The New Vic faces an uncertain future amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but its community spirit is undimmed, says artistic director Theresa Heskins. She tells Tom Wicker about the overwhelming support the venue has received
The local community is at the heart of the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic forced the in-the-round venue to close, artistic director Theresa Heskins has been overwhelmed by the local support. “We’re giving back money for all the tickets that people bought,” she says. “But people have made donations, which is amazing.”
The theatre was already due to go dark over the summer, for much-needed refurbishments. “The big element was replacing 600 seats,” she says. Since the New Vic opened in 1986, “they’ve done three decades of sterling service, but they are literally gaffer-taped together at the moment.” Thankfully, this is still likely to happen. “When we do reopen, people will need something to sit on that’s not just tape and thin air.”
Local support was, again, crucial to this project, with a successful crowdfunding campaign adding to the £350,000 investment by Arts Council England towards the New Vic’s biggest redevelopment since it opened. “It’s been inspiring to see people’s commitment,” Heskins says. “To be honest, that’s how the theatre came about originally. It was built thanks to a huge number of donations and support from the local community.”
Nevertheless, the New Vic – like countless venues across the UK – faces an uncertain future. Heskins’ new adaptation of Angela Carter’s story The Company of Wolves, a darkly imaginative retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, was due to open this month.
This staging would have joined the ranks of Heskins’ other acclaimed theatre adaptations of classic tales, such as her touring production of Around the World in Eighty Days in 2017, or her 2009 version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
“We’d got to the final design stage of The Company of Wolves, when we had to pull it,” she says. “The big challenge will be when we’re able to reschedule it. It was really expensive. What’s going to happen financially over the next few months is the big question. And even if we are able to open, are we going to need to put in place social distancing measures? Will they be sustainable in a theatre-in-the-round? And would audiences have the confidence to come out?”
The New Vic has furloughed two-thirds of its staff and “mothballed the building”, she says. But, in common with so many venues outside London, it’s feeling the deepening financial chill of being a part of the UK’s co-producing and touring network. The shutdown has had a “knock-on effect, even into the autumn”, she says, “because we work in partnership with a lot of theatres”.
For example, fellow in-the round venue the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in Scarborough, was due to bring three shows to the New Vic later in the year. “But they’ve cancelled their entire summer season, so they won’t be making those shows or be able to open them as planned,” Heskins says. This, she thinks, is the grim paradox of the entire pandemic: “We’re stronger together and yet we feel like a danger to each other.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
At 13 I worked in a sweet shop for 25 hours a week to pay for my school uniform and shoes.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Running a youth theatre group at Mitchell Arts Centre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To not be so afraid of it all. I envy people who come from theatre backgrounds, who know how its conversations and structures work. Learning all of that from the ground up is hard. When you know it, you realise you just need to grab it all, be brave, learn it fast and ask questions.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
When I was a young director, I pilgrimaged to Glasgow to see Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. That sense of company and ensemble imagination on stage still hugely inspires me.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t be anxious. I don’t think actors always realise that we just want to love them, to think they’re fantastic. We just want to create the best possible environment for people to do their best.
If you hadn’t been a theatremaker, what would you have been?
I was so inspired by my teachers when I was young. It wasn’t a good school, but they were good teachers. They changed my life with their commitment to making sure each person got what they needed out of their education. So, for a long time, I thought I’d be a teacher.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not being complacent. It’s all about graft. As soon as I start to think: ‘Oh, I’m good at this’, I’m convinced that’s when it’s all going to go wrong. That’s my superstition.
But her commitment to making sure the New Vic remains at the heart of both its artistic and local community is unwavering. Outreach is at the centre of her leadership strategy and she’s received regional recognition for her efforts. In 2015, Staffordshire University awarded her an honorary doctorate for her services to theatre and cultural contributions. Among the theatre’s many initiatives, for example, is Appetite, an Arts Council programme to engage more people in Stoke-on-Trent in the arts.
Heskins points to a strong legacy, highlighting the award-winning social documentaries about Stoke-on-Trent made by a former artistic director of the New Vic, Peter Cheeseman, who died in 2018. “The connection between the cultural organisation and the community has always been strong,” she says. “I like to think it’s because culture has always been in the fabric of this place. After all, our heritage industry is in ceramics.”
When she arrived at the New Vic in 2007, “one of the things I wanted to do was to make sure this audience received the opportunity to see the latest theatrical forms and approaches”, she says. “I felt, at the time, that people living in metropolitan areas were getting to see immersive, promenade and site-specific theatre, but people in places Newcastle under-Lyme and north Staffordshire had fewer opportunities.”
Heskins developed what is now her guiding creative ethos – to take imaginative work to areas that people traditionally overlook – as artistic director of touring theatre company Pentabus from 1999 to 2007. “I was a city girl from a council estate in Elephant and Castle,” she says, before laughing. “I found the countryside terrifying.” She quickly grew to love it. “It was when the voice of rural England needed to be heard more loudly – and the country wanted to hear it. The stories we were making were speaking to a much wider group of people.”
While at the New Vic, she has brought techniques such as modern circus to productions – but always in the service of storytelling. “Audiences like ours, in a quite economically challenged area, are not going to invest their hard-won cash in ‘style’,” she says. “It’s not enough just to say: ‘Come and see this promenade piece.’ They invest in – and are passionate – about stories. So, we’ve built a loyal audience by bringing a contemporary theatricality to work that’s familiar to them.”
One example, hopefully staged later this year, will be the premiere of Marvellous – directed by Heskins – about much-loved Newcastle-under-Lyme local Neil Baldwin, whose inspiring life-story was the subject of an award-winning BBC TV drama of the same name in 2014. While the show’s previously scheduled tour is up in the air. “We’re still looking to do it as planned,” she says, “whether in September or a nudge further into autumn.”
And the New Vic is just as focused on maintaining the many outreach projects that have embedded it as a vital resource in the area. “We have a lot of programmes that we do with young people, at risk of exclusion, or with older people with dementia,” Heskins says. “These programmes are, ironically, about combating social isolation and exclusion. So, as much as possible, we’ve moved them online, because we’re determined to keep delivering that work.”
The New Vic’s community ethos is arguably more important than ever before. On the day that young people across the UK learned they wouldn’t be taking the exams they’d been working so hard for, one of the theatre’s youth directors was due to host a session with 30 A-level students. “She couldn’t do it face-to-face, so she did it remotely,” says Heskins. “At the end of that difficult day, one of those students told her: ‘This has been the most important workshop of my life.’”
Since the lockdown, the New Vic’s furloughed staff members have also been volunteering their time and expertise. Daniella Beattie, the theatre’s chief electrician and resident lighting designer, has been using the New Vic’s 3D printer to make face guards for NHS workers. “We’re trying to be as useful to our local community as we can be,” says Heskins, “to make a difference to people’s lives.”
Born: London, 1967
Training: Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme at Birmingham Rep
• Precious Bane, Pentabus Theatre (2003)
• The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme (2009), then tours in 2010 and 2015
• UK Theatre Award for best show for children and young people for The Snow Queen (2017)
• CAMEO Award for book to stage for Around the World in Eighty Days (2019)
For more information go to: newvictheatre.org.uk