April 2020 [pt2] – British theatre’s shutdown described by industry insiders
26th April 2020
Indhu Rubsingham, artistic director of the Kiln, London 29-04-2020
I think a lot of us were planning and hoping to reopen in the autumn – and the thing that has been coming out this week is that social distancing is going to continue. I’m adamant that we reopen as a sector, but how do we do that, what does that mean? We’ve long known this but what has really become apparent is just how complex our infrastructure is – besides the building staff our work is so dependent on freelancers, whether it’s actors, crew members, creatives – then there are also the press and marketing companies, the casting directors and even the critics, and the arts pages. We’re an entwined complex industry that needs so many moving parts – it’s incredible and also really scary.
We are an industry that always problem-solves – the show must go on is a mentality for all of us. I think we’re discombobulated – that very thing that we do, of coming together and solving things, of rising to any occasion – that very act in itself is now dangerous and that’s weird psychologically.
We’re moving into a phase of ‘OK, if this is going to be longer than we’ve anticipated, how do I make sure that we can hunker down to re-emerge?’ One of the big worries is that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water. Of course there are things we can change, but there are good things we shouldn’t let go of – the level to which the industry was looking at inclusivity and access. We are a fragile economy anyway but while looking at making sure that audiences feel safe equally we don’t want to become too risk-averse or conservative with a small c. We have no back-up, no resources, the Arts Council are doing everything they can but there’s not going to be any bail-out in the future and a big worry is that we will become risk averse, do less new writing, mount smaller productions.
I can’t make any assumptions because we’re in such uncharted waters, across the country everything is going to the wall, there are so many industries in dire straits. How much will the government be able to bail organisations out? And how much are we advocating for them to do that – do they even regard us as important. I’d love to say ‘yes’ to that but I honestly don’t take it for granted. A lot of buildings of our scale could fall down after September. If the Arts Council spends its emergency funds [£90m] on those organisations that are going to fall down before then, what will be left? We’re looking at our figures – there’s no cushion, everything is going to count. If the furlough scheme stops for our sector, we’re all in deep trouble.
I think one of the worst things that could happen is that we open and then have to shut – for whatever reason. I worry about that as a business model, employing a full set of staff to get things open, and then it also hits public confidence. So much depends on the science and the medicine. I think if I’m really honest with the climate we have round health and safety and safe-guarding you could open yourself up to unacceptable risks, unless there’s a complete green-light. It’d be interesting to see what boards and trustees will say – what you can’t do is expose yourself as a business to legal challenges. No one is going to insure you for Covid-19. Even before the shutdown there was a build-up of anxiety within companies and buildings: are we putting ourselves at risk? You have to act as a responsible employer. Who knows what the next month is going to bring, it’s such a changing scenario but we haven’t given up on the hope of the autumn. Being an optimist, I believe that just as quickly as it has happened, it could also go away. I’m now waiting for the ability to be calmer and creative – at the moment we’re having to react quickly to safeguard and protect but we must also create and deliver.
Could we bring in fewer people into the theatre and make that work? Bringing in relatively small numbers would be hard but we’re looking at other ways of community engagement, seeing if we can use the spaces to support the recovery, which is not just about making theatre and creating shows, but creating safe spaces – for example for elderly people who are alone or have been in isolation. There are a lot of young people too who don’t have the means to be online – can we do something for them? It’s being creative about the Kiln becoming more of a civic space. That’s what I’m interested in doing. I think there could be a real need for that…
Charlotte Bennett and Katie Posner, co-artistic directors of Paines Plough, 22-04-2020
Charlotte Bennett: Come To Where I Am
Come To Where I Am is a spin-off to Come to Where I’m From, which is a brilliant project that has been going for 10 years. It has got all these audio plays, there’s 160 of them on the app. And our starting point thinking about any digital offer was: ‘what is our responsibility as a new writing touring company, who is this for, and why are we doing this?’ rather than just generating content. We wanted to continue to employ national artists, particularly writers, that’s our focus as a company, but also to connect with national audiences. Come To Where I’m From has been a brilliant programme that’s immediately accessible. We found that traffic to that app had massively increased since the lockdown which showed us there was an interest in people engaging with this kind of content.
We’ve got seven venues we’re partnering with – and 30 writers in total. It’s the same format – they will write a play about the place they call home – it’s not about lockdown or isolation, though that might come out in the themes. The idea is that we are flipping the usual process – which is that we perform those pieces at the host theatre and then we record and upload them on our app. This time we will do the digital release first and then whenever these venues open, which could be at different times, we will programme that live event version. We were talking about doing them as visual pieces, people being able to see people, talking about their homes. We will have a donations buttons. There is this stereotype that artists will make things happen for free or do it anyway, and we didn’t want to perpetuate that, while still making it accessible. The money received from donations will go back into recommissioning writers for another series – it’s a recycling scheme for commissions …
We are doing it in partnership with venues, in terms of finding the writers – the venue is the best place to suggest writers who are local to them, then we agree on them. We’re looking for people with a breadth of experience – so with Pitlochry we have a writer who is established alongside an emerging writer who has never had a commission. They can be fictionalised or autobiographical pieces but they should always be inspired by the writer’s own perception of that place they call home. We changed it to ‘Come to Where I Am” because for example we have a writer from Sheffield who isn’t there now – so it’s being connected to where you are at the moment. We started commissioning last week but one writer submitted super-early – they’re short and for one voice so the form is quite clear.
As part of this we talked a lot about people who aren’t digitally engaged – there are seven million people in the UK who don’t have access to digital or are not digital savvy. So we’re rolling out a caller service in partnership with those venues – we’ve got some TV actors who are going to be providing a caller service to isolated groups. We were talking to a care home in Peterborough and they will get the equivalent of a live play over the phone about the city. It’s a way of being taken out of the house or that place [of isolation] – a kind of escapism.
Katie Posner: The Place I Call Home
I directed a few international plays when I worked at Pilot Theatre so I kept in contact with a couple of the writers I work with. We were chatting on facebook. It’s interesting having that global understanding of what is going on, it’s not that we’re in the same boat but we all have our relationship to it, we all recognise what’s happening. You start to feel connected, laughing about toilet rolls and so on. That fuelled our thinking. An ambition for us at Paines Plough is to think about international collaborations – it made us think about ‘how do we connect across borders?’ and ‘what are those barriers anyway?’ and ‘wouldn’t it be really exciting to create a project where we team a UK writer with an international writer and they start to write a 30-minute play about the places they call home?’
Then we started thinking ‘how are these realised?’ Come to Where I Am is one person talking to camera – we thought: how do we make theatre online that is exciting, has an element of liveness. So these are going to be bi-lingual 30-minute plays that will entail looking at engaging other digital artists, whether animators or sound designers, looking at the key elements of theatre that make it rich, and make something that is a bit more experimental. We’ve been talking lots about the fact that the drama-schools have lost a lot of opportunity to perform and so we have spoken to two drama schools who are interested in this. The actors from the UK side will be third-year graduating students, and we will work with our international partners and they will provide their actors who are part of their reps. So they will be bi-lingual productions. The first one we will make is the Theatre Dortmund, Germany collaboration – we are looking to distribute that towards the beginning of June. We will start rehearsing for that at the end of May. It’s a pilot project, a chance to be experimental. There is a hiatus [in production] in the countries we’ve spoken to. We’ve seen an opportunity and moved quickly but the aim is to do all this with integrity.
CB: “Come to Where I’m From” plays have been written super-quick, you have two drafts – that’s always worked well and we were careful not to compromise the quality of the commissions. For the international collaborations, they are being written over the next five-to-six weeks. We’re not going: just write something in a week and we will whack it up. Once we get those drafts we will interrogate what they will look like and how we will work with potential digital collaborators to engage in the telling of those pieces online. If the model works there is a lot more opportunity to do this.
KP: We are looking at the future of how we collaborate internationally – this could be an exciting model. When I think back to the projects I did internationally, I’d say there would have been seven trips in which I was in a different country, or they were in our country, there was never a Zoom chat. You can make this without crossing those borders physically.
CB: At the moment we have two autumn tours – planned and booked in – we are keeping an eye on them, in collaboration with our partners. One of them is a big tour to lots of small-scale venues. One is a more concentrated Roundabout tour. We have not cancelled yet but we are keeping an eye on the time-frames of the lockdowns.
KP: If we were looking at a mid-scale tour for the autumn, we’d be feeling different but the Roundabout is a venue that sits outside the infrastructure of a theatre. What we need is the designated space, whether that’s a car park, or outside a library. We feel like that venue could be really beneficial to those regional partners we’re working with. If we were to go ahead with the autumn tour, as long as people can physically be around eachother, there’s a way in which we could use Roundabout to socially distance within whatever the government guidance is. Our partners could support those artists that haven’t been able to have their work seen. We’re slightly nimbler, so we can be more reactive than those bigger buildings. It doesn’t rely on the ticket income in the same way as other venues – it’s a strategic tour, so it’s about audience engagement and community engagement.
Notes: THE PLACE I CALL HOME is a brand-new programme connecting international writers to create new work together, in isolation, across borders. Presented in collaboration with theatres across Europe, two writers will be paired up to co-author a new bilingual play about the place they call home. These plays will then be realised with digital artist collaborators, performed by British Drama school students who have had projects postponed and shared across digital platforms. Partnerships so far: Theatre Dortmund (Germany), with German playwright Calle Fuhr (INTO THE STARS) and UK playwright Dipo Baruwa-Etti (AN UNFINISHED MAN) Theatr Ludowy (Krakow) with Polish playwright Magda Węgrzyn and UK writer Travis Alabanza (BURGERZ) Elsinor Theatre Milan (Italy) with Italian playwright Giuditta Mingucci (I WISH) from and UK playwright Rosie MacPherson (WHERE WE BEGAN), in partnership with Yorkshire-based company Stand and Be Counted (the UK’s first Theatre Company of Sanctuary); full press release here
Theresa Heskins, artistic director of the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, nr Stoke-on-Trent 21- 04-2020
I spent the first three weeks making, then remaking plans. It kept changing. It feels like we’re now at a stage where we have a plan, and we’ll wait to see whether that plan can come to fruition. Initially we started phoning loads of audience members, trying to rearrange dates then we realised we were not going to be able to open that soon. We’ve more recently come to the decision that we will make a plan and work towards it but we’re not going to implement it right now. The plan is that we will reopen in September; we will do the show we were going to be doing in the autumn, Marvellous, a new staging of the life story of Neil Baldwin. It’s so uplifting and life-affirming that it feels like it will be exactly the right show for that moment, so I’m really excited about making it..
We actually had plans for the theatre to close for three months for a refurbishment over the summer, which was quite a big deal, we had to work hard to put together a programme that would allow us to do that. At the moment, the plan is that we will be going ahead with that refurb but the construction industry is having its own problems at the moment. We produce so much of our own work, we maintain craft and production departments much bigger than many theatres of our scale. So ordinarily at the point that we learnt we would be closing for a short period, we would have had three-four of own shows at various stages of being made: the one in production, the one about to go in rehearsal, the next one, and in fact the one after that. Four acting companies would be under contract, so in a way we’ve disappointed fewer audience members because of this plan to be closed for an extended period this summer.
Because it has been so drastic anyway I had hardly thought about what the situation might have been. We paid in full the actors who were on the show with us and about to be with us to the end of their contracts – I was glad we could do that: we had The 39 Steps in the second week of its run, with two weeks left to go, and we were about to start rehearsing The Company of Wolves – that was an extended rehearsal period because it has an aerial element in it. We had performers from four different countries, so it was already a tricky show and several weeks before we realised we were going to have to close, we were already getting messages from people in New York saying ‘travel is being severely affected, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get to you’, people in Singapore saying ‘there’s a possibility I might need to be in 14-day isolation’, so we already had this international project happening, and were thinking is this going to be impacted? I don’t know what would have been the effect if we had been going ahead in a normal year but just as I thought we knew what was going on, we also learnt that the three shows that were supposed to be coming to us from the Stephen Joseph Scarborough, weren’t going to be made after all. So suddenly our autumn season began to look very different. And the next stage we went through was revising and replanning it.
It’s fantastic that theatre has taken on so much community responsibility… we are all doing things like makings scrubs and 3D printing face masks. We are trying really hard to be responsible to all our participants – the week the closure happened lots of our youth theatre learnt that they weren’t going to be able to take their exams. Suddenly they were bereft. That day we had sessions with them, remotely – and some said it was the most important workshop in their lives. but quite a lot of people we work with through our socially engaged programme are vulnerable or challenged and there is a real broadband poverty which means we can’t reach some people. We usually do quite a lot of work with older people who have dementia and their carers and families – but these people are much harder to reach, partly because they’re in care-homes which went into lock-down early but also because remote working and digital devices are not something they feel as comfortable with.
It takes about three months to bring a project to fruition at the minimum but I usually like to have two years. And I’m not sure whether that is going to be possible now – I’m asking: can we make work in a different way that makes us lighter on our feet, more nimble, and can we promote that to an audience in a different way, that is more immediate? I don’t really know the answers yet.
It feels as though there is something quite unique about the New Vic – there is so little theatre provision in this area and that area we serve runs right across to Birmingham, Manchester, Wales. A theatre in the round brings people together in such a communal way – every piece of work has as its backdrop not plywood or scenic art but the community – that thing is so precious all the time, but all the more so now. There’s this strange paradox of people wanting to be together at a time when we want to be apart. It’s weird to have that lovely building sitting there closed.
Lorne Campbell, artistic director of National Theatre Wales, 17-04-2020
One of the excitements for me in coming to National Theatre Wales is that buildings lead you to patterns and patterns lead you to habits. Within your modes of production, with your relationship with audiences all sorts of assumptions begin to creep in – there are a set of decisions you don’t make because they’ve already been made. With NTW you’re forced on a project by project basis to make each of those decisions and to examine the question and the mechanic of those: for whom are we making this work, where are we going to make this work, how are we going to build a relationship between the artist and the subject and the audience on the way to making that work?
In these moments when you see the bones of everything very clearly you’re compelled to go, right, what are the things that are useful and impactful for us to do now – today? I’ve come off a call with our executive producer [Lisa Maguire] – we were talking about this movement from now to the future, not just the autumn but much further. And maybe there’s a useful space NTW can occupy – not just for itself but for the artists and audiences of Wales and a lot of the other creative organisations – starting to be a forum to talk about how we are going to be functioning in 2021.
Angela Merkel’s recent statement was interesting because she was saying: don’t in any way mistake this for a return to normal, this next phase is us learning how to live with this, up to the time that we find a vaccine. The idea is that the effort is not about how we go back to all the things we did but how we find ways to function that are useful and interesting and serve the needs and appetites of people in circumstances that change every day.
An organisation like NTW is very well placed to do that, because we’re constructed to work fundamentally with partners in everything that we do. It’s impossible for us to make anything without partnership with audience, without partnership with community, without venues – be those spaces which are in community settings, outside the cultural sector, or formal theatres.
My first day was on the 16th March – so I arrived into full-on crisis. We spent a day in crisis meetings looking at all the projects that were laid out for the next three months. We had one show which was in its first day of tech [Hail Cremation!]. We decided to let that run on through tech to try to get to a dress-rehearsal on the Saturday so we could do a capture of it. But when I got home, I switched on the TV and Johnson was making his statement – which meant we could in no way ask anyone working in that show to continue working on it. So I jumped in a taxi, went to Newbridge, 45 minutes away, and caught the team before the end of the tech and said ‘Sorry, this is the last day of this, everyone needs to go home’. Next day we closed up the office and moved everyone into home-working – because of the itinerant, peripatetic nature of the company, we’re set up to do that – every member of the company has a laptop, everything is cloud based. So that for us was relatively simple.
Then on the Wednesday I got the virus! I was knocked down for 10 days with that, so it was quite a baptism of fire. I was fairly lucky. I had a bad fever and the exhaustion was the worst thing, a few days of being unable to lift my head off the pillow. I had all the symptoms, I lost my sense of taste and smell etc, but nothing that was scary on the respiratory side.
Kully Thiarai had programmed through to April 2021, so the job that I thought I was coming into was a period of getting to know artists in Wales, building international relationships, doing a review of organisational and operational strategy, looking to roll out a programme announcement in October / November. A certain amount of that remains the case. I’ve spent the last month doing that from my front-room. But we worked quickly to roll out a programme of work under the banner of Network.
Partly it’s about creating moments of theatre and community for audiences who are experiencing this profound sense of isolation – the idea of connection and coming together has hugely underpinned the way we think about that. The other imperative has been about creating employment for freelancers, from stage managers and production staff, to directors, writers, actors. We have a strand of new digital commissions – that will be work that will happen live in digital spaces. We will capture them so people can access them later but the first iteration will be live within a digital space so the audience, the artist and the performance are there at the same time – and interrogating what is that kind of theatre, ‘this thing that is happening now and I’m connected to it, on whatever platform’. We’re working with Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, BBC Arts and BBC Wales.
Everything in that project has to conform to social distancing rules. We’ve thrown that invitation over to theatre-makers – the way we’ve framed it is we’ve asked: who is the audience for this work, what do you want to make, who do you want to make it with? We will make three of those a month for the next three months. Alongside that were doing a series of play readings in conjunction with the Sherman.
Of the existing programme to 2021, we had a project called Frank, in co-production with the Jones Collective – a young company – which was supposed to be happening in five forest sites. We’ve made a plan where if it is possible for that to happen in Sept/Oct we will do it then, if not we will push it back to 2021. We also have a large community project in Pembrokeshire which is supposed to be happening in the autumn. We’ve adjusted a lot of the making of that to move into digital spaces. As the realities of the situation emerge we will have to take a set of decisions about what is and isn’t possible and appropriate in terms of the performance. It might happen on the streets, or entirely in digital spaces. We’re also working on an ambitious programme with homeless people in Wrexham which has become more urgent, more complex, because the nature of the crisis is completely different.
We are a national company – so the next phase will be about how we create spaces for the industry to think and react together – how we not only weather this but how we come out on the other side with stronger infrastructures, stronger relationships, stronger strategic partnerships– to continue to champion and build artists and work in really symbiotic relationships. Being the third artistic director of a company is an interesting place to be – NTW is 10 years old, so much amazing work has happened, so it’s: what do we want to be next? It’s not: these are the things we must repeat. It’s: what are the assets and knowledges and systems that are going to evolve? Wales is a different place than it was 10 years ago so how do we set about making work that has an interesting conversation with everyone’s needs?
From the beginning the conception for NTW was that at the centre was the NTW TEAM – which was about working with grassroots community organisations and individuals right across the country. It’s not only about making work and projects, they are embedded into the planning and governance of the company at every level. The planning for what we do on the way out of this will come out of conversation with Team members and Team panel members at every step, in every way. There is a fundamental structural understanding that theatre has to be in dialogue with its community and its audiences and in deep conversation with those who are not traditional theatre audiences, if we’re to have a theatre sector that thrives on the other side of this. That’s right in the DNA of the company – and there’s no paradox or contradiction between that and working with Theatre Clwyd, the Sherman, Wales Millennium Centre… and doing big plays that happen on stages that speak directly to traditional core theatre audiences. You can work with the homeless in Wrexham and also mount a large-scale spectacular.
The most exciting challenge – the one I’m thinking about most of all – is the inter-connectedness of things – how both internally and externally they affect and are affected by eachother: when we’re making a big play on a traditional stage how is that rooted in community and when we’re doing something in a community how is that an enriching opportunity for theatre artists who work within traditional theatre contexts? It’s the movement back and forth – that constant affecting and being affected feels like the huge challenge but of course the huge opportunity right now.
In these moments of crisis we need art enormously and we will need it even more as we come out to the other side. It’s not “art for the art’s sake”, it’s culture for the sake of society. Society is going to need a way to process what has happened and dream what it is going to do next and those are the spaces where the culture sector is imperative. It will feel strange to go and sit in a theatre again, thigh to thigh with your next-door neighbour. I think that anxiety about going back into the world will be a wider and more profound thing than we’re thinking about at the moment. This is a global trauma we’re going through. If we don’t create the spaces to deal with that now, we’re going to be dealing with it further down the road.
Wynne Roberts, director of The Welfare Ystradgynlais, Powys, Wales
We’ve been around a long time. We’re on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, on the north edge of the South Wales coalfield. The venue was set up in 1934 and we’re one of the very few miners’ welfare halls still running independently, doing what we were set up to do which is serve the community. This was where local people came to ‘better themselves’ – there was a library and reading room. We’ve got former coalfield workers who use the space – we give them free access. We’re surrounded by what’s called a Communities First area [the 100 most deprived electoral divisions as identified by the 2000 Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation]. Even though we’re only 25 minutes by car to Swansea, because of transport problems – the transport infrastructure is poor – most people rely on us as their local venue. We’ve got an educational, entertainment and cultural role – the only thing we don’t do is politics, which was one of the original raison d’etres.
We don’t produce work, but there are occasional co-productions. We’ve got a multipurpose space here – with use as a theatre and cinema. We’re home from home for many people. We’re open generally every day of the week, with two days of the week busy in terms of community arts activity run by arts professionals. A lot of community groups and organisations use us on a regular basis – some are for older people, and they’re all missing out as a result of the shutdown. It was important to people that they could go and see something like 42nd Street on screen, musicals are popular but we also put on other kinds of challenging work – and that access to entertainment is going to be seriously missed.
The local town council has been very supportive over the years, and with all the cutbacks we’ve managed to survive – we’re good value for money in terms of public funding, we generate a lot of income. We offer room hire so we’re losing a major income stream in terms of the community groups that now can’t use us. That income generation of people popping in for their own event has been a real blow. There’s a school of thought that people will be eager for theatre and cinema once this is all over and rush back out to support their local venues. We rely on an older demographic to support us through sales income – the ones who spend money are an older audience – so if they’re not confident the NHS is going to be able to look after them they’re not necessarily going to be able to come out. I know that a lot of people aren’t engaging online too, so if they’ve lost the habit of getting involved with us you don’t know what the knock-on effects will be. We’ve had a government grant for £25,000 but if the closures run late into the year and into next, that could be potential [permanent] closure if the support isn’t there. At the moment we’re OK but by the autumn, the question is will there be more grants available? Nobody knows what’s next.
Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic 16-04-2020
As soon as the theatres closed in the week of March 16, we thought ‘we need to remember we’re a theatre and think about what our role in relation to the city might be in this strange world’ and then we were consumed by crisis management. The lockdown brought with it the shock of the enormity and severity of this disease. And for once the situation of a creative business or any other kind of arts business is really not that different from any other business in the economy. It’s like a whistle has blown and all our income has stopped. The consequences of that for the business are massive. It was a few days before we could get back to the question of what a theatre should do during this period.
When we did, two people I trust – Clare Reddington, the chief executive of Watershed, Bristol and Fiona Morris, who heads up the BBC/ Arts Council collaboration the Space – independently gave us the same clear advice: take the time to think, they said. Everyone is rushing stuff out there online. You have time to put a little bit of thought into it. We identified a team at the theatre who could do that. The idea they came up with is that is based on the three-stranded programme we set up when we were trying to get Bristol Old Vic out of the hole it was in in 2007/2008.
Firstly, try to make really good work on stage to re-establish the theatre’s reputation. Then we invested in two other areas. In 2010, austerity was starting to bite and many theatres were cutting back on outreach but we determined ways to expand that arm of the programme. One of the challenges for the Bristol Old Vic was a partly justified sense that we didn’t really connect with the wide range of communities in the city which, as a publicly funding organisation we wanted to do. So there was an amazing transformation of our outreach and engagement work which offers pioneering creative opportunities to kids from every background in Bristol. Alongside that with the help of the The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation we set up a talent development programme called the Bristol Ferment.
Reflecting on this now, it made sense to structure our online offering in a way that corresponded to those strands under the umbrella title Bristol Old Vic at Home – I should add that our guys came up with that before NT at Home was announced!
It’s not as if we’ve got a vast catalogue of ready-to-release captures of our shows, we will have to scramble a bit to get them together. The Bristol Arts Channel will run as a pilot – hopefully in May – and we will probably end up streaming about five productions. But the point of the Bristol Arts Channel is that it is an across-Bristol venture, developed in partnership with the city’s vibrant cultural sector. We will take one night a week – Friday – then hopefully Colston Hall will take Saturday and so on. The idea is to re-create for our local audiences – and of course it will be available nationally and internationally – an experience that’s a bit like going out to a different venue on different nights of the week. After that trial in May we will know more. My guess is we will have time to run a second season before lock down is over.
The Arts Council has been saying for some time that all organisations need to develop a comprehensive digital strategy. We had made some lurches in that direction – we did some mind-bending experiments with an AR version of The Grinning Man and a very vivid film of our staged Messiah – but we can’t really say we’ve reflected on that sufficiently to call it a strategy. And the reason for that is that – as every regional producing theatre has been – we were dealing with the existential crisis we were in before this happened: how the hell do we afford to make the ambitious, inspiring and representative work we aspire to? Now, strangely, there is an opportunity for real experiment in the digital realm which will change our thinking and our digital footprint permanently. But of course, as ever, we’re working on an absolute shoestring.
If you look at the Family Arts hub bit of the online offer, it’s building on the networks that our outreach and engagement departments have set up, bringing creative opportunities to lots of schools where a high number are on free school meals and otherwise at risk. A lot of work that our engagement department does is with kids who are vulnerable and in danger of exclusion from education. Some of what is there on the hub is a sort of online equivalent of the shows we might be putting on in our theatre, there are some other bits which are to do with the theatre’s history – online versions of the thing you’d get if you were a school doing a guided tour of the theatre – and some of that stuff looks really at home on a laptop. It’s an experimental beginning from which we will learn over the coming months – and which we will expand to engage vulnerable people of all ages.
I am very aware myself of the psychological stress of not being able to do my job properly, not being able to go out, not being able to interact – all the things I rely on for my sense of well-being. It really makes me concerned for those people who are already in a vulnerable state. I think there are going to be some very frightening phenomena which we discover as a result of lockdown which derive from loneliness and isolation and the breaks in habit.
We’ve tried to frame Open Stage Online in a way that allows creative opportunity but doesn’t have creative pressure. It connects with the Bristol Ferment but it’s wider than that too. It’s a chance to upload something – it might be a painting or a poster you have on your wall, or a story you’ve written, a favourite poem or record, or a song your grandmother sang to you when you were a child. Before all this happened, we’d branded 2020 our Year of Artists – and strangely that seems more and more relevant. In these strange circumstances, it’s more important than ever to ask what creativity is for everyone – to understand the multifarious ecology of creativity, within which discovering and valuing something can sit alongside creating something.
We are – I’m sure every theatre is – dedicating a certain amount of time looking at different models for reopening, but it’s pretty clear that if you’ve got to be two metres from everyone else, you don’t want to be in a theatre. Under lock-down or semi-lockdown it’s hard to see how a conventional theatre can function in any kind of conventional way. Certain transformative things may happen to allow us to get back to usual business, such as the introduction of a vaccine, but there is no certainty – and I think we’ll start to see our greatest theatrical imaginations applying their story-telling and spectacular skills in quite surprising ways as time goes on. There will be a Bristol Ferment Fortnight of experiment theatre work in July even though we don’t’ know where or how it will happen. Will it be online? Will it be acoustic? Will it be aerial? I’ve no idea. But I know it will be inspiring. It always is. And maybe by then our hunger as a society for the unique leaps of imagination which our artists can offer us will have sharpened.
In theatre we’re used to having a slight paranoia about whether our artform is durable – and this can be intimidating when things are changing so quickly. But it’s also an inspiration. And my instinct is that the fundamentals of live imaginative collaboration in real time and space will remain valuable even if we have to express them in ways we don’t quite recognise. The theatre in Bristol is a cutting-edge piece of 18th-century story-telling technology. It’s the equivalent of a Stradivarius violin. It might take us time for it to be safe to explore that with anything like the frequency we did before the 16th March but I have no doubt that whatever we discover during lock down will find a home in that unique space in the future.
We don’t have re-opening dates yet, of course. The humbling thing is that the choice will finally not be made by us but the public. They will be taking the risk, we will be gambling against their risk. If we open our theatres and no one wants to go out, we’ll be in trouble. If the need is real, if the appetite is there, and if the timing is right, the reopening of our theatres will be a wonderful and enriching rediscovery and reinvention of the unique interactive chemistry of live performance which has evolved and endured for over two thousand years.
Bristol Old Vic; Bristol Old Vic at Home; Bristol Arts Channel; Family Arts Hub; Open Stage Online
Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice
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