VIEWS: A time for focus

Well, I hadn’t expected for this to be a continuing series ,but things are changing quite quickly so I felt it was important to take a few moments to make a few observations.

Since the West End (and other shows) have reopened, albeit piecemeal, it has been a turbulent time. Some shows have realised that it will take longer to get back to pre-pandemic audiences, and have consequently postponed or cancelled national tours, adding further uncertainty to the ever-shifting schedules of regional theatres.

In the West End, shows at the Coliseum , the Dominion and Royal Court have had backstage or cast members register a positive COVID-test, which meant that their show had to close down for 10 days while everyone isolates. Let’s compare this to a footballer, who tests positive but the team can continue training and playing. Level playing field, I think not.

While 10 days closure seems very cautious indeed, what we must also remember are the knock-on effects of this. Hard-pressed Box Offices are beseiged with calls from customers wanting to reschedule their visits, not all of them happy or empathetic, with all the accompanying stress that brings (not all customers are lovely about changing their plans, believe you me!).

Further, you may not know but everyone who is forced to isolate receives no pay whatsoever. Can you imagine how precarious this all feels to a performer or backstage worker who was so elated at getting a job after 16 months, only to have the financial lifeline it provides pulled from under their feet. Requests have been made to adjust the quarantine requirements, but of course we see how slowly this government acts- if at all. This is a key impact of the Government not providing support in the form of an insurance-backed scheme to compensate producers for any losses due to Covid stoppages. Exactly the same sort of insurance coverage helped the Film and TV industry get back to work over a year ago. Why did the Government not help theatres too? You decide.

I am sure you can appreciate this makes no sense at all, but then why should we ask for sense from a government which clearly hasn’t a clue, with no concept of right or wrong, fair or discriminatory, compassionate or cruel. They just don’t care.

I have heard that performers in cancelled shows are receiving abusive or threatening messages via social media, which is utterly unacceptable. If any performers or crew member receives abuse, they should report it to the police immediately. It’s understandable that people are upset. A LOT of people are upset. But being upset at the wrong people is wrong – and no way to get anything sorted.

This COVID mess , if it is anyone’s fault, is the Government’s -from mistiming lockdowns and unlockings, to giving incorrect and confusing advice from start to finish which now leaves us back in the situation we were in at Christmas, with cases likely to soar to new heights, putting evermore pressure on our valued NHS.

Big shows like HAIRSPRAY at the Coliseum are taking on 12 extra performers to try to cover them for any future COVID- related restrictions, but very few shows (if any in this appallingly difficult time) could afford the budget to do that. And just imagine how that is cutting into the profit margin for what was already a tightly-forecast 12-week run.

Meanwhile, another change to contend with is that audiences are now sitting up close and personal to each other in venues packed to full capacity after the misleadingly-titled Freedom Day. My projection is that many will not feel ready for this after more than a year of separation – and that consequently, they will feel desperately uncomfortable, unsafe and unsure – they will reschedule where they can, others will simply not go and others wont buy tickets until they see the case numbers going down in a big way.

The Summer is usually one of theatres’ boom times, as tourists flock to our world-beating entertainment scene. The tourists aren’t here this year, so venues have to work even harder to get UK audiences in- and it’s not easy in a heatwave as we’ve had this last week, even in normal times. Theatres will be more than ever subject to last-minute booking which brings uncertainty as to their financial projections, and may certainly cause some producers to slash ticket prices in a panic to get any price for a seat. I hope this won’t happen, but rising case numbers and extreme weather make this more likely. I hope not, but,….

Cultural Conversations focuses on the next generations

The Rt Hon The Lord Mayor of the City of London and the Genesis Foundation invite you to join them for the fifth in the series of Cultural Conversations: ‘Young People and The Arts: Making Space and Opening Doors’ taking place online at 5-6:30pm on Monday 26th July.

The Cultural Conversations series is a sequence of focused debates around Arts and Culture in the City of London. This fifth Conversation will be chaired by Gemma Cairney, in conversation with Cherry Eckel, Artist and Advisory Group member at Boundless Theatre; Neil Griffiths, Chief Executive at Arts Emergency; Montana Hall, Founder of Run the Check and Trustee at The Photographers Gallery; Renee Odjidja, Curator: Youth Programmes at Whitechapel Gallery; and Abdul Shayek, Artistic Director at Tara Theatre, and Lemn Sissay OBE, Poet, Playwright and Broadcaster.

Please click here to register

VIEWS: Theatre today – Lurching from farce into tragedy?

Yet another uneventful fortnight in theatre. Leading producers going to the High Court to instigate legal proceedings against the Government for failing to release the findings of its report into large crowd events and its effect upon spread of Covid. Seasoned producers deciding to call it a day because they can’t stand the uncertainty anymore. Shows both large-scale (at the Coliseum) and small-scale (at the Royal Court) announcing triumphantly that they’re open for business and within a few days being forced to cancel ten days worth of shows due to positive Covid testing amongst the show staff. Meanwhile in the streets football fans run riot across London with outbreaks of violence and drunken and disorderly conduct, potentially fuelling the huge rise in the UK’s Covid cases without even a mention from the Government or the media.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s tantrum/marketing pitch is what we have come to expect from the man who sailed too close to the earlier “Freedom Day” announcement and decided to pack his theatre hosting his new show from the off, and spent the next few days doing his King Canute pose while his hard-working Box Office staff resignedly got on the phones and dealt with the reality of the situation.

The Government’s indolence has been another thorn in theatres’ sides. Over one year after a sound and comprehensive insurance scheme protecting against stoppages caused by Covid outbreaks was laid out for the film and TV sectors to take advantage of, no such structure has appeared for theatres and their hard-pressed producers. Level playing field, I don’t think so. The (excuse my laughter) Culture Secretary tells us “they are working on it”. What will their next big announcement be? They have discovered something called “talking pictures”?

We absolutely need to see the results of the large scale pilot events held two months ago. Why they should be held up is anyone’s guess. Mine is that they show that things aren’t as safe as they hoped they would be, and so to suppress the findings would let them get to July 19th (which from now on we shall call “Lemmings off a Cliff Day”) and simply shrug their shoulders, noting a fait accompli.

Responsibility has never been in the toolkit of this most inept and underhand of governments. Just look at the casual way they acknowledge there may be 2 million Covid cases over the summer; where has the “Protect the NHS” slogan gone? Perhaps they think that by letting nature take its course they are keeping the NHS in long-term work. Of course, the comic masterstroke was appointing as Health Secretary a banker. And just look how they saved us in 2008!

It is great that theatre is slowly returning, and I hope that return brings an increasingly smaller number of outbreaks. But the idea of encouraging everyone to throw all caution to the wind and do whatever the hell they want to rubbish the sense of responsibility which is still far too lacking in our selfish society. Rights and responsibilities are inextricably linked. You have your rights – but with rights come responsibilities – including a responsibility to respect other people’s choices.

On a related point, some people have said to me that having had both vaccination jabs, that they are “immune”, which is not actually true. What is true is that the vaccines have greatly reduced the extent to which you are likely to be seriously ill , hospitalised or die if you become infected with Covid, which is still possible, but at a lower percentage of possibility than when you were unprotected. The risk to you, although smaller when vaccinated, is still out there. Covid can damage you. And, in case you missed this, research has discovered that Covid is not so much a respiratory disease, it’s a vascular one- which means it affects your blood vessels.

I don’t believe that theatres will be able to abandon all mask policies in the short-term, especially if full capacity seating becomes the norm again (and I still believe that many theatres will limit capacities to respond to their own audiences’ feedback).

The idea that you can have theatre staff doing all they can to keep theatres clean, safe ventilated and accessible – and then have to deal with an uncontrolled crowd which fails to respect others concerns (let’s not forget there will be many who are uneasy at returning to a half-full theatre, let alone a hot, sweaty, packed-to-the-rafters one) means that as a country we have a Government which has abandoned all common sense and all responsibility in attempting to care for its citizens.

My advice? Stay safe and go to the theatre if you want – but please remember, now more than ever, it’s important to protect yourself and your health, and in doing so you’ll protect other people too.

“Persistent” buildings and persistent people – How heritage buildings can revive our High Streets

Those concerned for the future of the nation’s historic high street buildings were treated to a lively and informative online presentation from Heritage Trust Network and Locality on July 1st.

Can historic buildings save England’s High Streets?

In a lively discussion, expert panelists discussed the potential new uses of historic high street premises and the role of culture in town centres’ revival.

Speakers were David Tittle – CEO of Heritage Trust Network, Owain Lloyd-James – Head of Places Strategy, Historic England, Carol Pyrah – Executive Director, Historic Coventry Trust, Joe Holyoak – Trustee, Moseley Road Baths, Diane Dever – Chair, Urban Rooms Network and Claire Appleby – Architecture Advisor, Theatres Trust.

The mainly heritage-based audience were treated to much impressive factual information from regeneration projects around the UK, together with practical steps and advice when furthering their own high street heritage projects.

The discussion put the High Street in context, starting as a community focus, then often rebuilt to become more retail-focused, and now as retail is on the decline, accelerated by Covid, towns need to find new creative offers to encourage people back to their High Streets.

Owain Lloyd-James of Heritage England reminded us that High Streets are areas of greater footfall, which is why so many theatres, cinemas and other cultural buildings are on them or very nearby. He also noted that retailers were waking up to the idea that they had to offer “something extra” for people to visit High Street stores. This new form, dubbed “experiential retail”, has prompted awareness amongst retailers that historic and heritage buildings can add something special to a shopping trip. This has fueled an increasing amount of interest in repurposing older buildings to create stores with character and interest, as opposed to the bland Lego boxes that infect most of our Hugh Streets today.

Carol Pyrah of Historic Coventry Trust told us about the successes achieved by her group including participating in City of Culture this year, and how they have positively shifted visitors expectations of the appeal of the city through their many placemaking and arts-based projects.

Joe Holyoak, a Trustee of Moseley Road Baths, told us of this historic building’s impressive plan for renovation and renaissance as an arts centre and studios. He also, helpfully, reminded us that the word “monument” stems from the word for memory. And finally, he reached back through time to remind us that buildings which survive down the ages have often been called “persistent” buildings, which seemed a very apt title; and he celebrated not only the persistent buildings but also the persistent people who help to bring them back into life.

Diane Dever discussed the projects arising from the Urban Rooms project in Folkestone. Sadly, for me, her presentation slides were so dense that they became unreadable and undermined the detail of what she was trying to tell us. It was, however, heartening to see Folkestone’s creative quarter emerging, and to hear that the income from shop and flat rentals in the area were helping to fund creative events.

For me, the best was saved till last, as Claire Appleby of the Theatres Trust brought out the convincers – the financial figures. As well, Claire underlined the architectural importance of theatres, their memory-link to the local communities around them, and the wide social benefits of theatres and the activities that can be housed within them. Also highlighted was the flexibility with which theatre companies had lead the way in Covid help, being outreach workers, community hubs, food banks, vaccination centres, and so much more- theatres really showed their value to their communities.

An Arts Council of England survey found that theatres were highly valued, with respondents stating that they were willing to pay £13 a year per person to retain their local theatre.

Theatres’ effects on the local economy were great, with people coming into the area to see a show and usually spending more while they were in the locality. In the last, non-Covid year of research, UK Theatre found there were 34 million visits to theatres across the UK bringing a value of over £1.38 billion, that figure without the extra benefits of restaurants, bars, hotels, etc.

As mentioned on this blog, another survey found that theatre’s wellbeing impacts on audiences contributed to a saving of over £102million to the NHS annually, with 60% of theatregoers more likely to report good health than non-theatregoers.

Finally, Claire quoted a number of recent or nearly-completed projects, with Chester’s Storyhouse (a redevelopment of their old Odeon cinema) bringing a million visitors in their last year. Bradford’s newly refurbished ex-Odeon cinema is projected to bring over a quarter of a million visitors in the first year, with a projected boost to the local economy of £10million. The newly-refurbished Globe Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees projects 170,000 visitors in their first year, bringing an £18million boost to the local economy. (And just another example from my own experience- Walthamstow’s refurbishment of their Granada cinema into a mixed-use theatre space is projected to bring over £100million into the local economy over its first ten years of operation.)

A lively Q&A followed, and the event was brought to a close by David Tittle. Thanks to everyone involved for a highly informative, positive and optimistic view of heritage buildings’ futures on our High Streets.

Watch a recording of the event, which you can find here

Reports of the Interval’s death are greatly exaggerated

In the run-up to theatres reopening, and all the safeguards put in place by theatres, there has been much knee-jerk reaction about having to dispense with the interval. This is nonsense and will gradually subside as we return to our established ways of functioning. However, it did make me think about the interval, how it developed and its many benefits from both an audience and a theatre-maker’s point of view.

The interval, as I understand it, originally developed in the time when candles were the only available source of illumination in places where performances were given. Thus, the performance paused when the candles which sat along the front of the stage to give illumination (the first footlights) needed to be replaced as they had burned down. From the early 1800s gas lighting was slowly introduced but the concept of the interval had been well enough established to survive.

As the play structure developed through the nineteenth century, the three act format became the most prevalent, and this offered a choice as to whether there should be one interval with two acts running together, or one interval and a short “pause” at the other act changeover.

Although plays were originally written to run straight through, as times, tastes and audiences changed, the interval was seen as beneficial by theatre managers for a number of reasons – chiefly to sell more drinks at their bars, and also as a chance for the audience to socialise with other theatregoers. Intervals increasingly became established as an opportunity to send audiences out buzzing with excitement and anticipation of what was to come in the rest of the performance. A good “first-act curtain” was a cliff-hanger, a revelation or shock, upon which the audience were encouraged to speculate for the duration of the interval given.

Modern audiences welcome a chance to think about the show and discuss it with their companions and friends. Other choose to stretch their legs, pop outside for a smoke, grab an overpriced drink from one of the theatre’s bars, or pop to the loo. One of audiences’ bugbears throughout history have been theatre loos. Why so few for ladies down the decades? Because fewer women than men attended the theatre at the times when a lot of the UK’s theatres were built (many over a century ago), one is lead to believe. With women’s progress over the decades in financial and social independence, it is appalling that only very recently have attempts been made to increase loo facilities for ladies, and much more needs to be done.

For producers, intervals can offer the chance of a rest for performers. It can also allow stage scenery and settings to be changed at a more leisurely pace then when changing scenes. Technically, it can also offer a breather to sort any technical issues which may have arisen during the first act. If the show has a live orchestra, interval can also give a well-earned rest for the musos and conductor- even more so when the conductor is also a playing band member, as is so often the case these days.

For the theatre owners, intervals are a useful way of increasing their income from bar sales, confectionery, ice cream and merchandise. All of these go directly to the theatre owners, with the exception of merchandise which usually is a split-profit agreement. Programmes are the responsibility of the theatre owners; brochures fall under merchandise.

For playwrights themselves, the interval’s relevance can sometimes (but not always) be determined from the length of the show. Some shows are deemed too short to warrant one, others are specifically written without an interval, and very long shows sometimes include a five-minute “pause” (as was the case in the two-part THE INHERITANCE in 2018/19). Longer shows can also involve more than one interval.

Cynics might say that the interval gives them a chance to get out of a truly terrible show, and true as this may be, truly bad shows in the 21st century are few and far between.

So let’s carry on enjoying the interval, safely and thoughtfully. There might be a time when you’ll really be grateful for it!