Producing in the time of Coronavirus
Just announced - I'll be producing the world premiere of Gemma Lawrence's new play Sunnymead Court at the Actors Centre (Tristan Bates Theatre), London from September 22nd to October 3rd. A few words about why I'm daring to produce a live, indoor show at a time like this...
What just happened?
You can't have missed the tragic, slow-motion disintegration of the theatre industry that's been taking place over the last few months. At first we thought – we all thought! – that it would be a quick blip, and that theatres would reopen en masse by the Autumn. Then came the dawning realisation that coronavirus and theatre are almost completely incompatible. Large theatres, with a large body of full-time staff, need to be selling at 60% house to break even. With social distancing measures in place, most auditoriums can only just contain 40% house – some far less. The maths is quite simple.
What's happening now?
Structural change takes a long time. Most theatre buildings have operated in a particular way for many, many years. This way is now fiscally unfeasible, and so most theatres are entering into redundancy consultations in order to drastically cut costs. This will take months. The government's £1.57bn bailout for the entire Arts sector will take a long time to be shared out, and it won't go around equally or everywhere. There is a widespread fear among freelancers that this money won't ever get through to them/us.
Theatres, rightly, want to protect the fabric of their buildings and the staff who are employed to run them. However, this has so far been done at the expense of freelance theatre makers who make up 3 out of every 4 jobs in the Arts workforce. It's easier to just not employ freelancers than it is to fire employed staff. Neither are nice things to do, but the burden is not yet being shared equally across the industry. I said to a fellow freelance theatre maker last night that it's like the body of theatre is trying to survive without its head. However, given how much of the workforce is self-employed, it's actually like the head trying to survive without its body. Whichever way you look at it, it's a corpse.
'The best way to help artists, and re-engage audiences, is to begin making work again. Any work. Anyhow. Anywhere.' - James Graham in the Financial Times
While larger organisations and buildings are dealing with a huge amount of administration and reorganisation, there is still work to be made. Pubs and restaurants opened in early July and, slowly, people have returned. Performances in indoor venues became legal again on Saturday, and I'm optimistic about people's hunger for a live, shared and safe experience. Playwright James Graham put it across very succinctly in the Financial Times on Friday - 'The best way to help artists, and re-engage audiences, is to begin making work again. Any work. Anyhow. Anywhere.'
That's why, when the Actors Centre asked me, director James Hillier and writer Gemma Lawrence if we'd like to put on a short play in their flexible studio space, we jumped at the chance. Only 28 people will be allowed to watch our 45 minute piece at a time. We'll perform it twice per night. Between performances there will be a deep clean of the space and seating. The audience will be socially distanced and will obey a strict one way system for entry and exit. Set, props, lighting and sound will be minimal. It's not 42nd Street, but it's a start. The actors will be paid properly. The show will also be available to stream from the theatre website for the duration of the run. And it's a piece of new writing, written now, about now, for our new way of life.
What's it about?
Put simply, Sunnymead Court is about isolation and connection. It's about two women who are so starved of contact that they misinterpret each other's signals and stumble upon a relationship. It's about our human instinct to connect – an instinct we've recently all been suppressing.
With limited resources and in adverse conditions, we're doing all we can to get live performance up and running once again. Coronavirus will not defeat theatre – we have adapted, and we will continue to change and grow. None of which matters if we don't have an audience. We need to help our audiences take their first brave steps indoors. We must, as an industry, support each other, promote each other, turn up for each other. Not just for the good of this show, but for the future of theatre.
Book tickets for Sunnymead Court, here.