THEATRE AT AN UNCERTAIN STAGE:
By Norman Warwick
Romina Thornton, a dance practitioner friend of ours, shared the following facebook post she had recently received
´If Boris told restaurants they could re-open, but not serve food, there would be uproar.
If Boris told pubs they could re-open, but not serve drinks, there would be uproar.
If Boris told hotels they could re-open, but no-one could stay overnight, there would be uproar.
Telling theatres they can re-open, but not stage live performances, is a total nonsense.´
It was, surely, a fair point well made.
Certainly, Ian Youngs, Arts & Entertainments reporter for BBC wrote a chilling preview on BBC NEWS on-line about how ´theatre´ as known in the UK might not be able to regain its feet as it emerges from lockdown. I have the same fears on our small island of Lanzarote, too, where theatre has always been a vibrant, entertaining and meaningful part of the arts and cultural calendar.
Just as in the UK, theatres here will be among the last places to re-open after the coronavirus lockdown is lifted, meaning venues, actors and crews are fearing for their futures. Most of the arts offer here on Lanzarote is offered for tourist consumption and so long as the tourists return and then even arts events delivered to only 30% or 50% of the previous audience numbers, would probably still be viable profit-earning achievements.
It is in delivering for its indigenous people that Lanzarote theatre might most struggle, because, if audience capacities are restricted to such percentages, a third full capacity in a local town theatre would probably not cover production costs.
With such financial tightness theatre companies are likely to become more middle of the road and more risk averse of challenging and contemporary work and of aspirtant writers and performers.
Here on Lanzarote, in the UK and surely now around most of the globe, the appeal of the theatre – cramming into an enclosed space with hundreds of strangers to share a communal experience – has suddenly become its greatest risk. Box office takings have dried up virtually overnight.
As Ian Youngs said in his piece dated 14th May 2020, re-opening with social distancing will not make financial sense. He reminded us that one venue, The Nuffield, in Southampton, has already gone into administration.
Youngs there invited four artistic directors to discuss how and when they might re-open, who all warned of dire consequences if income and funding dry up.
The theatre industry is badly wounded, according to Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s analogy. “Right now we’re at the tourniquet stage,” he told BBC NEWS On Line. “We’re trying to stem the bleeding. Then we’re going to have to stand up, and then we’re going to have to run. And we’re going to need help at each stage in order to get back to – not even the way it was – but to get back to something that is sustainable and safe.´
Young Vic theatre He believes the south London venue and others like it have enough money to keep going until the autumn. Arts Council England, in fact has has made £90m of emergency funding available to keep organisations afloat until the end of September.
After that, they will need a government bailout, without which, according to Kwei-Armah, ´many of us will fall off a cliff in the subsequent months´.
Since offering this opinion, it must be said, UK safe social distancing has been somewhat reduced, but whether sufficiently to improve audience density and capacity, remains to be seen. As Kwei-Annah said in his piece, the key to re-opening will be ´an end´ to social distancing, adding´, ´It’s almost impossible, economically, to socially distance a theatre, In order to social distance at 2m, we would lose three quarters of our audience. And then we have to work out how you create safe space for the rest of the staff – backstage and in a rehearsal room. And then we have to work out what the public appetite might be towards coming back into a theatre.´
He thought, even when all that had been done it could then take three months to get back up and running, taking staffing and rehearsals into account. The Young Vic is planning different reopening scenarios up to next April – more than a year after going dark.
The venue has furloughed most staff but has continued some work – reaching 100 members of its young directors scheme online every day, and running a local playwriting programme. Staff are also making food deliveries for a local charity.
When theatres do turn the lights back on, Kwei-Armah says those who have often been excluded in the past must be present.
´From class to race to gender, we have made great progress over the last few years in our sector in trying to equalise it,´ he says. ´I’m determined absolutely that all of that progress that we’ve made can be preserved and sustained. We have to rebuild with that as a fundamental.´
- The Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire has been streamed by the National Theatre from 21 May.
Coronavirus hasn’t stopped the youth and elders groups at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre making a show together – they have just done it on-line instead of on stage.
This is a theatre I have attended both as an audience member and a performer and I have many happy memories of the venue so I was delighted to read that their five episodes of Connect Fest, about an ageing band reforming for a festival, were released daily over the period of a week in May.
´At The Royal Exchange, we’re still trying to do what we are here to do, which is to give people moments of connection through art,´ joint artistic director Roy Alexander Weise told Ian Youngs. ´It’s hard, though, because the team who are producing that piece of work has been cut down because we’ve had to furlough close to 90% of our staff to help keep ourselves afloat financially, because we aren’t making the money that we would do.´
Much like Young Vic The Royal Exchange is concerned the new normal might look like after re-opening., Weise and co-artistic director Bryony Shanahan are also thinking about socially-distanced shows.
´It doesn’t necessarily make financial sense for us to do that,´ he says. ´but we understand that our purpose is greater than financial gain. It is far greater – it’s connection, well- being, equal opportunities. So I guess, just like everyone else, we’re clinging on for dear life trying to see what will happen next, and all we can do is prepare ourselves as best we can to brace for whatever the landscape looks like. Producing shows is going to feel incredibly difficult to do in the coming months.´
Asked how the pandemic might change theatre Weise says many people are afraid of ´a huge regression” in the types of plays and voices heard, seeking refuge in ´plays that they know will sell.´
He goes so far as to say some even think ´it might be a good thing for some institutions to go´ – venues that ´for a very long time have been led by lots of people who all look the same, who invite the same audiences in.´
Weise is focusing on his theatre’s purpose and why it stages the shows it does. ´We’ve all got more than enough time now to think about our why as artistic leaders.´
´The current hiatus is a chance to prepare for allowing a wider range of people to tell their stories´, he says. ´Narrative is everything. It really does rule the world. We (now) have a real opportunity to allow people to understand the power of story, allow people to step into some of that power, who maybe haven’t been able to step into that power before, and see the exciting ways in which our world can progress.´
Another theatre, The Royal Court, (right) closed in March, and put up the words “Back Soon” in big letters on the front of its building in west London. But how soon, as ian Youngs discovered, was not a question that could then, or even now perhaps, not be precisely answered.
´We keep coming up with different scenarios for when we could open and how we could open, and we alight on one thing, and then that slips,´ was the best that artistic director Vicky Featherstone was able to offer in response.
Vicky Featherstone is a theatre and artistic director. She has been artistic director of London’s Royal Court Theatre since April 2013. She had previously been the founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, and before that artistic director of the UK new writing touring theatre company Paines Plough. Her career has been characterised by significant involvement with new writing.
´The closest I can imagine being able to invite a full capacity audience is around January 2021,´ Vicky replied.
It would be too risky to commit the money for a big production before that.
´If there was another spike [in infections], or actors get ill, we would have to stop again and that would be really damaging.´
That doesn’t necessarily mean the building will be totally shut until 2021.
Vicky Featherstone (left) is trying to think of ´creative, socially distanced ways to host events, perhaps for young people, in the autumn. Something more playful and hopeful, a bit more radical, reckless, for much, much smaller groups of people.´
As well as thinking about how to make members of the public feel safe, she is preoccupied by the predicaments of the freelancers who work on their shows. All plays that had been announced will, therefore, go ahead – at some point.
´We have a massive freelance and self-employed workforce that I think we have taken for granted,´ Vicky said, ´and now we need to think about how they are supported.´
Most of the theatre’s education and outreach work has continued digitally, and it has put David Ireland’s play Cyprus Avenue online. The Royal Court website is now showing a live feed of the empty theatre.
Theatres play a crucial role, she says, citing research that (in normal times) more people go to theatres than to Premier League football matches. They are also where many people in film and TV learn their craft.
Featherstone points to Alice Birch, who came through the Royal Court’s ranks before co-writing BBC Three’s excellent hit drama Normal People.
´We all need stories and we all need our imaginations to be fired up,´ Featherstone says. ´From Shakespeare onwards, we have absolutely led the world. We want to be able to continue that.´
Pitlochry Festival Theatre in the Scottish Highlands has postponed its summer season, which had been due to start next week.
Nevertheless, artistic director Elizabeth Newman has been busy organising activities, like a phone line for actors to have chats with lonely locals; three daily rays of ´Light Hope Joy´ on social media; and fifty works of art dedicated to the River Tay.
One of the summer shows, David Greig’s new play Adventures With The Painted People, is being made for BBC Radio 3 instead.
´We’ve tried to remain a producing organisation that is making art,´ Newman says. ´On the one hand we’re doing that and on the other, myself and Kris [Bryce], the executive director, are working around the clock to work out how we can survive this crisis.´
That means working out how to stage socially-distanced shows.
´We need to be looking at how we can make work that adheres to government guidelines, but also we need to make sure that we’re solvent,´ she says.
If they tried to socially distance the 538-capacity auditorium, (to the social distancing guidelines at the time of Young´s article, in May), they would only be able to admit seventy people, which is not financially viable. So Newman and Bryce are looking beyond the building to its eleven-acre grounds.
´We’re going to have to conceive programmes of work that are not necessarily in the auditorium and are outside, and are quality and rich for our audience, but not necessarily about them being shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. Those are the ideas I’m coming up with – work outdoors, different kinds of performances, different kinds of events, different kinds of social happenings that can occur, but that don’t place peoples’ lives at risk.´
The theatre is the biggest employer in the area, but there are likely to be redundancies.
´I feel that weight very heavily on my shoulders,´ Newman says. ´Some tough decisions are going to have to be made. And it’s not going to be small changes, it’s going to be big changes for a time. And that feels incredibly painful if I’m honest.´
Newman says Creative Scotland hasn’t been in a position to offer extra financial support, so she is hoping for an extra package from the UK government.
“Theatre is going to be the last industry that’s going to be able to get up to full function, and we’re just praying that they’re going to come back with some sort of relief and support.´
- Adventures With The Painted People was on Radio 3 in June.
Robert Jenrick In response to a question about theatres in Parliament at a recent briefing, the current, but perhaps not for much longer, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said: ´All of us who care about the arts are very concerned for the future of theatres, museums and galleries, performing arts, all of those who work in the sector.´
The arts are ´incredibly important to the UK´ and ´one of our great international strengths´ as well as being ´important for our wellbeing´, he said.
Many arts organisations have had government support through the furlough scheme, while self-employed people could access grants, he explained.
´The culture secretary is also working very closely with our main cultural institutions to see how we can guide them through undoubtedly a very difficult time, and to put in place the social distancing guidelines so they are ready to reopen when the science and medical opinion allows,´ the Minister continued.
´We hope that will be later this summer,´ he added, citing the plan for easing the lockdown, which was published earlier this week. ´However it is very conditional on continuing to keep the rate of infection down, and continuing to control the virus.´
The results of Ian Youngs´ research, and the thoughts of those he spoke to, left me in no doubt that theatre in the UK faces a ferociously uncertain future and might have to rely on the goodwill of tis previous patrons to give it life support and ensure it returns to full fitness.
Nevertheless, this story of darkness and devastation was lit with rays of hope and renewed and revised aspiration. Each of the four theatre representatives he spoke to spoke of an increased determination extend outreach and to ensure new productions and work offer obvious and vital relevance to only the disease and darkness but also to the resolve and resilience of human kind.
Having spent all my life trying, but failing, to create poems, songs, stories and myths that the world will take to heart I have consoled myself for many years that good stories, always, eventually find their audience.
When the curtains go back, and the lights go down, and actors and characters take to the stage they must ensure that their opening night audience is so enraptured that they leave the theatre ready to tell everyone they know that they must not miss it.
Sidetracks & Detours wish all UK theatres every success in meeting such a tough challenge and are delighted to close this articles with what we hope will be only the first of several good news stories from the sector over the coming weeks.
Insert photo 10 The first sign we noticed of a new optimism was. perhaps, the on line announcement, in a story by Hira Desai, on Friday July 3rd, that The Mousetrap, the longest-running play anyway in the world, is to re-open at St. Martin´s Theatre in London from 23rd October.
The production resumes a record-breaking run that began in 1952 and will see the theatre, of course, in compliance with the UK government stipulations for the recently Road Map that it is hoped will guide the return of live theatre and events.
Adam Spiegel, (right below) the producer of The Mousetrap, told Desai (left below):
´I recognise that for the vast majority of West End productions, operating with social distancing is simply not possible. I produce other shows which, unlike The Mousetrap, will be unable to re-open under these restrictions. We are very fortunate with The Mousetrap that, with the help of our stakeholders, we are able to adapt our economic model to be able to re-open. Whilst this cannot be a long-term exercise, we believe it is a crucial first step in restoring live theatre to the London landscape. From examinations of the operational requirements of the building, we are able to adhere to necessary social distancing on stage, backstage and throughout the auditorium and public spaces. The recent announcement of the government’s road map therefore brings our re-opening into immediate focus. It feels very symbolic that The Mousetrap will be amongst the first – and potentially the very first – West End show to open its doors again. As well as being the longest running play in the world, Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist this country has ever produced. She had already left a legacy for us to take great pride in. Her name being back up in lights in the West End, heralding the beginning of the end of a very dark time in the history of the theatre, means she will rightly remain one of the most celebrated figures in our cultural life´.
The play, of course, was originally adapted from Agatha Chrisitie´s radio show, Three Blind Mice, which itself was originally written for the royal family in 1947. Its central characters, gathered together in a remote corner of the countryside, discover there is a murderer in their midst. But, as ever, the question is: who did it?
After so many showings, and having been seen by millions The Mousetrap has been keeping audiences on their toes for as long as Queen Elizabeth II has been on the throne! Surely, though, the culrit has been apprehended and has served his life in jail?
The Mousetrap will celebrate 70 years in London in 2022 and to celebrate the 50th anniversary in 2002, The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh attended a special Gala performance of the fiftieth anniversary performance of The Mousetrap in 2002, and the production will celebrate its seventieth year in 2022.
Even having been performed 28,200 times in London and having sold over 10 million tickets, this is beloved and brilliant play remains a must-see production and it is great, after all this time, to hear that you can book your tickets now!
What might be contsidered even better news for the arts offer in the UK is that the government announced, on Monday 6th July 2020, a 1.6 billion pounds fund to keep the arts alive and support struggling institutions and venues throughout these troubled times. It is almost impossible to react churlishly to such support, but it remains prudent to question some of the machinations of it all. The first point to make is that the distribution of those funds should be spread as sensibly and fairly as possible across the sector. It seems the government might have taken some steps to ensure that by assigning the task of distribution to the major players such as Arts Council England and similar bodies.
We should bear in mind that this is taking place when it remains unclear which theatres will re-open and when. Of course nobody can yet make safe predictions and therefore we cannot yet know what social distancing etc might have to be applied. Nor can we yet know how the financial state of the nation might look, nor how empty might be the wallets of the traditional arts attendees.
It is laudable that governments recognise the importance of arts and culture as a tool with which to re-build national identity, and the survival of large theatres, galleries and museums is an important part of that re-building.
It is too, though, the smaller theatre groups that do so much outreach and good work in their communities for which we need to ensure survival. Not only the famous names but also those who are freelance singers, musicians, dancers, actors or comics will need governmental support and help from their fan bases.
Unless a sensible share of a very generous financial contribution from the government (of tax payers´ money let it not be forgotten) enjoys a trickle-down to those grass roots levesl we will come to see that this dreadful pandemic-caused hiatus has lost to other fields a generation of artists, and that without emerging talent we could have plenty of theatres but no audience.
The round tables will need to be large to accommodate all parties that should be involved in conferences about how to not only protect the best of what we have in the arts but also how to produce of our best in the future.
Major established figures in the pop world, such as Paul McCartney, (right) have remembered how lean times can be for any emerging artist struggling to make a living and a massive petition signed by top industry names has been presented effectively asking that we don´t forget those starting out in the industry, scribbling songs nobody has yet heard and singing them on street corners: those who, in Joni Mitchell´s words, are playing real good for free.