Stayin’ Alive

You know it's alright, it's okay
We'll live to see another day
Feel the city breakin' and everybody shakin'
And we're stayin' alive, stayin' alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive, stayin' alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive

The Bee Gee’s song is from 1977 but it is so appropriate to theatre in 2020 because that’s what theatre’s been all about since March, staying alive, living to see another day.

To the best of my knowledge, no NE theatre has had to close permanently—yet!—but all have had to furlough staff and many have had to make redundancies. The NE did benefit from grants or loans from the Culture Recovery Fund, receiving 85 awards totalling £19,932,597, and from ACE’s Kickstart Fund (£1.38m for Sunderland’s Fire Station and £85,011 for Live Theatre) which obviously came as a lifeline for the theatres concerned but could not offset the major losses brought about by the pandemic, exacerbated by a government policy which could most kindly be described as inconsistent or, more accurately, lacking in foresight and planning, resulting in knee-jerk reactions and U-turns by the shed load.

Most theatres have appealed for help from their regular audiences. They offer (they have to!) refunds on tickets for cancelled shows or, when shows have been postponed, transfer of tickets to the later date has also been offered. Many, however, have asked ticket-holders to donate what they have paid for their tickets to a sort of “survival” fund.

And almost all, of course, have appealed for donations or for people to join their Friends’ or Supporters’ schemes.

Some—mainly but not entirely the smaller, independent theatres where there is more of a family atmosphere (and yes, I know that’s a much overused, even sentimental phrase, but nevertheless it’s true—have been much more proactive, offering online Zoom quizzes (The Customs House and Darlington Hippodrome) or online concerts. Singer Joe McEldery, for example, who worked as a waiter in the Green Room (now Dame Bella’s) at South Shields’ Customs House before his career really took off, did two such concerts during the year which raised thousands of pounds for the theatre.

The Tyne Theatre and Opera House did something similar using both professional and amateur performers who have appeared on their stage.

The other thing to note, of course, is that all of this help, whether national or local, has been targeted on buildings but theatre companies (unless building-based) and individuals—actors, creatives, crew—are not included and many were not entitled to any of the employment support schemes, so they had to fall back on Universal Credit which is slow to access.

Most have fall-back jobs in the hospitality industry or work on zero-hours contracts in other badly hit sectors when they are not working in theatre. Many, in fact, are frequently temporarily employed in other aspects of theatre; it’s amazing how many actors are employed by Northern Stage and Live Theatre (to name just two), either front of house or behind the bar. Now some have even begun to train for other jobs. Will they return to theatre once the pandemic is over? Who knows? I suspect some won’t.

But for creatives like actors, writers and directors it’s not just the lack of money that hurts, it’s also the lack of opportunity to practise their craft and so there’s been a huge surge in online content produced by individuals or groups.

Very early on in the pandemic three North East actors—Brian Lonsdale, Sam Neale and Michael Blair—set up the Coronavirus Theatre Club, which began as a Twitter account, to give a platform to local writers, actors and directors to work together digitally, in their own homes, to produce new monologues to be streamed live.

When I spoke to Lonsdale for the BTG in late March, they had six monologues in preparation; now they have 47 on their YouTube channel, from emerging and established writers, such as Lee Hall and Sting. and actors like Joe McCaffery, Chris Connel and Lonsdale himself. Although CTC was the first in the region, many more have followed.

Some groups, like South Shields based Boyle Yer Stotts, took a slightly different path and broadcast audio productions on platforms like SoundCloud, and, on Radio Tees, actor Rachel Teate gives over part of her regular programme to local talent.

North East theatre is doing its best but it’s a constant struggle and, even with the development of a vaccine, there’s no prospect of an end for months to come.