Art Is The Mission

by Natasha Tripney

May 29, 2021. Last week, after five months of live streams and digital theatre I got to be part of an audience once more at the Bush Theatre in west London. Though the numbers were greately reduced and everyone was masked, it didn’t dilute people’s excitement, their evident pleasure to be able to gather again. When the recorded pre-show announcement was played, people cheered.

More than a year without theatre

On the 17th May, England entered step three of the UK government’s roadmap out of lockdown. This meant that entertainment venues, including theatres, were finally allowed to admit audiences with social distancing measures in place. Though there was a brief window at the end of last year when some theatres were able to welcome the public back into their buildings, for a variety of economic and practical factors many venues had not opened their doors to audiences since the first UK lockdown in March 2020.

Agatha Christie’s "The Mousetrap", the longest running play in the West End, was up and running again on 17th May. "Everybody’s Talking About Jamie", a British musical about a teenage drag queen, will be the first musical to open its doors in the West End, though other major musical productions like "Hamilton" are holding off until later in the summer, when it’s hoped that measures will be further relaxed. Restrictions are set to be eased on 21st June. The prospect of new variants means a question mark hangs over this date.

Saved by the cultural recovery fund: The Globe

Shakespeare’s Globe – the replica Elizabethan theatre on the banks of the Thames - opened to the public on 19th May for the first time in 429 days. The previous evening, actors and staff had gathered at the theatre for a blessing by the Dean of Southwark. The Globe’s executive directive Neil Constable was thrilled to be back. “It’s what we do our jobs for, to put plays on stage."

In common with other theatres, a number of protocols have been put in place to make the venue Covid-safe. There are staggered entry times, temperatures are taken on arrival. No test is required but every audience member has to use the UK’s track and trace system via an NHS app. Though it’s an outdoor venue, audiences are still asked to wear face coverings. Neil Constable likens the process to getting on a flight.

Midsummer2 600 Tristram Kenton "A Midsummer Night" in Shakespeare's Globe © Tristram Kenton

The start times of performances have been brought forwards to allow audience members to get home more easily, because using public transport remains a concern for many people. The interval has been dispensed with and the tickets are limited to 400 people in the seated sections of the theatre and 60 people in the pit. Constable admits to some anxiety that in implementing these measures they'd lose some of the energy that characterises the Globe’s performances, but was relieved to find that, because of the theatre’s distinctive shape, this wasn’t the case.

It has been a "really challenging" time financially for the venue. The Globe previously received no government subsidy and was reliant on ticket sales and philanthropy. Last year it made a £2.9 million loss. The theatre came close to closure. Fortunately, they had been about to embark on Project Prospero – the building of a new library and archive – so there was a dedicated reserve which they were able to redeploy and they also received £2.98 million from the government's cultural recovery fund, part of a £1.57 billion investment package to protect the UK's arts and heritage institutions. This is the first financial support they’ve received since the venue opened and it has given them a financial cushion.

Sticking to its mission statement: The Kiln

Along with many theatres, the theatre is reopening with a pre-existing show, a version of its 2019 production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream". The Kiln Theatre in north London is reopening with a production of Amy Trigg’s play "Reasons You Should(n’t) Love Me", a one-person show – which helps simplify things as there isn't a large company to accommodate backstage. The theatre's 292 capacity has been reduced to just 98, an aisle has been introduced in the auditorium to make sure that, where possible, people do not have to walk past one another. The government guidelines are not explicit as to what is allowed, so "we've decided to pitch for the safer end of that scale," explains the theatre’s Head of Production Nicki Brown. In practice, this means two-metre distancing between groups of audience members which makes for a very reduced capacity for the theatre, but also "a hilarious storage issue." Where do you keep all those seats you remove?

The Kiln is not just a theatre. The building, which completed a major renovation project in 2018, also houses a cinema, a cafe and bar, so it falls under a number of categories which makes interpreting and applying the guidelines a challenge – there is different advice for hospitality and entertainment venues. Backstage areas as well as public spaces will need to be arranged in order to minimise contact between people.

Kiln 600 PhilipVileThe Kiln © Philip Vile

There was a feeling in some sections of the theatre industry that it was going to be necessary to "be really conservative, to get our audiences back in," says Kiln's artistic director Indhu Rubasingham, to play safe and avoid taking risks artistically. She found some of these conversations depressing but recognised they stemmed from a desire to survive in incredibly difficult circumstances. Fortunately, the theatre’s board and staff felt that it was important to commit to Kiln's mission statement, to make "unheard, ignored voices part of the mainstream – it felt even more pertinent." Last year the theatre launched the Kiln Community appeal to help raise £70,000 to support the theatre's various communities; the reopening season, featuring three premieres and one revival, features a variety of voices, established names – including Zadie Smith – and debut playwrights.

While they've been working really hard over the last year, says Rubasingham, there's a particular joy that comes from "making work in a way that we haven't been able to. Every moment feels a bit precious." There have been so many false starts since the initial lockdown in March, that when they finally are able to stage work in front of people again, "I genuinely think we'll probably all burst into tears."

"By July, we do need people to come back."

Despite the reopening joy, some theatres either still wait until June until all restrictions are hopefully going to be lifted – or choose a hybrid way of showing their work in front of a reduced audience as well as online: Alphabetti Theatre, a small independent theatre in Newcastle, only seats 75 in normal times. Despite this, it has been the only venue in the city to reopen to audiences in May. Other venues are either opting for a mix of outdoor and digital work or not opening at all until restrictions are lifted in June. The first show in Alphabetti Theatre is, says artistic director Ali Pritchard, "a bit of a weird one." It's designed for one household or six people at a time. Audience members move between a series of booths watching films made by theatre artists with learning disabilities. Live performance will follow in June. The most people the venue will be able to have inside at any one time is 18, so Pritchard's committed to streaming so more people can see the plays. "I think it’s going to be a slow burner. I budgeted for it to be slow," he says, but there’s only so long he can go slow. "By July, I do need people to come back."

Open Air theatre in Scotland

The rules concerning Covid-19 measures in entertainment venues differ in the devolved nations. The Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish governments have approached pandemic restrictions with greater caution than the central UK government. In Scotland, a two-metre social distancing rule and a top limit of 200 people in indoor spaces, effectively makes it impossible to welcome people back into the building in a way that's economically viable.

Elizabeth Newman, artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre, is dealing with this by building an amphitheatre in the theatre's grounds on which they can stage work, including "Adventures with the Painted People", the premiere of a new work by Scottish playwright David Greig.

PitlochryFestivalTheatre 600© Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Without the amphitheatre, the theatre couldn't afford to operate. "We faced an awful situation financially," Newman says. Scotland has a tier system which is assessed every three weeks. Pitlochry is currently in Tier 2, but she's aware this could change. She's been programming in a way that is "light of foot so that it can react to any tier changes." Her season will feature 17 different events over the summer. She describes the process as constructing a Meccano set, figuring out how all the pieces fit together. At the same time, she stresses, it's essential to remember "the art isn’t the problem, the art is the mission."

Newman feels that people are beginning to shift from thinking about life with Covid-19 as a crisis to a chronic situation, something we're going to have to live with. "Our mantra is: the only constant is change." That way people aren't locked in a constant grief cycle. Newman feels that this past year has been educational. "We’ve established ourselves online and got to grips with making work outside." But, she says it's also important to remember that theatre has not been a part of people's lives for some time and it will take a while for people to regain confidence. That's why it’s essential that this is "not the moment for theatres to be complacent. We can’t let theatre be the thing that people learn to live without."


Natasha Tripney is the lead critic and reviews editor of The Stage, the newspaper of the UK theatre industry. She's the co-founder of Exeunt, an online platform for theatre criticism, and writes regularly about theatre and the arts for publications including the Guardian and The Independent.


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