‘It’s a Herculean effort’: UK theatre festivals adapt for summer of Covid

  • london
  • August 11, 2020
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‘Dive in!” commanded the cover of Brighton fringe’s 2020 programme, listing more than 5,500 performances across 170 venues in May. But audiences couldn’t even dip into it. Amid the wave of cancellations caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the largest open-access arts festival in England was rescheduled for autumn. With dozens of other jamborees, including Edinburgh fringe, postponed or scrapped, the summer looked gloomy for arts lovers.

“It was heartbreaking,” says Nicola Haydn, artistic director of Otherplace, which runs The Warren, a popular group of Brighton venues. Haydn had planned to celebrate The Warren’s 15th birthday with a programme featuring almost 300 visiting companies. She’d spent a year putting the lineup together. When it became clear they couldn’t go ahead, “none of us knew what the future held”.

Now, Brighton boasts a brand new Warren venue on the beach. Comedy, music, magic and anarchic theatre will be staged outdoors, with audiences watching from picnic tables. While some theatres have been adapted for the age of coronavirus, this one has been designed in direct response. Rather than purchasing individual tickets, audiences book one of 50 tables, which fit up to six people. Masks must be worn until audiences reach their table, drinks are ordered online and there’s “shed loads of hand sanitiser” available. “We’ve worked hard to reassure people the safety measures are there,” says Haydn.

Plenty of innovative work has been made online during lockdown, she acknowledges, but for Haydn “there’s nothing like live performance” – and the new Warren stage has a stunning backdrop, too. On this summer’s warmer days, she has been wary of the beach because of overcrowding but the theatre offers a socially distanced space to enjoy entertainment in the sun (or otherwise, as there’s a rain-or-shine performance policy). The shows have been programmed to lift spirits: there’s a solo panto from dame Mama G, Shit-Faced Shakespeare doing a drunken Midsummer Night’s Dream and a cabaret featuring West End stars whose musicals were shut down. Haydn says a spirit of collaboration is in the air – her beach venue has comedy nights organised by the local Komedia club.

Arts organisations are similarly joining forces in Norwich for an outdoor festival, this one in a big top pitched in a city-centre park. The tent belongs to local circus company Lost in Translation. Norwich theatre’s six-week season, Interlude, is a collaboration with Norwich Arts Centre, The Garage and other venues. “We’ve turned it around in about 24 days,” says Stephen Crocker, the theatre’s chief executive. “It’s quite the Herculean effort!”

The tent can hold 750 people. With social distancing, that makes around 250, roughly the usual capacity of the city’s Playhouse theatre. Some of the shows from the Playhouse summer season have now been transferred to the big top, bringing 85-90% of the original ticket-holders with them. Safety measures include keeping two sides of the tent lifted to increase ventilation. Audience confidence is critical, says Crocker. He recalls the government briefing on 16 March when the public was told not to visit theatres; he thinks that association with risk will persist. “It’s been five months since we closed our buildings. If we don’t start bringing people back together in a safe way to experience live performance then it will be even harder when we do get to open the buildings.”

As government guidance is constantly updated, Interlude’s organisers are poised to be flexible. If there is a local spike in coronavirus cases and gatherings are restricted again, “we’d have to weather the storm”. Unlike some of this summer’s theatre activity, the festival is financially viable, primarily because of the support of local authority partners including the council. “The nighttime economy relies on venues,” says Crocker. “This is a boost for bars, restaurants and retail.”

EastSide Arts festival in Belfast goes one step further, placing a summer show inside Connswater shopping centre. The King of East Belfast is written and performed by Stephen Beggs, and was planned for the festival before the coronavirus outbreak. It has been reconceived as a 45-minute production with Beggs performing at a three-metre distance from an audience of 22 who, in line with shopping centre restrictions, all wear masks. Another festival show, Late Lewis – a musical production about the author CS Lewis with a cast of four – will be fittingly staged in Belfast’s CS Lewis square, with its Narnia sculptures as a backdrop.

Festival director Rachel Kennedy says the square, part of Connswater Community Greenway, was a lifeline for locals during lockdown and she was among those who visited it for daily exercise. “Now people can gather again a little more, they are able to return,” she says, acknowledging that there has been excitement among festival audiences about rediscovering live theatre. The festival’s theme this year is “moments of joy”, which has energised and inspired artists. “Lockdown has taken the joy out of life,” says Kennedy. “People miss laughing with their friends, being around other humans.”

EastSide Arts festival is presenting a variety of live outdoor performance and digital productions. That mix is mirrored in the Virtual Collaborators festival, which runs for two weeks online and culminates in a weekend of shows in the grounds of St John’s Church in Leytonstone, east London. The outdoor festival is funded by Waltham Forest council as part of an initiative to bring culture back to the borough. It is the latest phase of a project that Danusia Samal launched in the early days of lockdown to enable creatives to collaborate remotely on a series of films. The festival is co-produced by theatre company Part of the Main whose artistic director Olivia Munk had planned to direct an immersive clubbing experience, Populist, at Brighton fringe and has also had to postpone her Edinburgh show Bloody Mary: Live! (it’s also a podcast).

“The first couple of weeks of lockdown was about picking up the pieces of things that had been cancelled and asking … what now?” says Munk. The Virtual Collaborators festival was designed as a replacement for Edinburgh fringe, which offers a vital showcase to emerging artists. Munk was “floored by the generosity” of others in the industry who have offered advice and resources including free rehearsal space to those taking part in the festival. They are lifting up the next generation of artists, she says.

Planning live events during a pandemic means everything feels provisional. As a producer, you’re usually one step behind where you want to be in your schedule, explains Munk. “But this is the first time I’ve felt it’s OK to be behind because the world is collectively behind what is happening.” The festival aims to give artists and audiences confidence that people can still connect and create work during the crisis. Contingency plans are in place should lockdown restrictions return in London. “Mostly what we have to count on, regardless of government guidelines,” says Munk, “is our spirit and our vision.”