Keep Theatre Alive

During lockdown we all turned to the arts. Now the arts need us

by Chloe McLaughlin

How did you keep yourself entertained during lockdown? Bingeing your favourite television series? Perhaps you listened to music or read a book? Maybe you even attended an online ‘Zoom’ performance?

But no matter what you did, I bet you turned to the arts. We all did. The arts kept us going and now, northern theatres, creatives and artists need us to keep them going.

The arts industry is one most effected by the coronavirus. Before lockdown even hit, theatres were being forced to shut their doors and a huge army of creatives found themselves out of work. With many freelancers, they had no furlough to fall back on and no future contracts to look forward to. Many were left in the lurch – with little or no government support.

And while the government has since announced a huge rescue package worth £1.57billion, many creatives and theatres are still worrying about their future. Theatres are laying off staff as they’re faced with the prospect of not opening until 2021, while some theatres won’t reopen at all. Pantomimes, the big earners for most theatres are being cancelled, and for the freelance army of workers, the lack of new work means theatre staff are facing uncertain futures.

However, theatres and creatives aren’t taking the cuts sitting down. They’re fighting back and nowhere more so than in the north. Throughout lockdown, our region’s creatives have come together to try and #KeepTheatreAlive offering online performances and opportunities to stay creative.

One such theatre is 53Two, an independent theatre in Manchester who prior to the Coronavirus outbreak was preparing to move into their new home. But lockdown put a total halt to building work.

“Nothing has happened except for paperwork and planning over this time.” sighs Artistic Director, Simon Naylor, “we hope to start building again in a couple of weeks. We’ve lost £45,000 and we won’t open until next year now. We went into hibernation almost, but other theatres have been hugely effected.”

He explains that while he’s not sure how some smaller theatres will survive; he thinks that the bigger theatres will manage not to close.

“Theatres that are big enough will survive as they bring money into the economy, but they might lay off all their staff. They’ll remodel their business to have more staff on freelance and zero-hour contracts because it’s cheaper.”

And Simon thinks it’s important to remember it’s the theatre staff that are more likely to be affected than actors and writers.

“It’s effected chippies, stage managers and front of house staff. They’re the people we see less of. When you go to the theatre there’s maybe seven actors on stage but there’s 400 people who’ve got them to that place and for me personally, I think it’s the 400 that will suffer more than the actors.”

And while Simon doesn’t think we’ll get into the theatre to watch shows in 2020, he is doing everything he can to ensure 53Two is ready and survives.

“We won’t be opening the theatre until next year, but we will open the theatre bar this year. We’ll try and have safe bar performances such as open mic nights and try to get the vibe back that 53Two did have to try and rebuild confidence in the city and get people back into the theatre.”

And 53Two are also keeping their profile alive and raising funds with their very own merchandise, selling tote bags and T-Shirts.

“They’ve got #KeepTheatreAlive on them so it’s about keeping the idea of theatre alive. Any profit we make will go towards the build.” Simon smiles, “Theatre will not disappear. It’s the second oldest profession in the world – but the small theatres are at risk.”

But it isn’t just the theatres who are offering solutions. Local creatives are too including John O’Neill who set up Salford based Up Ere Productions in 2019. They had a few projects in the pipeline but all this was stopped when Covid-19 hit.

John, along with friend and fellow actor, Stacey Harcourt, decided to set up online events to help creatives stay busy and raise vital funds for local theatres including 53Two, Oldham Coliseum and Salford Arts Theatre. He has raised thousands for local theatres with their #WeeklyWatch.

“Each Sunday at 4pm we’d do a live streamed reading of a play with a global audience.” John explains, “Our first was a play by a New York based playwright Bob Barnett and that was watched by over 50 people. #WeeklyWatch sold tickets on a ‘pay what you can basis’ through a JustGiving page.”

John also set up Breakfast Club, a daily morning play reading club that allowed new writers to hear their work performed by actors and get feedback.

“Each morning we grabbed a brew and read a new play from the comfort of our couch.” John smiles, “It was important to give everyone an opportunity to get involved with the club. Actors could read for roles they wouldn’t usually be seen for.”

John and Stacey also offered masterclasses with top writers, directors, and producers in the region. But, as lockdown ends, John is starting to plan Up Ere’s comeback away from the virtual world.

“We’re currently bringing together a group of people from across Manchester’s theatre scene to plan a big #KeepTheatreAlive event.” John grins, “It’ll be an opportunity to network with casting directors, agents, theatre companies and other creatives and aims to bring the whole community together.”

Down the M62 in Yorkshire, there’s a similar story. Karen Richardson had just set up Orange Horse Theatre and was preparing for their first show, Postcards from the Ages when the pandemic hit. But they have recently managed to re-start socially distanced rehearsals.

“We’d just started doing the show in January and were thinking about casting when all this kicked off.” Karen explains, “We had booked Seven Arts for October 16th so when lockdown started, we thought what do we do, do we pack it in or carry on and see what happens? We carried on.”

Karen used lockdown to work with writers to develop the scripts, all of which focus on Leeds through the decades. She also managed to cast the show virtually using self-tapes – where an actor sends a video audition.

“Potential actors were saying ‘it’s great you’re still doing this, it’s something to focus on’ and so that has kept me going.” Karen smiles. “Like everybody, I’ve been up and down. One day I think it’ll be alright; it’ll go ahead and then the next ‘I think why am I doing this?’ But Seven Arts haven’t cancelled us yet and they can move seating around to have social distancing. But if they do cancel, we’ll just rebook for Spring.”

But even if Seven Arts do have to move the date, Karen is aiming to film a performance of the show and put it out around the same October date and so for now rehearsals continue – even if they are different than what everyone is used to.

“Some people had masks on for the whole rehearsal, but everyone kept apart. We have some plays with hugging and obviously they didn’t do that, but it didn’t make a massive difference. Everyone was happy to be back in a room rehearsing. We’re all keen for it to go ahead and so by October 16th we’ll have some kind of performance whether it’s socially distanced or online.”

So, while the outlook for theatre may seem bleak, there’s a whole host of determination to keep it alive. So, when the theatre does reopen, buy a ticket. And if you turned to the arts during lockdown to save you… as we come out, make sure you remember repay the favour and help to save them.