A year of disasters, disappointments and dashed hopes—but 2020 will also be remembered as the year theatres tried to find new ways of connecting with their audiences.
For many theatrical organisations, COVID-19 meant the end of customary ways of receiving money. No one allowed to buy tickets or even have a meal, let alone be allowed into an auditorium.
Major organisations including the Royal Shakespeare Company (£19.4 million) and Northampton’s Royal and Derngate (£2.1 million) received grants from the government’s cultural recovery fund. That means when the COVID jab has gone into enough arms, theatres will be able to jab back against the financial blows that threaten their existence.
Several theatres went online rather than scrapping productions altogether while others rescheduled. Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, for instance, is hoping to stage its panto Sleeping Beauty at Easter 2021 because of a “phenomenal” demand for tickets.
Nottinghamshire touring company New Perspectives would get a prize, if one were being offered, for its Halloween play Stay Safe which used WhatsApp as a dramatic medium.
East Midlands company Oddsocks, “disappointed” to have been turned down by Arts Council England for emergency funding, went down the online route but with a difference. Its 45-minute production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed in the company’s Derby home in real time. It was live-edited remotely by director of photography Kee Ramsorrun in Margate and hosted by The Streaming Theatre in Los Angeles.
Almost 30,000 people attended in the opening few weeks in October. The exhibition was due to continue until the end of January although it has closed while Birmingham is in Tier 4 coronavirus restrictions.
Birmingham REP felt it had to take decisive action to bring in essential funds. So it will become a temporary court until June 2021 to ensure justice is seen to be done in the West Midlands.
However, Talawa, which champions black excellence in theatre, has called off a partnership with the REP because the use of the theatre as a court “does not align with Talawa’s commitment to black artists and communities”.
Nottingham Playhouse sold thousands of tickets to people from 29 countries for nine shows during its three-week Unlocked Festival of live and live-streamed events. Mark Gatiss and Adrian Scarborough told Ghost Stories while Pearl Mackie and Jessica Raine appeared in Nottinghamshire playwright James Graham’s new play Bubble.
Forward-looking Derby Theatre got together with Front Door Theatre to offer people living within 10 kilometres of the city centre a “unique” theatrical experience: a 15-minute performance of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas on their doorstep. However, the show did not go ahead; the theatre has been contacted for an explanation.
As for 2021, there is plenty of optimism among theatre professionals—once buildings are actually allowed to reopen.
The RSC hopes finally to produce The Winter’s Tale which should have been one of the highlights of its summer 2020 programme. But its other spaces in Stratford, the Swan and The Other Place, will remain closed throughout 2021.
Royal and Derngate has plans for four new musicals, three on stage and one online, while Leicester’s Curve will be the first place to see a new production of Disney's Olivier Award-winning stage musical Beauty and the Beast which will begin a UK and Ireland tour in May.
But for a large part of 2021, new ways of presenting theatre may have to continue. Derbyshire company Tabs Productions is clearly at the forefront of making theatre in socially distanced ways: it hopes to stage Arthur Smith’s comedy two-hander Live Bed Show at Chesterfield’s Pomegranate with Tabs’ boss Karen Henson and John Goodrum. No worries there about not being in the same bubble—the pair are married.