‘Freedom Day’ – originally Monday, 21 June 2021 – was the earliest date when the UK Government was to officially ditch social distancing and all Covid-19 restrictions in England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although devolved, usually tend to keep their own set of rules closely linked to such announcements.
However, exactly a week before (14 June), the Prime Minister suddenly announced a four-week delay to the easing of these restrictions, putting the date back to 19 July.
The move angered the entire theatre industry – which had been closed for fifteen months in the main – prompting a host of negative comments from prominent figures and companies within the professional theatre sector. Comments came from all quarters including SOLT (Society of London Theatre) and UK Theatre, Equity UK, HQ Theatres, Sir Howard Panter and Trafalgar Entertainment, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sonia Friedman among others.
Curiously, the ‘amateur’ theatre sector appeared to remain tight-lipped in relation to the delay, except for us of course. We discussed the news publically in our three-times-weekly YouTube videos.
Dismayed by the apparent lack of comment, we asked to speak with various people and organisations at the forefront of amateur theatre to get to the bottom of the situation…
Whilst NODA (National Operatic and Dramatic Association) bluntly refused to take part in an interview, with a reply possibly on the cusp of being considered rude, Sardines did speak with the Little Theatre Guild of Great Britain (LTG), National Drama Festivals Association (NDFA) and Tony Gibbs, ex-CEO NODA (CEO for eight years until Jan 2016).
NDFA has been going through all kinds of nightmare scenarios surrounding its NDFA All Winners Finals at the Albany Theatre, Coventry from 18 – 24 July. Opening just one day prior to the revised ‘Freedom Day’ meant the festival found itself still subject to social distancing restrictions and promptly decided to socially distance the entire week-long event in line with the public’s lack of confidence in buying tickets to the Coventry showpiece – even with the city being named UK City of Culture 2021.
Being so close to the newly designated date and falling inside the delay period also meant the NDFA ended up cancelling a number of planned live workshops, and that’s in addition to some of the small feeder-festivals also being cancelled up and down the country.
“This has caused complete devastation to perhaps one of the UK’s hidden industries,” Stewart Mison, Chair of NDFA told me. “We have not been able to run our normal selection process for teams to compete in the ‘All Winners’ … A lot of our members have had to cancel their drama festivals.”
“This delay over four weeks; yeah, it’s had a direct impact on us,” continued Mison. “We had a musical theatre workshop, I call it Les Mis in a Day by Dave Willetts – the actor who has performed in both Phantom and had the lead in Les Mis in the West End … We were going to have the Royal Shakespeare Company come in; run three workshops, Understanding The Bard, Directing The Bard and Stage Combat. The RSC, like any good, professional organisation now has a Covid risk-assessment policy. In normal times we would have been ok, but now, because of this extension, we have had to take the decision that we will cancel those workshops. We had no clear definition that on the 19th restrictions were going to be lifted.”
“People are reticent about going into enclosed spaces, like theatres,” added the NDFA Chair concerning the lack of public confidence. “We’ve taken the decision that the All Winners festival will be run with a socially distanced policy … When you’re trying to get people to come into a theatre there will be a hesitation.”
“The Albany Theatre tell us – and other theatres are reporting the same kind of thing – that there is extreme hesitancy, that people aren’t booking in the numbers that would be expected in normal times,” added Rod Inness-Chaytor of NDFA’a National Council who is also Chair of NDFA’s All Winners Sub-Committee.
On my original query concerning the lack of comment from amateur theatre organisations Stewart Mison pointed out that, “We are A-political, so I can’t comment on what H.M.G. is saying as Chairman of the NDFA. I could tell you privately what my thoughts are, Rod knows them, but… it IS a nightmare and we’ve been given a set of rules which we have to adhere to. The little old National Drama Festivals Association is not going to change Oliver Dowden or Tony Hancock – sorry, Matt Hancock – or Boris Johnson’s view on things.”
Meanwhile, the LTG doesn’t appear to have stopped in its admirable commitment to supply members with help and advice concerning getting around the pandemic. “We have literally been incredibly busy just coping with whatever is thrown at us,” Jo Matthews, Chair of the LTG told me just as she was preparing for another frantic forty-eight hours rushing around the country to catch up with members and see their shows. “That’s just my actual appointments … In between all that, I’m making phone calls, sending emails and doing Zoom meetings and all the rest of it. And I think I’m representative of most people in most theatres – that I’m just busy getting on with whatever DCMS throw at us.”
“Some of our theatres right now have scheduled to do Covid-safe performances,” continued Matthews, explaining why the delay wasn’t of particular interest to the LTG. “A lot of them (LTG members] have got the ‘See It Safely’ logo from SOLT as well, and they’re programmed to do that. So for them there’s actually no disruption at all right now. They’re just carrying on because they’d always planned to do this.”
“For others, who have prepared to open this week [w/c 21 June], now can’t because they haven’t planned for a Covid-safe performance,” said the LTG Chair in support of the other side of the coin. “They are the worst-off theatres right now and have been thrown into disarray because they were pinning their hopes on 21 June. Others thought ‘well let’s work out plans that will work for the whole of the summer. So reactions have varied enormously to all of this, but you’ve got to remember that each theatre consists of a disparate group of personalities.”
“The four weeks is just another stepping stone towards doing what they want to do, which is to pick up where they left off,” aggreed Kevin Spence, LTG Public Relations Officer. “All of them have been pressed to think about the political situation in which we find ourselves … It makes the function of the Little Theatre Guild massively important. … We’ve been like coal-miners, burrowing away… …beneath the surface. Eddie [Redfern, LTG National Liaison Officer] has been sending stuff straight out from DCMS as it comes in, all our theatres have been updated. We’ve helped them [LTG members] tremendously with funding of various sorts – government-inspired mostly … the thing is, with all that background and the stuff we’ve been doing, another four weeks is neither here nor there.”
Jo Matthews directly referred to my query of why the amateur sector – or the ‘LTG’ to be specific – has decided not to join in with all the moaning: “The hospitality industry has been very vocal, ‘We’ve got perfectly safe restaurants and pubs. Why are we singled out for this terrible treatment?’ Where’s it got them? Oh, that’ll be nowhere then! Absolutely nowhere.”
“I asked theatres whether they’d had to cancel or not,” Eddie Redfern told me in response to the four-week delay disallowing theatres to scrap social distancing restrictions until late July. “Some have gone ahead while others have taken the decision not to do anything until Sep/Oct.”
“It’s not financially viable,” reported Redfern referring to opening while social distancing restrictions were still in place. “Take my theatre, ninety-five seats. If you’ve got social distancing you can get less than twenty people in. That wouldn’t even cover the royalties.”
“I think with all the comments we’re getting back from not just LTG reps but also chairmen, they’re satisfied with what we’ve been doing, and continue to do,” Redfern informed on how happy LTG members were with the Guild’s activities. “We probably couldn’t have done any more. There comes a time when it’s no longer worth lobbying ministers; you’ve got as far as you could get … I think to a degree that’s where we’ve got to.”
As the only independent person I spoke with, Tony Gibbs – while still being an avid fan of theatre as well as a producer – has the benefit of knowing what it’s like to be part of a large organisation as he was CEO of NODA for the eight years leading up to 2016. And, you may not be surprised that it was Gibbs who was able to offer the most insight into why amateur theatre had not commented on the four-week delay in reopening.
“I would suggest to you, to start with, that for all of those membership organisations, their first and most important focus has to be to their members. So whether it’s the one I used to work for or any other, the term ‘umbrella body’ is perhaps a bit difficult to unpick unless you understand what they’re doing. The umbrella bodies which you’ve referred to are largely membership organisations which provide a range of services to its members. It’s not as if we’ve got the equivalent of a UK-wide regulatory body for amateur theatre. Maybe there’s a bit of a gap there and maybe the issues around the pandemic have highlighted that. I suspect that if you’re talking to any of those membership associations, they can probably only give you a perspective based on what their members have been telling them.”
“I think the main difference between the professional bodies, which you’ve already mentioned, and the amateurs is that the professionals have more financial clout,” Gibbs told me as he dug deep into the psyche of those amateur theatre organisations. “They would also have – I would guess – more people in roles for communication and indeed campaigning, which is probably a bit of a gap in the amateur market, generally, in the fact that – as you know – there are still thousands of independent amateur theatre groups or societies or clubs, run by voluntary committees. The membership organisations you’ve mentioned, in the main, don’t have the kind of infrastructure that would allow them to carry out campaigning … How could you best coordinate a response to the pandemic? I suspect there’s a lot of independent companies, clubs, societies who have had committee meetings during the past year on Zoom and they’ve been thinking ‘how on earth can we survive?’ because, in terms of ‘planning’, it’s more often than not just for the next show … The pandemic has highlighted the fact that there is a need for amateur theatre to have a campaigning voice, which possibly, possibly, may not exist at the moment.”
“Is it reasonable to expect that the membership associations and indeed the thousands of independent groups, companies, societies to develop a campaigning or communications strategy in response to the pandemic from nowhere? If those organisations haven’t already got the infrastructure then they would have to develop one very quickly. And for lots of people they may not know how to do that.”
“Throughout the country amateur theatre is often the glue within local culture. Is there a need for a more dedicated focus? Yes there is!”
“If you ask any one of those membership associations, ‘What are your members asking you for?’ I guess they’re going to say ‘It’s the services they’re providing us with.’ ‘Us’ being the individual groups up and down the country … Does that include a campaigning role? I don’t know. It may well not do … In the middle of the pandemic it may seem worthwhile; but pre-pandemic, perhaps not … There’s still a lack of awareness at local and government level of the importance of amateur theatre.”
“Does amateur theatre have a coordinated campaigning voice? Probably not. Does it need one? Probably, yes. On the back of the pandemic? Most certainly yes! Going forward we’re still very much in the dark in terms of the future of theatre – especially amateur theatre.”
“You’re asking people to take a leap of faith,” said the ex-CEO of NODA after I asked about tempting people back into theatres. “My view is that until Covid-19 is no longer a worldwide problem, then I think we will still be living with restrictions and, whatever they are, it’s going to be difficult to get audiences into theatres. It’s just as challenging to talk about rehearsals. In terms of the threat of Covid-19, how do you not only protect but tell your audiences that it’s safe? I think that’s probably the single biggest challenge. The creative challenges, like which plays to select, almost become secondary to the primary focus which has to be the safety of audiences and company members … If you’re producing a panto this year then the message you have to get across is not only ‘we’re safe’ but being able to prove it.”
And what is Mr Gibbs up to now? “My particular project, which has been on the go since 2015, is a rock musical called Twist and Turn,” he tells me when quizzed. “It was showcased at The Other Palace in 2018 which led to a revaluation of the show’s progress up until then. There is now a whole batch of new songs which have dropped on iTunes – several of which are enjoying a lot of radio-play. One in particular has had over 100k plays on Spotify. We continue to raise aware-ness and are planning a graphic novel of the show for Oct this year.”