Barn Theatre artistic director Iwan Lewis

‘I’m not going to accept that I can’t grow an audience in that time’: British theatre’s shutdown described by industry insiders

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Weeks into lockdown, with theatres up and down the country and around the world closed for the foreseeable future, I caught up with the artistic directors of Cirencester’s Barn Theatre, Belarus Free Theatre and Pitlochry Festival Theatre. How are they being affected? Will they survive?

Iwan Lewis, artistic director of the Barn, Cirencester

Everyone still feels we’re sitting in purgatory, not knowing which way we’re going at the moment. I always act in the way I know – action first, then work it out. That would go against the grain in most organisations, but that was why the Barn was such an exciting project for me – we just go for it.

We’re in a slightly different situation to those places that have lots of theatres or a long-running theatrical culture. We’ve had to put what the community needs first – you can see that in the decisions we’ve been making. The wardrobe department have started making scrubs for the NHS – they’re knocking out a couple a day.

We have not cancelled any shows as of yet, we are delaying them. The programming will more than likely seep into next year. But the only show we have on sale is our Christmas show. When we know more, we will start redistributing tickets to the new dates. We will open the box office when the staff come off furlough – and will do everything we can to give the season that we promised to the audience. It might not be in the manner that we have done before. We try not to compromise on production values but it might not be as technically ambitious. Some of the best theatre, though, can happen on a street in Edinburgh. We had big epic battle scenes in Henry V, but we pride ourselves on being able to scale things down and reimagine a big commercial show in an intimate way – we’ll still do bloody good theatre.

The audiences at home right now – they’re not always a theatrical audience. I’m not ignoring those people, I’m using this as an opportunity to get the Barn Theatre to those who have never been to the theatre in their lives. I’m not going to accept that I can’t grow an audience in that time. Our facebook page had more traction than the National’s in the first week of the shutdown – our following growth more than doubled and took us into the top 50 of the most popular of UK theatres.

We are not selling what we do – why would we charge for it? Theatre is always live – all these theatres are trying to do an impression of theatre but if there is a screen between you and the work, that is not theatre. I don’t think we can claim to be a theatrical organisation during this period. But also the world has changed – I’m going to take broadcasting into the business model. Live theatre will remain the core of it but you can grab the audience by other means. Going forward we have to create good stuff for all audiences across all age-groups – we have to provide content that’s relevant for them. Looking at the traffic, it’s interesting that people are visiting from all over the world.

On Monday at 3pm, we have a health and medical chat show with Dr Dawn Harper – Live from the Clinic (on Monday 14th she will be talking to the head of the ICU at Cheltenham general hospital). On Tuesday there’s a live show/ Q&A with the Cotswold District Council (3:30pm), on Wednesday, a children’s show with Giffords Circus star Tweedy the Clown (12pm), then climbing and mountaineering show Cool Conversations with Kenton Cool (Thurs at 6pm) and a live Q&A with local MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Fridays at 3pm).

We’re also launching a daily morning workout with a local gym owner – Disco Dave – it’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger doing a workout. And we will have a quiz show with Eggheads star CJ de Mooi. Plus, there will be an exciting digital project with Michael Morpurgo involving The Mozart Question. We’re also aiming to do a strand called Bard at the Barn – reaching out to all of our past actors from our shows to do a programme of the best Shakespeare speeches. There will never be a live version of that, it’s an online project.

I’m going to take this opportunity to show the theatre world that it doesn’t have to do things the way it has been done before. We are only bound by the ideas we can create. I couldn’t shut the doors – there’s an urge within this team, and within me, that I’m always going to try to find a way to show people what we do. This has been an unwelcome opportunity but an opportunity nonetheless. It’s getting to the point where I’m excited about where things are going – I’m terrified about how we make it pay and how we keep the theatre open, but if we manage to, I’m excited by what will happen. I would say in the time we’ve been streaming we’ve had more people watching our streams than have walked through the doors of the Barn. Theatre can join the digital party.

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Dominic Cavendish
Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive theatrevoice.com. His personal website Criticalmuse.com is for further theatrical musings, alongside an archive of some published articles. He tweets regularly at @domcavendish.
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Dominic Cavendish on RssDominic Cavendish on Twitter
Dominic Cavendish
Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive theatrevoice.com. His personal website Criticalmuse.com is for further theatrical musings, alongside an archive of some published articles. He tweets regularly at @domcavendish.

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