Summary of 2020

2020 began very promisingly in theatres in the North West, with some great productions in many of the producing theatres and receiving houses in the region in the first quarter of the year and the promise of lots more gems to look forward to; then, of course, everything shut down on 17 March, bringing everyone's plans, theatrical or otherwise, to a grinding halt.

Each theatre reacted differently to the potentially devastating lockdown. All had to close, obviously, some of them in mid-run or, for a couple of theatres, just before press night for a brand new show. Some were quick to move their work onto the Web, although in most cases in this region, this was work adapted or created specially for an online audience rather than archived video recordings of old productions as theatres were doing elsewhere.

As the situation dragged on with no sign of financial assistance from the government, several theatres began consultations with staff over redundancies, but as most of the actors, writers, directors, designers, technicians, riggers and so on that most theatres depend on are freelance, they had all been out of work from the day the theatres were forced to close.

Eventually, the government announced a financial aid package that sounded big but, when the details finally emerged, was not really adequate and was already too late to save some, plus no one saw any of this money for several months and some of it still hasn't been distributed even now. But some of our theatres did, eventually, receive life-saving funding and issued almost identical statements of thanks, that apparently were not dictated to them by the Arts Council.

When theatres were eventually given permission to—in fact greatly encouraged to—reopen with much-reduced audience capacity and after substantial investment in cleaning, safeguards and extra staffing, some venues did open, so we were able to see a few small-scale shows at HOME and even a cut-down programme for a deferred Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, but both were cut short by the second lockdown and prevented from resuming by Manchester's 'tier 3' designation afterwards.

While a lot of big productions were cancelled or deferred, these aren't necessarily the big moments that made me realise how devastating this situation was becoming. More significant are those decisions that must have been very difficult for theatres to make at the time (although they may have been forced on them anyway at a later date) such as Theatre by the Lake cancelling its whole summer season, or Oldham Coliseum deferring its famous panto for a year, or the Octagon delaying the opening of its brand new theatre building. The next Manchester International Festival is scheduled for July 2021, with most of the programme still to be announced, and I'm sure John McGrath and the MIF team will already be making lots of alternative plans to adapt to whatever situation we will be in at that time.

As we go into 2021, we have the promise of vaccines at the same time as our lockdown saga has become a trilogy due to the 'new strain' of the virus, so it's hard to see when we will be able to return to theatregoing as we used to know it even a year ago.