'Another rocky road': UK theatre bosses eye 2021 with resilience and realism

Interviews Arifa Akbar
·7 min read

‘We won’t do work that is comforting or safe’

Nikolai Foster, Curve, Leicester
Last year we cancelled five productions which was heartbreaking but we learned a lot about resilience and are so determined now. When we thought we were coming out of lockdown we planned to stage Sunset Boulevard. We have a 350-seat space and a 970-seat auditorium and are able to fly out the dividing walls to create a 1,500-seat arena with a socially distanced audience of 500. Then Leicester went into tier 3 so we reconceived it for film. We asked ourselves how we could create something original: we didn’t just want to archive a piece of theatre. The production has now been seen in 36 countries.

We were incredibly grateful to receive almost £1m from the culture recovery fund and used some of it to hire 150 freelancers across a new season. So 2021 has started on a high. We’re starting online rehearsals for Blood Wedding, a co-production with De Montfort University. Because there are no certainties, we are working on two versions of everything. If The Color Purple can’t go ahead as a socially distanced production in March, there will be a streamed version. In summer we have Disney’s new production, Beauty and the Beast. We are also planning on bringing back postponed shows – Sister Act, Grease, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Fox and the Ghost King, and The Wizard of Oz at Christmas, which I will be directing. The idea of going into the studio and directing now seems like a holiday – and nectar for the soul.

When we welcome audiences back, we want to do it with joy and optimism. There has always been snobbery around musical theatre and pantomime but they get truly diverse audiences in and have a lot to say about the world today. We have never wanted to be anything other than progressive and bold so we will continue with what we were doing with bells on. There is no way we went through the living hell of 2020 to do work that is comforting or safe.

‘Keep telling stories, no matter what’

Tamara Harvey, Theatr Clwyd, Mold
Some of our plans are nebulous; others are fully formed. We’ll co-produce The Picture of Dorian Gray, which will stream from 16 March. Like What a Carve Up! [directed by Harvey] it is born out of what is possible within this very locked-down state, creating theatre entirely for the screen.

We’ll be bringing the premieres for Milky Peaks and For the Grace of You Go I to the world in some way, shape or form, after having to cancel both last year. We have tooled up our core staff so that we now have the equipment and skills in-house to livestream everything that we do. Before Covid-19, we were already livestreaming our panto into local hospitals and hospices. And we’re going to have another outdoor season; it is one of the silver linings to have come from the pandemic. Last year, we listened to Mared Williams’ haunting voice on our hillside and thought: ‘Hold on, we can keep doing this even when theatres are open again.’ We have a wonderful outdoor space.

The thing we are most proud of is we have kept making work, even when it hasn’t been able to happen in its full form, or at all. Our lifeblood is to tell stories and we’ll work with freelance creatives to do that, no matter what. Equally important is our work with the community. We have received a grant from the Arts Council of Wales and are creating a space where freelance artists can spend time with the young people that social services work with, so that together they can tell us what it is that they need.

There are two other major projects: the final design stage of our capital redevelopment, which is a total reimagining of our building; and becoming an independent trust from April, enabling us to be much more fleet of foot.

‘We won’t pull up any drawbridges’

The most important thing is to be investing in work that is dynamic and relevant’ ... the Royal Exchange, Manchester.
‘The most important thing is to be investing in work that is dynamic and relevant’ ... the Royal Exchange, Manchester. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

Bryony Shanahan, Royal Exchange, Manchester

There are definitely multiple versions of our plans. We are moving towards a date where we can say: ‘This is when we want to put on our first performance’. We hope we’ll be able to go into rehearsals back in the building, but we also have a plan to switch to digital. We are trying to hold on as tightly as we can to that date to give us something to work towards.

We’ll start with smaller-scale work, although still excellent stories with ambitious teams and slowly ramp it up. Because of the severity of our situation but also because of who we are, we thought it would not be possible, or right, for the Royal Exchange to return exactly as it was. The most important thing is to be investing in work that is dynamic, relevant and has a breadth of invitations and perspectives. It feels crucial that we don’t pull up any drawbridges. It’s also about noticing that the pandemic has disproportionately affected certain people and making sure everyone feels included in what is their civic space.

Roy Alexander Weise, Royal Exchange, Manchester

We feel excited and optimistic but it is difficult to start the year with conversations about potential lockdowns which may affect when we were planning to open, so we have to work even harder to build momentum and hope. The one thing we are really proud of is that the stories we are considering are still of epic proportions in terms of world, society, identity, community. Our job as programmers is to give somebody a magnifying glass to allow them full rein to examine something, have a conversation with an audience and invite them to look at the world through their point of view.

We’re even more committed to bringing community engagement work to the fore. One of the biggest ambitions we have is to bring parity to the ways in which work with professionals and non-professionals is valued within our sector. We want to let the communities in our midst know that we value their voices just as much as we do the glitzier work.

‘It’s almost a relief that we are closed for a time’

‘We had to dig ourselves out of various lockdowns’ ... Benedict Salter and Hannah Edwards in Lone Flyer at the Watermill in 2020.
‘We had to dig ourselves out of various lockdowns’ ... Benedict Salter and Hannah Edwards in Lone Flyer at the Watermill in 2020. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Paul Hart, Watermill theatre, Newbury
We are applying for the second round of the culture recovery fund to obtain some support for 2021 which will be another rocky road. On the back of last year we know we can move quickly. We’re hoping for more notice this time but the extraordinary efforts of the team last year acts as a knowledge base. The big priority is that the work must be as inclusive as possible. Placing the audience at the centre is more important than ever.

It is likely we will do another outdoor season because it went really well last year and sold out in 24 hours. As a venue with our own grounds, we are incredibly lucky to have that option. There is no point expending massive energy (and cash) on programming things we might have to cancel. The on-off nature of production last year meant we had to dig ourselves out of various lockdowns and the impact on the organisation has been profound. From that point of view, it’s almost a relief that we are closed for a period of time because we are not worrying about closing a show again, as we had to with Lone Flyer and A Christmas Carol. It’s not financially viable to continue like that.

We have a couple of shows in mind for when we can open with social distancing but most have greater costs and we need larger audiences to bring them back. I’m nervous about how this year is going to play out; the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Arts Council England are being optimistic about lifting restrictions but we have to be realistic to prevent the constant cycle of cancelling or postponing shows.

A year from now, we will still be standing but the question is how badly damaged our organisation, and the industry, will be. We can stand on our own feet from the moment we’re allowed to play to full capacity but we need some help bridging that gap. Without further government support, it will take us a lot longer to get back up and the impact on freelancers, audiences and the local community is palpable.