   And what material would be suitable under these new conditions?   Is it possible, indeed, for material to be too relevant for dramatic portrayal?   For the medical experts involved in the production, all eminent researchers in the field of infectious diseases, their lives had been turned upside down by the pandemic, and filming was undertaken in snatches of time taken from COVID treatment and research, bringing medical practice and performance into very direct conjunction.   In preparation for the production we also worked with local schools, creating educational resources, and running competitions for art and writing inspired by the Cabaret.   The talk will reflect on the achievements of the project, and possibilities opened up for interdisciplinary collaborations, and hybrid digital/live modes of performance in the future.  

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