During lockdown, with theatres up and down the country and around the world closed for the foreseeable future, I’ve been catching up leading industry figures to find out how they’re responding. Here’s the artistic director of Bristol Old Vic.
Talking to… Tom Morris
As soon as the theatres closed in the week of 16 March 2020, we thought ‘we need to remember we’re a theatre and think about what our role in relation to the city might be in this strange world’. The lockdown brought with it a lot of discoveries that everyone has been making about the enormity and severity of this disease. And, for once, the situation of a creative business or any other kind of arts business is really not that different from any other business in the economy. It’s like a whistle has blown and all our income has stopped and the consequences of that are massive.
Two people I trust – Clare Reddington, the chief executive of Watershed, Bristol and Fiona Morris, who heads up the BBC/ Arts Council collaboration the Space – both said: take the time to think, everyone is rushing stuff out there online, try and put a little bit of thought into it. We identified a team at the theatre who could do that. The idea they came up with is that essentially our programme since we were setting about trying to get Bristol Old Vic out of the hole it was in in 2007/2008 was three-stranded.
Firstly, try to make really good work on stage to re-establish the theatre’s reputation. Then we invested in two other areas. In 2010, pretty much every theatre was cutting back its outreach but we determined ways to expand that arm of the programme. One of the challenges for the Bristol Old Vic was a partly justified sense that we don’t really connect with every background in the city and all those people we as a publicly funding organisation should. So there was an amazing transformation of our outreach and engagement work which offers pioneering creative opportunities to kids from every background in Bristol. Alongside that with the help of the The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation we set up a talent development programme called the Bristol Ferment. It made sense to structure our online offering in a way that corresponded to those strands under the umbrella title Bristol Old Vic at Home.
Bristol Arts Channel [launching in May]
It’s not as if we’ve got a vast catalogue of ready-to-release captures of our shows. The Bristol arts channel will run as a pilot and we will probably end up streaming about five productions, maybe more. This is an across Bristol venture – it’s not something the theatre is owning or dominating. We will take one night a week – Friday – then hopefully Colston Hall will take Saturday and so on. The idea is to re-create for our local audiences – and of course it will be available nationally and internationally – an experience that’s a bit like going out to a different venue on different nights of the week. After that trial we will know more. My guess is we will have time to run another.
The Arts Council has been saying to lots of organisations: it is a requirement that you have a comprehensive digital strategy. We had made some lurches in that direction – we did some crazy experiments with The Grinning Man in terms of 3D capture – but we can’t really say we’ve reflected on that sufficiently to call it a strategy – and the reason for that is that – as every regional producing theatre has been – we were dealing with the existential crisis we were in before this happened: how the hell do we afford to make any work? There is an element of saying this is an opportunity for us but we’re working on an absolute shoestring.
Family Arts Hub
If you look at the Family Arts hub bit of the online offer, that is building on the networks that our outreach and engagement departments have set up, bringing creative opportunities to lots of schools where a high number are on free school meals and from deprived backgrounds. A lot of work that our engagement department does is with kids who are vulnerable and in danger of exclusion from education. Some of what is there on the hub is a sort of online equivalent of the shows we might be putting on in our theatre, there are some other bits which are to do with the theatre’s history – online versions of the thing you’d get if you were a school doing a guided tour of the theatre – and some of that stuff looks really at home on a laptop.
Open Stage Online
I am very aware myself of the psychological stress of not being able to do my job properly, not being able to go out, not being able to interact – all the things I rely on for my sense of well-being. It really makes me concerned for those people who are already in a vulnerable state. I think there are going to be some very frightening phenomena which we discover as a result of lockdown which derive from loneliness and isolation and the breaks in habit.
We’ve tried to frame Open Stage Online in a way that allows creative opportunity but doesn’t have creative pressure. It’s an opportunity to upload something – it might be a painting or a poster you have on your wall, or a song you’ve written, a favourite poem or record, or a song your grandmother sang to you when you were a child. It’s important to ask what creativity is for everyone – to understand the multifarious ecology of creativity, within which discovering and valuing something can sit alongside creating something.
We are – I’m sure every theatre is – dedicating a certain amount of time looking at different models for reopening, but there comes a point at which if you’ve got to be two metres from everyone else, you don’t want to be in a theatre. There is a possibility that we’re going into be in a cycle of semi-lockdown for the next two years and it’s hard to see how a conventional theatre can function in any kind of conventional way. Certain transformative things may happen to prevent that, but with theatre a half-way house is hard to imagine.
In theatre we’re used to having a slight paranoia about whether our artform is durable – when things are changing so quickly. My instinct is that the fundamentals of live imaginative collaboration in real time and space will remain valuable even if we have to express them in ways we don’t quite recognise. The theatre in Bristol is a piece of technology that’s the equivalent of a Stradivarius violin. It might take us time for it to be safe to explore that with anything like the frequency we did before the 16th March.
The humbling thing is that the choice will finally not be made by us but the public. They will be taking the risk, we will be gambling against their risk. If we open our theatres and no one wants to go out, we’ll be in trouble. If the need is real, if the appetite is there, we’ll be able to open our theatres again.
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