The funeral service for shows killed by the pandemic

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Bring out your dead theatre. Your deceased drama, your carked-it cabaret, your ex-improv, killed by the lockdowns.

Performer and director Lily Fish will give it the send-off it deserves: loving death notices, the symbolic cremation of a prop, the ashes scattered to mourn the departed.

Performer, director and playwright Lily Fish is setting up a “funeral service” for cancelled shows.Credit:Penny Stephens

There are real, literal deaths to mourn in this pandemic. But there are also lost performances, which haunt those who wish they could have been delivered.

Early last week, just before the Melbourne Fringe Festival bowed to the inevitable and advised hundreds of in-person shows to cancel their seasons, Fish was thinking about the many projects she’s had cancelled or postponed in the past 18 months, and about the high school drama students she’d worked with who had found it impossible to put anything on a stage.

“I had just kind of said goodbye to these projects, but I had a real sense of, ‘Oh god, there’s no finishing point,’ there’s no marker of the end,” she says. “I was searching for a way to mark it with these kids, who are experiencing constantly – in their lives as well as their art practice – this disappointment of this being cancelled, that being cancelled.”

And then her Fringe show, and her housemates’ Fringe show, and many of her friends’ Fringe shows, were doomed by Melbourne’s rising COVID case numbers.

“The messaging coming out from the Fringe was, ‘We’re resilient, we can make it happen, we can pivot,’ and I was like, what if we’re not? What if after a year and a half we don’t feel resilient? What if we just feel really sad, and tired, and we need to acknowledge that?”

So Fish came up with Death Knell: an end-of-life service for live performance works. And she sent out a call to fellow Fringe artists.

“Every time we make a live work to be shared publicly we breathe life into a being of our own creation. A beautiful, perfect child, made in our image, who we love dearly and who we give to the world,” she wrote.

“But our work is dying, its life cycle cut short. There is a heavy cost beyond money to all this fruitless art making. And we feel it in our bodies – in the out breath, the shoulders and the gut. So much held-in grief. So much hard positivity, and wine, and sarcasm.

“Our children are dying. And we need to grieve.”

Death Knell will be an “artistic exchange” between Fish and her colleagues, she says. She will invite artists to tell her about their show, and offer them a range of end-of-life services including a death certificate, death notices in a limited-run publication, and the cremation and ashes-scattering options (she decided against the idea of a “mass grave”).

“I expect it will be an emotional experience for myself and for many participants,” Fish says. “I received an email from someone last night who said, ‘This made me laugh so much but also I think that I want to engage with this service.’

“I make clown work, I make physical comedy, so the work I’m interested in is the space of comedy and pathos and genuine connection with people.”

Almost a year ago in the joyous “East Brunswick Entertainment Festival”, Fish and her housemates danced on their front lawn in lockdown.

“This whole experience of the last year and a half has completely changed my perspective as a human and as an artist, and I really, really care about community now,” says Fish.

Death Knell is self-funded and limited to Fringe shows, but Fish is already seeing wider demand.

“Feedback from a group that I posted in on Facebook was: ‘We need this in all states.’ ”

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