By Tamara von Werthern
According to the calendar on my desk, it’s been five months since I last sat down to write this column. I don’t know if I believe that – it seems like only yesterday we were hurriedly packing up the Nick Hern Books office and preparing to work from home, but also feels as if March was another lifetime. It’s hard to keep the days and dates straight, somehow.
One date that I don’t think any of us will ever forget is 16 March when, following advice from the UK government, theatres across the country immediately shut their doors – some announcing it less than an hour before that evening’s performance. In a statement issued that night, Julian Bird, Chief Executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, thanked ‘all of our audiences who have continued to support us for as long as they [could]’, and said ‘[I] hope we are able to welcome audiences back to our theatres before too long.’
My calendar insists that was five months ago.
At NHB, as usual we were preparing to publish new plays that were due to open at venues around the country, including at the National Theatre, Bridge Theatre, Royal Court Theatre in London and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. We had also just published plays that were in previews in London, Manchester, and Nottingham, gearing up for their press nights. Meanwhile, amateur companies, youth theatres, schools and other groups were busily putting the finishing touches on their productions of NHB-licensed plays, with dozens due to open that week alone. All of that was immediately swept away. Productions were cancelled, cut short or postponed indefinitely. Our list of upcoming publications emptied faster than an audience hurrying for the last train.
Of course, everybody connected to theatre has their own story of how the shutdown has affected them. It’s been heartbreaking to see so many organisations struggle with the impact of losing most of their income overnight, with thousands of staff being made redundant, some venues – like Nuffield Southampton Theatres – closing permanently and freelancers across the industry denied any meaningful financial help. It’s also been incredibly frustrating to see the government sit on their hands and let so much avoidable damage happen (though the £1.57 billion rescue fund has been announced, applicants have been told not to expect to receive any funding until the end of September at the latest, which will be too late for many). I know also how hard the extended shutdown has been for amateur companies, with productions needing to be abandoned, audience income lost, venues lying empty, and passionate people deprived of doing the things they love with their friends and peers. I don’t think any of us ever imagined this situation would last this long.
And yet, in the middle of all this devastation, theatre has continued, with companies of all types and sizes finding ways to keep going. The National Theatre at Home’s programme made sixteen previously recorded productions available to watch free of charge via YouTube, reaching more than nine million households (including my own), and dozens of other theatres and companies have joined them in uploading their work to enjoy from the comfort of your own sofa. Other companies have commissioned and created new work to reflect these strange times, such as Papatango Theatre Company’s Isolated But Open monologues, which are available to watch and read online for free. Youth-theatre organisation Company Three launched the Coronavirus Time Capsule, a project for groups of teenagers to create their own records of living through the pandemic by using prompts, exercises and games to make a short video each week, with more than two hundred groups getting involved around the world. The Old Vic Theatre has started Old Vic In Camera, a series of performances live-streamed from its empty auditorium. Leeds-based theatre company Slung Low has turned its venue, The Holbeck (the oldest social club in Britain) into a local support hub, running a foodbank, and co-ordinating volunteers to support the vulnerable as well as continuing to put on entertainment for their community. And of course, drama teachers and facilitators have found ways to adapt and keep running lessons even when they can’t see their students in person. I have never appreciated teachers more than in these past few months, trying to home-school my two children for the first time!
Amateur companies have been getting in on the act – pun intended – too. I’ve loved reading Sardines’ lockdown digests each week, with updates about everything enterprising societies are doing. From NHB’s end, we began inviting applications for online performances (both live-streams and broadcast of recordings) from May, and it’s been wonderful to see dozens of groups get involved with this adapted way of creating and sharing new productions – including one company that have so far produced an amazing three online shows in just a couple of months. We’re so grateful to all of the playwrights and their agents who’ve been incredibly open and understanding of the unprecedented situation we all find ourselves in, and have helped make these productions possible.
I think that part of the reason that theatres and theatre-makers have been able to rise to these challenging times is that adapting, problem-solving and overcoming adversity is what we do. Everybody who’s ever worked on a production in any capacity has had to deal with unexpected challenges and setbacks – unwell performers, forgotten lines, wobbly sets, costume malfunctions, tech mishaps, you name it – and work out a way to make sure things are still ‘alright on the night’. Nowhere is this more true than in amateur theatre, where tight budgets and stretched resources mean that everybody involved has to be even more resourceful and pull together to get things done. ‘The show must go on’ has always been a beloved theatre catchphrase, but the response to the pandemic has shown it to be a promise, too. I’m not sure any of us will remember 2020 fondly, but part of what will stay with me is my respect and admiration for all of you who saw what was happening, took a deep breath, and soldiered on.
But of course, what we’re all hoping for is to be able to get back what we’ve lost, as soon as possible – and there have already been tantalising steps in that direction. Since the restrictions were relaxed in mid-July, we’ve seen outdoor performances start to take place. Leading the way was the beautiful Minack Theatre in Cornwall (a visit there must surely be on any theatre-lover’s bucket list), but since then more and more theatres and groups, both professional and amateur, have followed suit. Social distancing is still required for all involved, performers, crew and audience alike, which undoubtedly brings challenges, but also the opportunity for creative solutions. So if you’re able, this could be a great way to bring your members and audiences together while we’re still enjoying the hot summer weather, and is definitely something to consider. Whether outdoor panto catches on in December, only time will tell…
The next stage will be to resume indoor performances, which aren’t currently permitted – and, as I write this, have just been delayed by at least two weeks. In July, Andrew Lloyd Webber hosted a trial of what a socially distanced indoor performance might look like, by putting on a concert at his London Palladium featuring West End performer Beverley Knight. The need to keep audience members a safe distance apart meant the auditorium’s capacity was capped at about 25%, which makes it financially unviable for most professional theatres, which usually need to operate at around 65% to make the numbers work. For amateur theatres, who don’t have the same type of financial pressures, these calculations might be different – how many spectators might you need to make a socially distanced production worth it? Regardless of the money, though, the most important thing will always be to make sure your members and audiences feel safe, and so while there are options available for those who are keen to get going again sooner, it may be that we need to wait for an end to the pandemic for theatres to feel confident to fully start up again.
I really hope that happens as soon as possible, because what the ‘Year of Covid’ has shown is just how much we all need theatre, and what it adds to our lives. Theatres are spaces to bring people together, to enjoy a shared experience and travel as one to places and times that aren’t our own, and to meet people and characters we didn’t previously know. For those who are part of putting on a production, you get to experience another life from the inside, and be part of a team focused on achieving your shared goal of a brilliant show. With all of us sheltered inside our homes, not seeing our friends and family for weeks or months, and maybe only interacting with each other through our screens, these feelings of connection and unity is something that’s sorely missed.
The word ‘theatre’ comes from the Ancient Greek word ‘théatron’, which roughly translates as ‘a place for viewing’ – a reminder that this place, this sense of shared space, is at its heart. So for all of the wonderful ways that fantastic, enterprising, passionate theatre-makers have found to carry on even while their buildings are closed, ways I hope keep going as long as this all lasts, I for one can’t wait to join you there again.
Tamara von Werthern has been Performing Rights Manager at Nick Hern Books since 2005.
She is also a playwright, screenwriter and theatre-maker.