At its awards ceremony in 2022, The Critics’ Circle’s Drama Section created a special one-off award to acknowledge the work of theatres during the COVID pandemic, with the snappy title of 'Commendations for Exceptional Theatre Making During Lockdown'. It was presented jointly to four theatre companies—National Theatre, Jermyn Street Theatre, Original Theatre Company and the Old Vic—and one individual—West End producer Nica Burns.
You may notice something that all but one of these have in common with one another and with the winners in every other category: they’re in London. The only exception is Suffolk-based Original Theatre Company. The press release stated that “these are the only awards judged exclusively by working theatre critics, whose job is to see everything that UK theatre has to offer,” but as more critics are based in London than in any other part of the UK, a production in London is likely to be seen by more voting members than one only performed outside the capital.
However, lockdown offered us opportunities to see theatre beyond our usual geographical boundaries, even though it was likely to be on a screen rather than in person. While those commended by The Critics’ Circle all deserve praise, many theatre companies, venues and creators all over the UK were responding to the crisis in very different but equally commendable ways. Sadly, this esteemed organisation, of which I am a member, didn’t take the opportunity to show that it is a champion of all British theatre, not just London theatre.
So I thought I would broaden out this celebration of what many theatres managed to achieve during lockdown, in many cases with fewer resources and less publicity than those cited above, with a sampling that certainly won’t be full or comprehensive but will go beyond the South East of England and even, in some cases, beyond the stage.
Within a couple of weeks of the first lockdown being imposed, Jude Christian was a guest on the BTG podcast detailing a programme of online commissioned work to begin in early April 2020 from HOME Manchester entitled Homemakers. HOME was particularly impressive in how quickly it reacted to the rapidly changing circumstances, opening to live performances as soon as it was able to do so and moving everything online straight away when another lockdown was imposed at short notice. Executive Director Jon Gilchrist came on the podcast a few months later to explain how the financial model for a venue that also includes cinemas, an art gallery, a bar and a restaurant enabled them to guard against risk to some extent with their theatre programme. In 2021, HOME opened Homeground, a very impressive purpose-built outdoor theatre space on some waste ground with built-in ‘social distancing’ and a varied summer programme.
While some theatre companies were making recordings available for streaming over the Web and one or two risked live-streaming short pieces, Emma Rice’s Wise Children took the brave decision to stream full productions from their repertoire performed live, not recorded, in Bristol Old Vic theatre, introduced by Rice herself from an auditorium packed with technicians and their gear rather than audiences. This wasn’t without its technical hitches but overall was successful, enabling me to see for the first time the company’s Romantics Anonymous and to renew my acquaintance with its wonderful The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk.
In Scotland, Pitlochry Festival Theatre teamed up with Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre and Naked Productions to launch a new digital platform for audio theatre, Sound Stage, and commissioned new work from leading playwrights for it, beginning with Mark Ravenhill’s play Angela based on his own mother (both Elizabeth Newman, Artistic Director of Pitlochry, and Mark Ravenhill spoke to me about this for the podcast).
Also in Scotland, after all Edinburgh Festivals were officially cancelled in 2020, Fringe venue theSpaceUK put together a large programme of online theatre, all free to access for most of August. This was so successful that it was repeated in January 2021, and it also became part of the hybrid online / in-person Fringe of 2021. Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre created a new online ‘venue’, Traverse 3, with a programme of productions that began in 2020 Fringe time but continued afterwards, and Summerhall also added to the online offerings last year. Edinburgh International Festival broadcast a few productions over the Web in 2020, and in 2021 offered National Theatre of Scotland’s Lament for Sheku Bayoh by Hannah Lavery online for free.
Leading disabled theatre company Graeae Theatre Company produced a series of online monologues under the banner “Crips Without Constraints” that explored different issues that affect disabled people, some due to the pandemic but many not. Cirencester’s Barn Theatre and Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield both produced an array of full-length online shows, some of them together in co-productions.
Some theatre companies and performers reacted to the pandemic in ways that have nothing to do with creating theatre and everything to do with helping their communities to survive a very difficult time. Alan Lane of Slung Low in Leeds came on the podcast in April 2020 and told us how they had been delivering food parcels and prescriptions in their local area. In the North West, a couple of well-known comedians and actors were doing similar things, as well as helping to provide a taxi service to take older people to receive their injections.
As 70% of people who work in theatre are self-employed, many were struggling to make ends meet when theatres closed, but some of those who were able to help others stepped up to do so long before the government started to offer any assistance. Director Sam Mendes helped to set up the Theatre Artists Fund which was given a kick-start by a donation of £500,000 from Netflix. The Government’s first announcement about funding came somewhat later, and the funds themselves much later still.
This is just scratching the surface. Many theatres were commissioning new work at a time when they themselves were under an existential threat, either to provide paid employment to struggling artists or just because this is what they love to do and exist to do. Some acted as community hubs, providing essential support and resources for struggling artists or generally to people in their local areas. Much of this has gone unreported and unrewarded, and the majority of it was happening outside the M25.