Views: Confidence is the key in theatres’ brave new world

RSC Stratford lit red for part of the #wemakeevents national event in August

A personal view by Unrestricted Theatre founder, Gary Donaldson

Eight months into the Covid-19 era and here we are in lockdown once again. Public entertainment and hospitality venues are shuttered once again, as the country tries to drive down the spiralling growth of cases of this invisible threat which appears to attack so mercilessly.

The incompetent UK government, having totally mishandled every aspect of public information from Day One, has reduced the UK to a global laughing-stock, especially for its “one rule for us and one rule for you” mentality – remember Dominic Scummings’ (not a misprint, a review) Barnard Castle jaunt that drove the public past the point of return to any sort of government credibility.

And all the time these clowns were creating chaos, risking the lives of our loved ones and driving our beloved NHS to breaking point, our still globally-respected entertainment sector was on its knees, ignored by a Culture Secretary who said he was on our side, but aside from hot air, we got nothing. We’d have been better off having a dead parrot on our side.

Whereas large swathes of industry (all the government’s old chums network barging to the front of the line) got financial largesse within a few weeks of the crisis hitting, the arts and culture sector had to wait more than six full months to see a penny of any financial assistance. Thousands of arts staff across the country were made redundant with no light appearing at the end of the tunnel. But even they fared better than the freelancers – hundreds of thousands of dedicated and talented creatives who found themselves falling through a safety net that almost appears specifically designed to exclude them.

#WeMakeEvents in August highlighted the plight of freelancers who make our industry work by lighting arts and entertainment buildings all in red. To a passionate and supportive public – and an utterly deaf government.

And then, and then. Government decided that it would be a real morale booster to all those they were already ignoring and starving of lifelines to be told that their jobs were “unviable”. You try telling that to a classical musician who has spent decades in their career! Did the Chancellor (Fishy Rishi) and the Business Secretary (Alok him up Sharma) think that their gift of creativity would be more viably expressed be driving a Tesco delivery van instead? Perhaps Sir Ian McKellen might be more “viable” running a fruit and veg stall in Brick Lane market?And if so, what does that tell us about this government’s conscious incompetence? As well as their utter disregard for ambition, talent and aspiration.

In yet another unbelievably tone-deaf move, the government decided that all applicant organisations for funds (the process for which they had farmed out to the Arts Council for them to take any flak) would have to compete against each other, thus providing an undignified pushing and shoving as they fought for the means to keep much-loved and age-old venues and companies alive. One National does not equal ten Southwark Playhouses. But you can’t explain this to people who understand the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Then, we find out, the almost one-third of all the applicants- the ones who failed to receive any funding at all – were simply cast adrift. Thankfully, creative folk being who they are, started creating a whole raft of public Crowdfunder campaigns which rallied to try to assist the majority of beloved local and national organisations who had been given the governmental cold shoulder. Also thankfully, audiences responded with their usual warmth of appreciation for their local and national organisations. I sincerely wish them all well, and have myself contributed to as many as I have felt financially able to.

Those organisations who did finally receive some of the financial help they had requested many months ago were given full and complete instructions on just one aspect of the transaction – how they were to publicly trumpet their gratitude. They were instructed to do this by genuflecting sycophantically at length about how grateful they were all over their social media feeds to try and put lipstick on this pig of a government. It didn’t work. And you could smell the embarrassment on media feeds everywhere.

Then the BBC’ s Parliament channel gave us the worst show of all, the farce of the Select Committee demonstrating that they had very little idea about real life or the arts, let alone any idea of how the arts and entertainment industries actually work, and demonstrating no interest or inclination to listen or learn. What a demeaning spectacle. It was like taking a pre-school playgroup to see the Hadron Collider.

Meanwhile, producers worked tirelessly this way and that to try to put work on, continually frustrated by endless variables including the local disparities in viral status across the country, so that planned drive-in tours and outdoor performances had to be postponed or cancelled. Some diversified creatively, showing movies as an alternative entertainment, others like ENO created Drive In Opera at Alexandra Palace and other venues. Others managed to get shows on in open-air and traditional venues, like Kenny Wax, Katy Lipson and David Pugh, and one must applaud the drive and determination of every producer who set out to make shows during this period. It must have been like skiing downhill in a blizzard. Many other groups got work together and aired it online, which was a great help to creatives as well as their superfans, and helped to build audiences for shows which perhaps some might not have traditionally considered, as well as those with pre-existing conditions who feared leaving their homes.

And then, with all these green shoots coming through – venues which had worked tirelessly to creatively adapt with reduced seating, perspex screen dividers and all manner of creative interventions – were summarily told they would have to shut again, placing yet more strain and insecurity on an already buckling sector.

Now we await December 2nd. Theatres are poised, their schedules all in place, actors rehearsing behind closed doors. They, and the audiences who so long for theatre’s return, are counting down the days.

Christmas is traditionally theatres’ best bet for making profits. Regionally, it is crucial to generate the income which propels the rest of the year. West End-wise, theatres’ big capacities bring the big money rolling in, with rarely a seat to be found between Christmas and New Year’s. Normally.

To lose Christmas for the arts and culture would be something akin to being run over by a truck for a second time. Who knows how many would get up.

Personally, I believe that the hope of a reasonable Christmas is a good enough incentive to get people to abide by the rules over this next couple of weeks, in the hope that restrictions can then ease.

As I see it, the biggest problem isn’t just about restrictions lifting, it’s the rebuilding of confidence that will need to happen before people feel comfortable enough to firstly go out of their houses, then take whatever travel options they have available, and finally to feel able to relax in a building with a lot of others in the same place at relatively close quarters. We have already seen anxiety and all sorts of pyschologically-related disorders rise exponentially. How, I wonder will this play out with theatregoers? Although I would relish seeing a live show greatly, am I in any rush to return to a busy auditorium? No. It’s a bit like driving. You can be the most responsible driver in the world – all it takes is one idiot to do something wrong and you could be in trouble.

I worry about how much this will filter through to audiences. I think that theatres are doing all they can to assuage people’s fears- SOLT and UKTheatre’s SEE IT SAFELY campaign is providing customers with a reliable standard and very important visual reinforcement that the venue is doing everything reasonably possible to adhere to wise safety processes. But its when you put the volatile commodity of people into the environment, that’s when the real litmus test will be.

I wish it success with all my heart.

As to what the government will do to control and diminish Covid-19’s threat both to human life and to the future of our industry, heaven alone knows. They have already proved themselves utterly incapable of running anything, let alone a co-ordinated virus response. And for anyone who disagrees, I have just three words – Track and Trace.

But, frankly, what can you expect of a government that actually voted to let children starve during the Christmas holidays?


Aria and ALP offer commission for new chamber musical project


Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainment and Adam Lenson of Adam Lenson Productions are joining forces to commission a New Musical from writers who are in based in the United Kingdom. This opportunity has been announced today.

Both companies are hugely committed to new musical theatre, evidenced by Aria’s many years presenting the annual FROM PAGE TO STAGE festival (sponsored by Anthony Field Associates, amongst many others)and their instigation of a full time literary department, as well as Lenson’s regular SIGNAL concerts during the Covid-19 pandemic.

They have come together to offer this commission for an original piece which they intend to be a yearly offering for writers based in the UK.

They are seeking interested parties to pitch a potential idea through their online portal and the selected writing team will receive a writing commission of up to £6000 which will be funded by these two independent organisations.

During the pandemic the producers have supported revivals of small-scale chamber musicals such as Aria Entertainment’s THE LAST 5 YEARS and live streamed productions of new musicals including ALP’s PUBLIC DOMAIN, SHIFT+ALT+RIGHT and THE FABULIST FOX SISTER.

Both producers are acutely aware of the lack of more established British chamber musicals within mainstream publishing and licensing houses and would like to help support UK-based writers in creating content which in the long term could fill these gaps.It is their intention to find, curate and develop a show for production which may also lead to publishing and International production opportunities.

The producers actively encourage applications from writers with diverse backgrounds. They are keen to hear from individuals who have an idea for a show with a cast of four or fewer with themes which respond to the world we are living in today. They are seeking innovation, bold and brave new ideas and voices. They are not looking for pre-existing work.

To apply simply fill in the form here . The submission deadline is December 31st 2020.

A shortlist of pitches will be further developed before a work is chosen in Spring of 2021.


Watch Now for Families: Little Angel Theatre’s MR GOBBLE’S GARDEN

Here’s another brilliant show for younger audiences from the pioneering Little Angel Theatre.

In their second outing, Scoop the Junk lady and Bertie the Bottle welcome you back into their special space, where they make things out of the stuff other people throw away, and use them to tell stories. This time, they’ll tell you the story of MR GOBBLE’S GARDEN.

He looks like a slipper with a mop for some hair.
For when he’s not gardening, he rests in his chair.
But, more than anything in the world, and of this I am certain
Mr Gobble is extremely proud of his garden.

Mr Gobble is the grumpiest man you’ll ever meet in your life, but his pride and joy is his garden. He tends to his herbs, fruit and sunflowers, and is growing an enormous Orchid to enter into a competition. But one day, a mischievous mole comes digging, and Mr Gobble has to learn an important lesson about kindness, sharing and friendship.

The show lasts approximately 15 minutes and is available now

Although this show is free to watch, please consider making a donation to the Little Angel Theatre which does vital work in helping younger children to access the joy of theatre.

This production was filmed in a socially distanced way at Little Angel Studios.

CREDITS: Performed by Lori Hopkins

Written by Jon Barton

Directed by Samantha Lane

Designed by Emma Tompkins

Lighting Consultant Sherry Coenen

Sound composed by Ailie deBonnaire

Filmed and edited by Suhail Merchant

Assistant puppet makers Geoff Hense and Imogen Evans

Supported by NESTA and Arts Council England.

Watch MR GOBBLE’S GARDEN here

You can find the first instalment of SCOOP’S SPACE here


Alfred Fagon Award 2020 shortlist revealed

The Alfred Fagon Award panel has announced the shortlist for the 2020 Award which will be announced later this month.

The Award, first presented in 1996, recognises Black British playwrights of Caribbean or African heritage who are resident in the UK. The Award was created to celebrate the life and work of Alfred Fagon, a playwright and poet who lived in Jamaica and the UK, who died in 1986.

The shortlistees are:

babirye bukilwa …blackbird hour
Clint Dyer & Roy Williams – Death of England: Delroy
Daniel Ward – The Canary & The Crow
Emma Dennis-Edwards – BRICKS
JC Niala – Unsettled
Juliet Gilkes Romero – The Whip

The longlist from which these finalists were selected was as follows:

babirye bukilwa …blackbird hour
Chantelle Dusette EV(E)OLUTION
Clint Dyer & Roy Williams Death of England: Delroy
Daniel Ward The Canary & The Crow
Emma Dennis-Edwards BRICKS
Esohe Uwadiae She Is A Place Called Home
Inua Ellams Three Sisters
JC Niala Unsettled
Juliet Gilkes Romero The Whip
Lewis Charlesworth Token
Nicole Latchana The Process
Phoebe McIntosh The Soon Life
Ronke Adékoluẹjo Teleportation
Wela Mbusi A Far Cry From Home

Last year’s winner was Jasmine Lee-Jones, for her play seven methods of killing kylie jenner.

The Alfred Fagon Award is supported by The Peggy Ramsay Foundation.

Good luck to all the listees – and the eventual winner!


George Devine Award shortlist announced

George Devine

The George Devine Award has announced its 2020 Shortlist. Founded in 1966 in memory of the Royal Court’s founding Artistic Director George Devine, the Award is recognised as one of the most prestigious in new writing and seeks to spotlight a playwright of promise. Previous winners have included Diana Nneka Atuona, Richard Bean, Alice Birch, Lucy Prebble and Rory Mullarkey.

The winner will receive a £15,000 prize to support their future writing.

Former George Devine Award-winner and 2020 judge Roy Williams said:

“The quality of the plays on the 2020 Shortlist is exceptional. They are a set of bold, diverse voices representing huge variety in style and subject matter. Amidst a very difficult year for theatre, it felt clear when discussing these plays with my fellow judges that there is a bright future to look towards for new writing when the industry reopens.”

The 2020 Shortlist is:

When Great Trees Fall by Dipo Baruwa-Etti

Motherland by Chris Bush

Staying at Stacey’s by Annie Jenkins

Does My Bomb Look Big In This? by Nyla Levy

There are no beginnings by Charley Miles

Out of Sorts by Danusia Samal

O, Island! by Nina Segal

The Canary and the Crow by Daniel Ward

The High Table by Temi Wilkey

This year’s judging panel includes the previous GDA-winning playwrights Charlene James and Roy Williams alongside former Royal Court Artistic Director Ian Rickson, actor Patsy Ferran, director Elayce Ismail and producer Amy Powell Yeates.

In my own view, the strongest contender I have seen, and the one I am rooting for, is Temi Wilkey’s wonderfully warm and ambitious THE HIGH TABLE which had its run cut cruelly short at the Bush Theatre earlier this year. You can read my four-star review here.

The winner will be announced later this month.