Image: People’s Theatre Newcastle | Bard in Byker | Photo: Tim Swinton
by Dave Hollander
From 3,000-seater arenas to the tiniest fringe venues, theatres across the UK have been embattled throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. But since the four-month total shutdown from March, the ever-changing rules have not stopped theatremakers across both professional and amateur sectors finding creative ways to serve their communities and produce innovative work.
Some have reluctantly decided to suspend all in-person productions, while others have staged outdoor shows and socially distanced indoor performances when local restrictions have allowed. But a key change for everyone has been a huge rise in online activities: staying in touch via video-conferencing apps, fundraising and social events, as well as recorded and live-streamed performances.
When The Stage asked me to speak to a range of amateur theatremakers across the UK in early October, the situation was rather different from now. Having already produced open-air productions, many in England who were not subject to local lockdowns had already adopted Covid-safe measures to ensure indoor shows could go ahead. Sardines’ surveys suggested about 20% of amateur groups had staged some kind of online or live performance since March, while others were waiting for social distancing to be relaxed.
Yet within weeks, a second, month-long lockdown was imposed, alongside similarly restrictive regulations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And now it seems that under the latest regulations relatively few companies, professional or amateur, will be able to produce festive shows for a live audience – at least on a scale that is financially viable. Panto season may be all but cancelled, but with an indomitable spirit many are determined to put something on. And importantly, recent reports of successful vaccine trials suggest there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: 2021 may be the year we all meet again to make and watch theatre in person.
Rather than trying to predict exactly when this might happen, it’s important to recognise what amateur societies have achieved over the past nine months, not only by putting on fantastic shows, but also embracing new ways of doing things, reaching out to their members and engaging with their communities.
Immediately after the first lockdown, the Little Theatre Guild became a central point of information for its one hundred-plus member societies. National Liaison Officer Eddie Redfern was tasked with securing clarity on the rules from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport before communicating this to the guild’s members. But, as LTG Chair Jo Matthews explains: “Early on there was confusion, because the rules were drawn up without considering whether there were any differences between amateur and professional. We got caught up in the middle of all that and eventually got the issues ironed out.”
LTG Southern Regional Secretary Anne Gilmour adds: “We’ve been very aware as we’re passing on information given by the government bodies that it’s not our organisation saying this. Some members will turn round and say: ‘This is what the LTG advises.’ But we say: “No, this is what the government advises, this is what DCMS is saying, this is what the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre are recommending – follow their rules.’ So we walk a bit of a tightrope there and we’re very keen to get the balance right. The members appreciate that and recognise that we’re not going to give any advice that is offkey.”
With more than two thousand member companies, the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA) has also been pushing for clarity on the rules, as well as recognition of amateur theatre’s vital role in the country’s cultural life. Chief Operating Officer Dale Freeman sent members an open letter about the importance of amateur theatre to culture and wellbeing, urging them to share it with the local press. But he remains frustrated by the lack of clarity whenever new measures are announced: “It’s completely ambiguous, to the point where two members of our committee can read the same legislation and come up with a different set of rules.”
When I spoke to the LTG committee in October, Public Relations officer Kevin Spence – an active member of Doncaster Little Theatre – said: “The current lockdown has caused a bit of a north-south divide among our theatres, as it has across England in other areas of life. I’m sure a lot of our members in the north of England would like to be more active but can for obvious reasons.” Unfortunately, the latest post-lockdown tier system in England makes the situation even more complicated, and further clarification will need to be sought.
Adding that it has been no easier to interpret the rules north of the border, NODA Scotland’s regional councillor Stuart McCue-Dick explains how operations quickly moved online: “We shared a series of newsletters via email and on our Facebook page. These have updated members on a range of issues locally and nationally including online training opportunities, funding support and guidance updates, as well as details about the lobbying being carried out as part of the Amateur Theatre Matters campaign to highlight the importance of amateur theatre and its interconnection with professional theatre.”
NODA Scotland’s network of eleven regional reps have kept in touch via Zoom meetings allowing local members to share news and offer help and support to each other, and this year’s conference, in October, was held virtually for the first time. The event normally attracts more than 250 attendees at Peebles Hydro, but thanks to its online platform, up to 1,500 viewed sessions or took part over the weekend.
In fact, amateur groups everywhere have kept creative online. NODA Marketing and Publishing Executive Rob Williams says: “We launched a national online training system, with videos and live Zoom sessions on subjects from performing to technical to costume, to mask-making.”
Meanwhile, many LTG members have also launched online social meet-ups, training and performances. Anne-marie Greene, artistic director of Coventry’s Criterion Theatre, says: “Covid has forced us to learn how to adapt quickly and flexibly and we’re determined to continue to be a hub for theatre arts in Coventry, however difficult that may be, upholding our name by setting the bar high for the types of activities we engage in.”
Between March and October, the Criterion put on thirteen virtual play readings, social activities including quizzes and virtual bar nights, as well as a live-streamed performance of David Haig’s Pressure before becoming one of the first amateur companies in the country to resume live indoor performances with Queers on 29 September. While its venue was shut, the company took the opportunity to make repairs and redecorate, installed a new lighting rig and developed a range of Covid sanitisation, cleaning and safety protocols in preparation for reopening.
Southport Dramatic Club has also used this period for reflection and planning. With no current shows its members shared photographs and anecdotes online and Jennifer Corcoran wrote a weekly newspaper column. Via weekly Zoom presentations, “stalwarts of our club have offered unique insights into how times change, and the professionals who learned their craft with us have returned to share their gratitude”, Corcoran explains.
Unable to prepare a show over the summer, SDC’s youth members led by Harry Gascoigne devised and performed a socially distanced, live-streamed cabaret evening. And until more stringent lockdown measures were reimposed, the Southport Little Theatre bar was able to open, with social distancing in place. Corcoran says: “This was a very welcome opportunity for members to see one another in person, visit our beautiful theatre and support the continued running of the club.”
At Highbury Theatre, Sutton Coldfield, members contributed radio plays to its YouTube channel Highbury Stories and the short film Rubbish was produced in its studio. Chairman Steve Bowyer explains the logistics of reopening as restrictions started …to ease in September and the building initially opened to show films: “Our auditorium only holds one hundred and forty people so, with social-distancing measures in place, we can only hold sixteen single households – a total of up to thirty.”
The theatre went on to produce live performances of sketches written mainly by members before the second lockdown and worked with local playwright David Tristram on the play Lockdown in Little Grimley.
Some non-professional venues have produced an even more extensive programme. The Abbey Theatre, St Albans launched its competition The Corona Monologues, inviting the local community to submit short films, which were judged by film director Mike Newell. By June – a month before the Government announced that outdoor performances could resume – theatre manager Tina Swain had asked the production team to research live-streaming and the venue invested in equipment and training. This strategy paid off, she says: “In September, we offered two experimental live-stream performances, and in October socially distanced in-theatre audiences watched the performance of Robert Shenkkan’s Building the Wall as it was live-streamed to others in their homes.”
Swain adds: “I think our unique selling point is our hybrid production model, in which live-stream audiences watch a performance at the same time as the audience seated in the auditorium. We’ve had amazing feedback, especially the thrill several people have mentioned of knowing that the actors are onstage at that moment. Friends and relations have logged in from all over the country and, in some cases, all over the world to watch.”
South London Theatre kept in touch with its members from the start, as the chair of its building preservation trust Charlotte Benstead says: “When we went into lockdown it was obvious members would be affected. Twice-nightly Zoom check-ins were up and running within three weeks. These have been especially important to older members nervous about leaving their homes.”
SLT’s Jennifer Nettles set up a weekly play-reading group “to keep our actors in shape – like a gym,” she explains. The sessions have continued through the summer and subsequent lockdown, with an extremely varied programme of plays. While classical drama and 20th Century works do feature, Nettles is keen to showcase pieces that people might not have had the chance to read before, including obscure older works and vibrant contemporary writing. The current series of readings includes John Lyly’s 1588 court entertainment Galatea, Danusia Iwaszko’s heart-rending 2004 study of relationships One Glass Wall, William Inge’s drama Bus Stop (1955) and Philip Ridley’s Ghost from a Perfect Place, first produced at Hampstead Theatre in 1994.
Nettles prepares detailed spreadsheets to break the play down for each session and works out how roles will be distributed. She explains what makes a good choice for a Zoom reading: The main thing is that it has to have a good story to it. Because if you don’t have all the props and costumes and lighting changes, it’s very difficult to do over Zoom. Everything has to be spoken. I read all the stage directions so that anyone listening can understand what’s going on. But this means some plays are too complicated to read on Zoom compared with a physical space, where it would be easier to understand visually. I choose plays that have very strong dialogue and don’t rely on physical comedy, props or things that aren’t spoken.”
While SLT would normally be involved in local arts festival Fest Norwood in August, indoor performances were not possible at the time, so director Bryon Fear organised a promenade performance in the nearby West Norwood Cemetery. “It was the perfect place, because we could monitor how many people were coming in. We presented vignettes with small casts that could rehearse on their own. It was quite cathartic to re-engage with people. We gained a lot of experience from putting on a festival during a pandemic because it made us be more creative.”
The UK’s largest community theatre, Titchfield Festival Theatre, was quick off the mark once the government gave the green light to outdoor performances in July. Following rehearsals over Zoom, TFT opened an open-air venue two days after the announcement with sold-out productions of A Chorus Line, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth.
When it reopened for indoor performances in September, all patrons and staff were temperature-checked on entry, sanitising stations were widely available and a one-way system was in operation. Drinks were delivered to audience members’ seats from the bar. The venue was sanitised using ozone generators between shows. Like other theatres, TFT has invested heavily in technical equipment: £70,000 on 4K HD cameras and sound-and-vision mixing facilities to live-stream shows.
TFT artistic director Kevin Fraser says: “This has been a trying time, but TFT has risen to the challenge ensuring we have continued to keep our members well informed and rehearsing wherever possible. We were one of the first theatres in the UK to get back up and running and is a testament to the rigorous anti-Covid measures in place.”
While many amateur societies and community theatres have benefited from local business grants and charitable donations, seven of LTG’s members received substantial support via the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund, a move that the LTG’s Kevin Spence says suggests a change in policy: “As amateurs we don’t normally get much from the Arts Council, but the goalposts seem to have shifted.”
Added to this, those amateur companies that employ theatre managers or other staff have also been able to take advantage of Government schemes, as the LTG’s Jo Matthews points out: “Thank goodness for the furlough scheme – some of our members have started slowly employing people. No-one is doing anything that would endanger their amateur status, such as employing actors, but there have always been cleaners and now sometimes there’s a theatre manager or a technician, especially if the venue’s available for hire. As far as we’re aware all of our theatres that employ people have either furloughed them or been able to afford to keep them on.”
The biggest LTG beneficiary from the Culture Recovery Fund was the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, which received £215,000. It runs a healthy hire operation alongside the resident amateur theatre company. “This meant that not only did we have to re-schedule all our own productions but also all the many hirers who use the theatre,” says the Crescent’s LTG rep Jackie Blackwood. “This was a mammoth task and took weeks to resolve. This was complicated by an ever-changing question of when we might be able to open again.”
Blackwood stresses the importance of how volunteer workers helped the theatre continue to operate: “We furloughed our staff, but we were fortunate that, as a membership theatre, we could rely on the support of our members to assist.”
Detailing the Crescent’s artistic activity in lockdown, she adds: “We’ve hosted Folkin’ Digital – a virtual festival featuring some of the best acoustic musicians in the UK. We also undertook a film project of the play Foxfinder, presented by the Crescent Theatre …company. We have also featured some successful cinema evenings, which is an area that we are further developing. We are now a Covid-secure venue and know we are not alone in the challenges we have faced over the past few months or in the months to come.”
Online training and performances, followed by live outdoor events and – where possible – socially distanced indoor shows seem to be a recurring pattern across England. Tracey Mackenzie, Theatre Manager at Lincolnshire’s Louth Riverhead Theatre says: “We started by asking our community to send us their Lockdown Creations, then commissioned a digital performance, The Heron’s Song, by Barmpot Theatre. Our youth summer workshop was delivered on Zoom by John Hewer and his team, resulting in the filmed production Murder at Biddlestone Manor, and volunteer Phil Ball is running socially distanced free tech classes and hopefully building our tech volunteers by doing so.”
Mackenzie and assistant Fran Brindle organised a pop-up festival in the venue’s car park. “There were twenty-one performances on a lorry stage, with craft stalls and food vendors,” she says. “It was a huge success, which was due to having a wonderful team of volunteers who worked together, managing social distancing, taking temperatures on arrival and ensuring Covid-safety measures were observed.
“We have been extremely grateful that Arts Council England has supported us, which has enabled us to continue to achieve a cultural delivery at the most difficult time. It has encouraged us to literally think outside the box and we as a team have achieved a huge amount in our small, rural Lincolnshire town.”
Among the groups staging outdoor shows over the summer, the People’s Theatre in Newcastle presented The Bard in Byker in the grounds of a church in Byker Heights. Director Tony Childs says: “A dozen or so actors, including two from our thriving youth theatre, came along to perform monologues or duologues from Shakespeare (or anything else they fancied). We did not charge for this, but asked for donations for the church. We’ve also had a series of online events for members and displayed art about lockdown from local primary schools in our theatre windows during the summer months.”
Though the People’s Theatre did not benefit from the CRF, it has kept in business through other means. “We received a £25,000 small business grant at the beginning of lockdown,” Childs says. “But we’ve had nothing else from the government or local authority, though our three employees have been furloughed. We have a strong community presence, and have received about £60,000 in donations as a result of appeals and members’ fundraising efforts, and remain viable, at least in the short term.”
Having spent most of the period since March in lockdown, Ilkley Playhouse in West Yorkshire has filmed a series of short ‘kitchen-sink dramas’, which were posted on its Facebook page. “We also ran a short play competition which attracted eighty-four entries,” says Artistic Director Jay Cundell Walker.
The playhouse produced lottery-funded open-air Shakespeare show Bard in the Yard in partnership with a local Jacobean museum. Cundell Walker quotes the experience of a young participant: “Doing Bard in the Yard during the pandemic meant a lot to me. It is the first Shakespeare I’ve ever performed and I hope to do more in the future. The director was helpful and encouraging which helped build my confidence. My first performance with Ilkley Playhouse was a positive one.”
Having received several thousand pounds in private donations following appeals on its website, Ilkley Playhouse applied for a grant from in the Arts Council-administered CRF, as Cundell Walker explains: “We were turned down, but we reapplied in round two and were awarded £60,000. From our local authority, Bradford, we have received the £10,000 initial grant and a rates rebate. We are normally a self-funded theatre so this has been a very welcome lifeline.”
Outside England, different lockdowns have made indoor shows impossible, but the creative spirit has kept flowing. NODA Scotland’s Stuart McCue-Dick says: “One club – Dunblane’s Rubber Chicken Theatre – managed an outdoor production of Into the Woods in the woods. Another was able to live-stream a series of short plays via Zoom while others have recorded virtual concerts to fill what would have been their normal show week. All have been achieved while keeping within the ever-changing guidelines.”
And while fundraising remained a vital way of staying afloat, he says: “We made our members aware of the Small Business Support Scheme for those who owned club rooms, rehearsal premises or storage facilities. Clubs were able to secure £10,000 or £25,000, depending on the size of the premises.”
The situation in Wales has similarly been tighter than in England, with most societies restricting themselves to online activities and building up resources for the time when fully fledged productions can resume.
Cardiff’s Rhiwbina Amateur Theatrical Society last staged live theatre in January 2020 – its production of Joseph and the Amazing Techinicolor Dreamcoat – but it has kept in touch with its members throughout the year.
Chair Dan Collier-Roberts says: “Our patrons, who come to all our shows, have told us to keep the money they would spend on tickets to cover some of our overheads. We’ve just done a patrons’ murder mystery, which is an audio play. Headed by membership secretary Lucy Chipling, we’ve also performed two audio plays – Under Milk Wood and Alice in Wonderland – and we’re now working on A Christmas Carol. One of the local hospital radio stations has broadcast the recordings to patients.”
Based in the local memorial hall, RATS has received support from the Arts Council of Wales to keep it afloat and plan future productions. Collier-Roberts says that his committee was initially surprised that the society was eligible for funding: “Our treasurer works for the Riverfront Theatre in Newport. She is always looking for fundraising opportunities and said we should apply to the Arts Council of Wales scheme. We found out about it in early October and they released the funding two weeks later.
“We were very lucky to have someone who works in the professional theatre world. We had to say what we would use the money for – to pay our fees for the hall we use, even though we’re not in it. So it’s not just benefiting us: the money’s enabling the hall to stay open because it’s used by other people.”
He reflects on a turbulent period for theatre and wider society: “I’ve got so many friends who think this is ridiculous, but we haven’t seen anything like this in our lifetime. The conflicting messaging is what causes the confusion. We were hoping to open the hall back up again, but then the lockdown came back in. If we hadn’t done Joseph and made a bit of a profit on it, we would have been in a much worse position.”
The LTG’s Kevin Spence says that one unexpected benefit of the Covid crisis is that it has allowed everyone to take stock. He says. “I’m sure all our member theatres have painted and renovated and got rid of stuff. It’s given people a chance to think about policies and enacting initiatives we might not have had time to think about under normal circumstances. At the moment on our national committee we’re very exercised about what’s happening to young people who are being starved of theatre and how we can help with that. I suspect a lot of stuff’s not happening in schools like it was before.
“The other thing is that it’s given us a chance to address the diversity and inclusion agenda, which some of our theatres are brilliant at and some less so – like most theatres. The LTG is there to do some big-picture thinking.”
Chads Theatre in Cheadle Hulme, Greater Manchester, was due to celebrate its centenary in 2020. Chairman Steve Pratt explains how the building has been spruced up: “A small team of dedicated members have transformed the outside of the theatre. Plants were donated by the public and the end result has been much appreciated by the local community.”
Financial support has come from our members in the form of interest-free loans, he says, adding: “We have received grants totalling £11,600 from Stockport Council and are taking part in the #SaveOurTheatres campaign with the Theatres Trust and Crowdfunder, which has raised nearly £8,000.”
In terms of policy, the Criterion Theatre’s Anne-marie Greene says the lockdown has provided an opportunity to reflect on its relationship to society, with the wider Black Lives Matter movement providing a particular catalyst. She says: “As Artistic Director, I am spearheading a campaign of action, fully supported by the board of trustees, including our Anti-Racism Reflective Statement. This is not only a provocation to ourselves, but is also a set of aspirations and a call to action to make real change and progress on equality, diversity and inclusion within our theatre.”
Stuart McCue-Dick believes amateur theatre clubs will become more business-like in their operation. “This may be a hobby for us,” he says, “but we need to be business-like to ensure we can survive. Indeed, NODA Scotland has been running a series of workshops called the Business of Amateur Theatre to help clubs with this.”
But he adds that theatre means much more than staying financially viable: “For all of us, theatre is a passion, but it is also about friendship and community. Nothing beats the thrill of opening night or the audience applause at the end of a performance. None of that can really be experienced online so I do believe we will return but we just need to be patient until the time is right and it is safe to do so.”
Anne Gilmour agrees: “The pandemic has given people new artistic ways of doing things – including online and audio plays – and I see no reason why that won’t continue. But when possible, I’d have thought most people will want to return to the way they’ve done things before: putting on plays to an audience and trying new and different things.”
Kevin Spence believes that not all audiences are necessarily engaged by digital productions. “Like a lot of theatre, we have a very strong senior contingent in our audience and membership,” he says. “Surveys have indicated that many of these people don’t want to be in theatres until things have gone back to normal. So that’s a pretty compelling reason for trying to get back to where we were.”
There can be no doubt that all theatres in the UK have faced an extremely challenging year, from small amateur societies and community venues to large professional venues in cities nationwide. But people’s remarkable determination to keep creative has reaffirmed the importance of amateur theatre in the cultural life of the country – and if 2020 can tell us anything, it’s that even in the darkest moments, the show must go on somehow.
There’s every reason to remain cautiously optimistic about 2021, so while we might not be able to sit in a packed theatre yelling “He’s behind you!” this Christmas, let’s look forward to the prospect of entertaining, inspiring and innovative productions ahead.
Dave Hollander is deputy production editor of The Stage and a long-standing member of South London Theatre. He was deputy chair of SLT from 2013 to 2020.