As the UK grapples with life under lockdown, theatres across the country are being forced to explore what their operation looks like without any shows on their stages. From housing NHS workers and helping the most isolated groups be creative, to navigating the digital landscape and questioning what theatres must offer when they are open once more, the leaders of some of the UK’s top producing theatres spoke to Georgia Snow about their responses to the crisis.
What has been Chichester’s immediate response to the closure?
We feel so connected to our community, and so many are either elderly and isolated, or young and vulnerable. Our education department has leapt into action and we have a 10-week plan for a virtual youth theatre term, which is fantastic. We have a house, where we normally house our creative teams and sometimes actors, and we’re giving that to our local hospital, so they can use the 11 bedrooms in it for staff recovery. We’re trying to focus on supporting our community in the wider sense. Care homes are in particularly dire straights because they can’t receive visitors. Some residents are particularly isolated and have to stay in their rooms, so we are collating a video compilation of songs they can sing along to, or movement they can do. We’re lucky because we have a huge education department and the tentacles run throughout the county, but this situation is really encouraging us to think about the practical, immediate support we can offer, and that can be motivating and inspiring.
What impact do you think these things will have on your theatre’s operation after the closure period ends?
I think [the crisis] might give us deeper connections and make us even more vital in terms of our partnership working. It might, in a way, bring that activity to the fore. Because of what we’ve been through in terms of tenures of austerity, cuts in education, cuts in health and social care, it means there are other ways we can bring joy and hope and entertainment [outside of shows]. We can inspire and play a crucial part in people’s lives. It might bring theatres properly into the heart of our communities. It’s going to change us, definitely. One of the big things worrying us, is that when the dust settles a bit – maybe at a point where we’re over the worst – we still don’t know how audiences will behave. They might not want to come and sit next to strangers in the dark for two hours. People don’t like coughing at the best of times in theatre, but it’s going to take on a whole new meaning. We’re trying to plan for as many scenarios as possible and be as responsive and adaptable as possible, but we have to play it by ear.
What have you prioritised over the past few weeks?
Since we closed our building, our work has felt two fold – making sure the community work keeps going and continuing to reach those who we were reaching before. And, building on that to make sure we’re also reaching all of the people who would normally be coming to see our shows. There have been some immediate things we have been able to do – we work with social services a lot so we’ve given away all the food we have in stock, and we have also been able to add to those food packages because we have huge supplies of fabric and props for creative packs. We have moved things such as our weekly group for 17 to 25-year-olds online, that was quite straightforward, and then doing that for our Company 55, which is for people aged 55 plus, has been more about talking through the online process with people. But for some of the groups we engage with, such as Arts from the Armchair, which is for people with short-term memory loss, we have been writing letters – almost going offline – as a more caring way of doing things.
How have you responded to losing the production aspect of your work?
We’ve not live streamed our shows for years, so it didn’t feel like the way we could be most useful. We’ve honoured all of our freelance contracts, which means we have a whole bunch of actors, designers and directors who would have been making shows with us right now who have said they want to do whatever they can, from delivering weekly food and creative packs, to online creative projects. The nature of a theatre like ours is that, at its best, it can and should be at the heart of its community, and it is more than simply a place you go to see shows, in a way that is especially true regionally. Obviously there is a huge show-shaped hole in our work and that is heartbreaking. Walking through the darkened corridors of the theatre is horrible. But because we are continuing to work with the artists who would have been making shows for us, it feels as though there is at least a continuing dialogue with that part of our work.
Are you fearful about how long this situation might last?
I’m loathed to use the word fear, but we have to be realistic about how long we are going to be in this for. We have to plan for the various scenarios but we can’t jump to conclusions that aren’t there yet. We are trying to make sure we’re working in chunks of time, a few weeks at a time, so that we know that when we get the okay to reopen we are ready. There is going to be fear around gathering together, but there is also going to be a need for it. We want people to feel comfortable and safe, and feel that we’ve given proper thought to the enormity of that experience, and so hopefully we’ll be ready for that.
How has the closure immediately impacted you?
Our situation, which is fairly typical, is that we have lost, at a stroke, three quarters of our income. The irony is, we have all increased our income over the last 10 years as declining subsidy has pushed all theatres towards commerciality. This transition has been achieved very successfully, even though it has changed the balance of our programmes, but now, because we’re so reliant on earned income, we’re much like a commercial business in terms of the impact of the lockdown. For once, arts organisations are exactly like any other business. Even now, the future feels very uncertain – last week it was even more so. In that context, Arts Council England’s announcement was very bold and clear-sighted, in terms of what its priorities should be, but it also didn’t commit to a specific set of plans, because it is very aware that all these arts organisations would be left in an incredibly unclear state. Now that the rules of the treasury’s rescue package are becoming clearer, the Arts Council can begin to assess where the gaps are, which will have to be plugged if arts organisations across the country are to survive.
How do you see Bristol Old Vic’s role during this period?
We are starting to think about what we can do for, and with, our audiences while we’re closed. Providing online back-catalogue theatrical content will be part of that, but these days, as the Arts Council’s strategy has pointed out, the responsibilities of a theatre extend far beyond making the best shows we can. Our outreach programmes reach deep into our communities to inspire the young, the brilliant and the vulnerable, and our talent development programmes are busy discovering artists from every background to ensure the quality and impact of theatre and the other storytelling media throughout the 2020s and 2030s. The immediate challenge for all of us is how we keep the energy of those programmes alive during our closure – at a time when the loneliness of isolated and vulnerable people can only become an increasing problem.
What are your concerns looking forward over the next few months?
The million-dollar question is when we reopen. We’re all rendered very fragile by this income loss and the longer we stay closed the harder that is. If we decide to reopen on a given date, we cannot afford to get it wrong. Some businesses can reopen at the drop of a hat. If a bookshop reopens its doors, the same books will be on the shelves, awaiting the eager public. Restaurants can be up and running within days. This is where theatre is a case of its own. For us, it will take at least three months from lockdown to curtain up. If we re-employ staff and start rehearsing productions, commissioning creative teams, employing actors and selling tickets, and then suddenly we’re not able to open, we will be done for. We can’t absorb this sort of shock twice. That’s where a new partnership with Arts Council England and others who see the potential that theatre has to contribute to our post-Covid 19 economic recovery is essential. Some are already saying the country will need a Marshall Plan if we are to get back on our feet. And we need to make sure that a resurgent and fighting fit theatre sector is at the heart of the investment which enables that.
What have the past few weeks been like for you?
It won’t surprise you to hear that it’s been a period of uncertainty. Artistic and executive directors at theatres across the country have been getting together on Zoom and trying to digest and analyse things. For artistic directors and management, actually, that interaction is quite rare, but suddenly we have a sense of national togetherness, which is extraordinary. We are an inherently creative sector, so we are looking at what we can do in the community. There was a real groundswell of support that came out of our production of The Shadow Factory two years ago, because of its story [set in Southampton], and we have built a sense of local place making from that. Being closed is all the more reason to keep that engagement work going, albeit virtually, because that’s the space we’re in now.
What are your thoughts on the switch to digital?
As with everyone, we’re exploring what digital looks like, and one of the challenges of the digital space for a regional theatre is that you need to provide something inherently unique, otherwise people will just go and watch something London’s Old Vic is providing. It’s not just a case of putting our programme online, that’s not going to work for us. We’re exploring various ideas and I’m sure this is what everyone’s grappling with at the moment. I don’t think it’s as simple as churning out as much content as possible, because why not just watch Netflix? That’s the conversation we’re having around the digital space.
What are the priorities for the next few weeks?
We are thinking about how we redeploy ourselves, the building and the staff to the benefit of what’s needed. Where you might have a youth theatre programme entirely reliant on a building, does that mean the youth theatre is now closed, or can it be reinvented in some way? At the moment, it feels as though we’re running very fast to keep up with the now – with legislation and making sure our staff and freelancers stay safe and healthy – but also modelling for when and how we open, everyone is taking different approaches.
What have the past few weeks been like for you?
It is a deep shock. Theatre depends on being together, in an actual and visceral way. We make work together in rehearsal rooms, we are in auditoriums together for hours on end. So, without human contact, it feels very difficult to keep a sense of purpose. But that’s the job at the moment, to make sure that we act. It’s been so quick. On March 16 I had to tell the Love, Love, Love company that they weren’t going on stage that night, or at all – the Love, Love, Love set is still on our stage actually – and the Antigone company, at the end of their first day of rehearsals, that they had to stop. That, as you can imagine, has been heartbreaking. I think everyone’s reeling.
On a personal level, the first season I put together at the Lyric has been overturned, and it will never be what it was meant to be, which was a big, bold new start, a new vision, putting a personal stamp on the theatre, and I am grieving that. As much as we are looking forward, it’s all right to grieve for what we have lost and the momentum we have lost. It is vital. We need to do that because we need to come back, and we need to come back from a really difficult time, bold and ambitious and flexible, quick and generous.
Are there elements of your operation, such as community and education work, that you hope to continue while closed?
I’m wrapping my head around all of it at the moment, rather than trying to fill the gap straightaway. But of course, we are exploring a number of ideas for groups such as Generation Lyric, our young people’s company, who were going to play the chorus in Seamus Heaney’s Antigone that Roy Alexander Weise was directing and another group were making their own show, slated to be on our stage. We’re having conversations so we don’t lose contact with those people and they still get to work on the incredible opportunity they would have had. Everybody’s working differently right now. Theatre depends on people being together and that’s the very thing we can’t do right now, so it does feel like a profound shock to the soul.