Earlier this year, most of the theatre awards season just about managed to sneak in under the wire before coronavirus brought the shutters down – the Oliviers, of course, did not. The current circumstances mean that there are questions about whether there will even be an awards season next winter/spring, especially as there may, ostensibly, be little to give awards for.
However, one scheme has stepped blinking into the light and looks set to encourage participation and innovation. Step forward the OnComm Awards. I spoke to three people who were there at the beginning in different capacities.
Geoffrey Brown is managing director of OffWestEnd.com (already home to the Offies and the OffComms), which supports, promotes and celebrates the work of independent, alternative and fringe theatres across London. The organisation has developed these new commendations as a specific response to current circumstances. He says:
“Once lockdown curtailed live theatre, it was clear that some of the independent, alternative and fringe venues and companies were keen to continue by offering online performances. We felt that it was right and appropriate for OffWestEnd to offer an award to celebrate these efforts, and to recognise the best of this work – and thus the OnComm was born! It is an “online commendation”, an award in itself.”
Many of the eligible shows are working with a new website called SceneSaver to showcase their work. Site founder Caroline Friedman explains how the development came about and why she decided to link up with the OnComms:
“I was working on Scenesaver when the pandemic shut the theatres, so decided to launch it as a free website. Users are asked to pay a “ticket price” donation and this money goes to the performers. Linking up with OffWestEnd seemed to be the perfect partnership. We could encourage people to keep on creating exciting and innovative new work to be seen by audiences worldwide. OnComm applications are coming in all the time for a diverse range of performances. Performers are becoming ingenious, using whatever technology is available to them, whether it be a mobile phone, Zoom meetings or footage recorded in sections and then transformed into a completed play.”
And what of the end-users? The first recipient of an OnComm was writer/director Simona Hughes for her new play About 500, originally created for the VAULTS festival but scuppered by lockdown. Nothing daunted, the play was reimagined for performance via modern technology. Simona says:
“When lockdown kicked in, we were all devastated to have an opportunity snatched from us, but then, like everyone else, we quickly adapted. After a successful virtual premiere (courtesy of the Tower Theatre), and a couple of great reviews, we were emboldened to video a Zoom production and launch it on Scenesaver.
“I was beyond delighted when told that About 500 was going to be awarded the first-ever OnComm! An Offie is a highly prestigious award so to receive a commendation from the same body was beyond my dreams. It was also a wonderful way to overcome all the disappointment of missing out on our stage run. A couple of theatres have since expressed interest in the piece and receiving the OnComm gave me the extra push I needed to get a new full-length version in front of programmers. I would urge any theatre makers out there to get their work online, submit it to Scenesaver and therefore be eligible for an OnComm. The ‘silver lining’ of lockdown is that unheard of companies and artists are getting their work aired and viewed…. Make the most of this brave new world!”