Phoenix from the ashes
On the 'corporate' side, when the first lockdown happened, Arrows were on their first tour with Jekyll & Hyde, with a second, of CHAPLIN, just around the corner. Their postponement and then cancellation nearly led the company to bankruptcy, but fundraising drives and emergency support from the Arts Council kept them from closing.
Despite coming so close to the brink, the decision was taken to make the season available free of charge. Producer Christopher Tester explained, "there's no right or wrong answer, but it fundamentally comes down to your goals.
"Ours was to raise the profile of the company and actors involved, to allow the work to reach as many people as possible. That's what our tour had been about—moving us beyond London and around the country.
"I'm also very mindful that, for so many, the traditional barriers to entry that always plague theatre, ticket price and geography, have only been exacerbated by the current situation. So a project that actively seeks to counter that is an important gesture."
At an individual level for Ryall, Ioannou, Spence and McGregor, it has often been a challenge to keep busy, stay connected and find a creative outlet during lockdown, but they have all made it to the other side and with new skills and/or new work.
Ryall had to mourn the sudden cancellation of the tour before she could focus on anything and become productive. Once she did, she and her musical director partner finished a musical they have been working on for some time and for which they have secured some R&D funding.
Looking ahead, seeing the musical in production would be "the dream". Ryall continues, "it’s a six-person show and it can be done in a number of different ways so people could bubble and it wouldn't be too much of a challenge to put on, [but] now it feels like so much more of a risk. Having said that I've got to hope."
Ioannou likewise found the sudden loss of work tough, and then again through the year as the possibility of theatres reopening was mooted only to be withdrawn. She channelled her passion into setting up an art studio: "it was quite successful over Christmas and that was great and something I would like to continue with because I enjoyed it so much; also it meant that I could push that further doing the poster designs for Talking Gods."
Spence found a "social lifeline" in the improvised storytelling and escapism of Dungeons and Dragons. It has become something of a part-time job with a weekly streaming and a growing following which he finds deeply humbling.
He tells me that whilst, "it definitely does scratch that creative itch," he is also working with illustrator Lauren Jepson on a 1950s-set online comic project, and with director Gemma Norton on a new film script.
McGregor found it difficult to keep going at points over the last year, largely losing his main source of income, tutoring, and although he became a shut-in, he started painting, and reconnected with the parts of his life that didn't involve theatre.
Since the Talking Gods idea emerged, he has lived and breathed the project, carrying the weight at every step—Spence describes him as "an absolute pillar of strength throughout" though McGregor says none of it would have been possible without the support of Ioannou, Tester and stage manager, Laurel Marks.
Spence sees the series as "something of a time capsule… I think these plays will stand the test of time, they stand on their own whilst also capturing a feeling and a time that we are all living through together."
But what of the future? Tester is cautious: "we shall see. We are not regularly subsidised and our personal resources are finite, we will appeal for donations [and] that will determine whether there is a follow up chapter or not. Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
For the meantime, there is the final push to get through. Ioannou is with McGregor and videographer Andy Flynn bubbled in the editing suite: "it's all starting to come together and it's just intense. You're trying so desperately to do justice to these incredible plays and the work of all the creatives but I think it's all going to pay off in the end and it's going to be something quite special".
Sandra Giorgetti would like to thank Ross McGregor, Christopher Tester, Lucy Ioannou, Edward Spence and Charlie Ryall for taking the time to talk with her about the last year and Talking Gods. Lucy Ioannou's artwork may be viewed at Sketchasticki. You can follow Edward Spence's Dungeon Manager exploits at Patreon, Twitter, YouTube, iTunes and Spotify. Watch this space for news about Charlie Ryall's new musical.
Talking Gods opens as follows:
- Monday 5 April – Persephone
- Tuesday 6 April – Orpheus
- Wednesday 7 April – Pygmalion
- Thursday 8 April – Aphrodite
- Friday 9 April – Icarus
A Q&A with the cast follows each première. The series is available to watch free on-demand online and on Arrows & Traps' YouTube channel. No tickets or registration is necessary. Donations and further information online.
Each play has a running time of 50 minutes. Age guidance: fifteen-plus; content warnings: strong language, descriptions of violence, adult content, mature themes and scenes of a sexual nature. Brief instances of flashing lights and music.
Talking Gods was filmed at the Jack Studio Theatre where Arrows & Traps is an associate artist.