Producers Fuel and theatre company Uninvited Guests begin digitally touring their hit show Love Letters Straight from the Heart tonight, Lyn Gardner finds out what that means and speaks to director Kate McGrath about how it works
In Shakespeare’s time and beyond, when the great playhouses were closed because of the plague, troupes of travelling players set off on tour around the country. They were not always welcomed with open arms. In 1630, when the King’s Men, the acting company Shakespeare had belonged to, were planning to play Worcester, the city paid them to stay away for fear they might bring infection with them.
In the current pandemic and associated lockdown, touring is not an option. Yet this week producers Fuel and theatre company Uninvited Guests set out on a national and international tour with live performances of Love Letters Straight from the Heart.
It’s a glorious, heart-felt interactive show about the people we love and the people we are missing, which invites every member of the audience to dedicate a song to someone they love. Those dedications are read out by the performers. It is a show full of toasts and dancing, which is drenched in love and absence and operates a bit like a cross between a wedding reception and a really cheesy radio show.
‘A digital tour was a way of providing work for some of our artists and reconnecting with our partner venues’
It premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009 and has since toured extensively, and a global pandemic and total theatre closure will not stop it. Tonight (May 20, 2020) Love Letters kicks off a new leg of the tour at the Brighton Festival before heading to venues including Contact in Manchester, Eden Court in Inverness and Alphabetti in Newcastle and as far afield as La Teatreria in Mexico City, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
But this is a virtual tour with the artists and audiences present together in real time on Zoom. Tickets are booked via the Fuel website, but each venue has authority over how the allocation is distributed on the night or nights they are virtually hosting.
“Our artists make work that tours,” says Kate McGrath, the director of independent producers Fuel whose productions include Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles, and dozens of other projects ranging from Bristol Old Vic’s Touching the Void to Racheal Ofori’s Portrait.
“A digital tour was a way of providing work for some of our artists and reconnecting with our partner venues and audiences that we’ve been regularly visiting over the last 16 years but where we can’t travel physically at the moment.”
McGrath and Fuel could have just put the show online and invited audiences to sign up, and it would probably have been less bother, but McGrath saw the Love Letters tour as “a playful way of experimenting with a different touring model and helping venues across the country to maintain relationships with audiences”.
Different venues are using the available tickets in different ways, with some offering them first to the most regular attendees, others focusing on those who are most isolated. The Brighton Festival has instigated a ballot to cope with demand, but for many of the dates it is also possible for anyone to book the remaining tickets and experience the show from wherever they are in the world.
But partnering with venues is no gimmick. After spending several weeks talking about “what we are not going to do” and unproducing (that unlovely word that has now entered the theatrical lexicon as a result of shows having to be prematurely closed down and projects unpicked) McGrath is enjoying the prospect of once again offering something to audiences and venues. The model has been kept simple to involve minimal risk and minimal paperwork and administration with most of it falling on Fuel. That’s essential for tiny venues such as Alphabetti in Newcastle where everyone is furloughed.
“Venues have been really open to the idea. Only one said no. They were excited to have something they could offer their audiences. It’s a testament to the spirit in which the industry is approaching this crisis and wanting to try things out,” says McGrath. “This is a period when experiment is to be embraced, and there is a lot to be found out by doing this and we are going to share everything we learn with the industry. Will the show work online? Who will come? Can the donation model work and generate income?”
The latter question is obviously crucial at the current time. McGrath says that overnight Fuel, which is a national portfolio organisation, lost 74% of its income. But she reckons Fuel is luckier than many because of the relationships it has forged with artists, co-producers and venues over many years.
‘We have a big job to do in reconnecting people and imagining the future’
As to whether Love Letters Straight from the Heart works online – it does. I saw a preview and, of course, watching on Zoom is a different experience from being in the same room as the performers and the rest of the audience. For a start it is really hard to gaze into someone else’s eyes on Zoom. But it is still enormously potent and emotionally rich and there is an added dimension around the painful intimacy of participating in your own home at a time when many of us are separated from those we love most.
“We were nervous about whether it would work and initially we tried it out very quietly and privately to see,” says McGrath, “but we discovered that it did, and I think that’s because the audience members are such an integral part of the show. Their contributions are crucial. It’s their dedications that make it so moving. It’s as if by writing them but putting them into the mouths of the performers it frees the audience up so they say the things they really feel but might never say out loud themselves. It is a life-affirming piece of work.”
It is also one that feels like a sprinkle of optimism in dark times. McGrath understands the anxieties of the theatre industry at the moment, and doesn’t underestimate the financial catastrophe that venues, companies and individual freelancers are facing. But she argues theatre must explore new ways and new models, and the Love Letters tour is part of that.
“Theatre has a job to do in the new world we will be moving into,” says McGrath. “We will need support from the government to survive, but if we can secure that we have a big job to do in reconnecting people and imagining the future. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m an optimist.”