As the weeks of lockdown continue, with theatres up and down the country and around the world closed for the foreseeable future, I caught up with another artistic director, Anthony Biggs of west London’s Playground Theatre, to find out more how they were responding.
Talking to… Anthony Biggs
The Playground opened in 2017 and when I joined the theatre from Jermyn Street that summer the Grenfell Tower fire happened. By default, but partly also from a desire that I wanted to come to a theatre where there was a local community – which I didn’t have in the West End – the fire immediately put the theatre on the map as a local theatre. The first thing we did was outreach activity – various charities used us as a base. Half of what we’ve done has been outreach work and half has been production, which is quite a big percentage.
I started quite a lot of community projects. One big one with St Charles Hospital was called Well Read, which was the simple idea of sitting reading plays with people who otherwise wouldn’t go to the theatre, those with mental health issues. That developed into some of those people coming down to see plays and then even writing them, which we’ve put on. I chose quite big plays to read – the first one was James Purdy’s Paradise Circus, and we’ve done People, Places and Things, work by Philip Ridley, Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
I knew when the crisis started that this would all wither if we weren’t able to keep it going somehow, so we have started to run it now on Zoom, and it works really well. There is a facilitator who runs the group and it lasts about an hour and a half – an hour is usually as long as we read for, then there’s a half-hour discussion. With Zoom, the person who is speaking is the face that gets popped up so you always know who’s talking. Another method is that I can manage the running of the script and control the screen of those watching but I think people prefer to do it themselves.
It’s interesting – we are in North Kensington which is very split socially. David Cameron lives two streets away but three minutes away we’ve got Grenfell, so it’s pretty divided. We have two strands to the play readings – and there’s one that is open to anybody, for people who aren’t necessarily deprived. They tend to live locally but we’ve now had people joining from America, and all over the UK. The next Zoom session is this Friday – we’re finishing Jeff Talbot’s The Submission.
In addition to this our café is run by a lovely lady called Rima and her son Mars – they’ve been running it for six months and the quality of the food is fantastic. They are local residents, keen to encourage people to come to the theatre. After the virus hit they had to close. But they still wanted to carry on, and now we’ve got this incredible situation where the Felix Trust provide food, Rima and Mars cook it and another charity [Kensington & Chelsea Mutual Aid Group] distributes it. It’s for those on the at-risk list – people who are vulnerable or otherwise would not be able to get out or are at a level where they would be using foodbanks. They are doing 500 meals a week which is probably as much as they can manage. In a way, it’s been the making of the café – they’re delivering food to people who would never have known about it. No one is getting any money out of it. I think it’s an amazing project.
Very early on, about day two of the lockdown we had our first in-house Zoom conversation and asked how are we going to be able to keep functioning given that our income is zero and we can’t plan because no one knows when we’re opening again. It’s a particular challenge when you’re not a core funded building – even with a little assistance from the local council and the Arts Council it’s tricky. We thought: what would be the way a theatre like us could still be useful and be a community theatre? Those two things – the outreach work and the café – were what we thought would work and they’re the two areas I would most celebrate anyway, so I’m very happy with that.
Some people locally are struggling more than others. We get people getting in contact, some wanting to vent about stuff. My daughter goes to school nearby. I know a lot of her class live in flats in the White City area – and they are finding it tough because they don’t have gardens, don’t have much park space, don’t have lots of money. By the bye, we are doing a verbatim project called Dictating to the Estate which was supposed to be happening May – June, around the time of the anniversary. It’s based on the Grenfell blog – the blog set up by the residents association about the conditions inside the tower. It finishes before the fire but with the fire being prophesied. We will now stage it at the next anniversary in 2021, but we may read some of it online this year.
There was a massive gap in local services provision already and this has made it much worse. What it has highlighted is that if there is no real infrastructure in place, then the moment something bad happens like this there is no way of coping. I do think that theatres now have to think about what their place is within their community and how they can support that community and not necessarily be thinking about the struggle of the artist. I know that is a very difficult time but there has been an awful lot of talk about how artists are going to carry on creating. What they haven’t talked about is how are they going to manage their outreach programmes. I don’t hear about that at all…
Overall, we’re £50,000-£70,000 down in terms of required takings between March and the start of July – that’s a big chunk of money which we don’t have. So, if new funds don’t come in, then we can probably manage until the beginning of the autumn. But it will then come to a point where we might well have to mothball the theatre. It wouldn’t permanently close, but it would have to go into hibernation.
The Playground Theatre Café Covid-19 Food Relief Campaign is run by volunteers with a GoFundMe page to raise money: https://www.gofundme.com/f/the-playground-theatre-cafe-covid-19-food-relief
Anthony Biggs hosting the Christmas party at the White City Community Centre
Iwan Lewis, artistic director of the Barn, Cirencester 9-04-2020
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 [see details for donations below].
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.
Requirements for medical scrubs: “As beggars can’t be choosers, the basic requirements are, poly cotton mix is preferable but cotton if not, we can work with any width and minimum for one outfit is 3 metres. Offcuts are fine, we can be creative! Old stock is good too.”
The two campaigns we are running are: the #SAVEOURBARN campaign to help ensure the Barn survives after, through and following the COVID-19 pandemic and the NHS, Emergency Services and Armed Forces Ticket Fund which is to provide free tickets to those on the front line when the theatre reopens. The Barn Theatre will match the amount of money the public donates to the fund. Donations can be made via barntheatre.org.uk or by calling at 01285 648255
Natalia Koliada, founding artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre, 08-04-2020
Dogs of Europe
We had a new show, Dogs of Europe, which was supposed to be at the Barbican in May, a co-commission. It’s the 15th anniversary of the company, and 25 years of the dictatorship in Belarus, 10 years since we became refugees and 2020 is a turning point for the UK, our second home, in terms of Brexit. The piece – based on the Belarusian novel by Alhierd Bacharevic – envisages the year 2049 when a new European-wide ‘reich’ has been established by Russia, after continuous wars, one even bigger than the Soviet Union. No one is reading books, there is disinformation everywhere. That show was opened underground in Belarus in March. The virus changed everything in terms of staging it. And yet also it made us realise how vital the piece is.
We were waiting for a decision to be made in March/ April as to whether we would get an Arts Council grant to support the project – there was no confirmation – and we just got a letter saying that unfortunately the money that might have been assigned to projects like Dogs of Europe now has to be taken and put into an emergency pot of funding because of Covid-19. So we don’t know what will happen – of course we’re applying for that emergency money but we’ll see. The Barbican were working very well with us – they still intend to stage it but it’s too early to say, we’re all working to make it happen.
We have decided to put the video archive of our productions online. We realised immediately that we are artists who already exist in isolation. We’ve been online for many years, directing shows, teaching students. The main idea was to stay connected with our audiences.
More than that, there’s a closer sense of identification between what the company has been going through for years and the past few weeks. When we tried to get some food, and found very little to be had in London, we had flashbacks to the worst days of the Soviet Union. My mother asked me to buy some simple things and it was impossible to find them. It reminded me of when I was very small and my mother would wake me up at 7am to go and queue for meatballs – to make broth – and it would be minus 30 and we had to queue for hours to get basic foods. Of course, that’s not exactly the same situation but in terms of the empty shops I was horrified that some people had tried to buy much more than they needed. We realised we needed to bring back humanity.
That’s what the company has been trying to do always. So we started with fairytales – and recorded fairytales every evening – with our actors reading them on YouTube, to keep people dreaming. And then we have also asked our trustees – Sam West, David Lan, Juliet Stevenson, Stephen Fry – if they too will read fairytales in English so that people can dream and not be scared. Sam West has read a fairytale already. Stephen Fry will be reading on April 15, Juliet Stevenson, Will Attenborough and David Lan will be later in April and May. It is not a fund-raising campaign as such – it’s to encourage people to believe in dreams. It got started with readings by my father Andrei Kaliada who teaches our students stage voice. In 2007 he was dismissed from the Academy of Arts where he was a Vice-Chancellor and he was told that his children (meaning myself and Nicolai) are disgrace to the country and that he is a disgrace to the Academy.
We continue all the while to campaign in Belarus. [President] Lukashenko says it’s not a virus – he doesn’t admit the existence of Covid-19. People have been dying from ‘pneumonia’ – you see crowds in public places, and he’s building a 9000-seater stadium for the military parades on May 9th. There are football matches, ice hockey games. They can stop the internet any minute they want and when the country is state-run, if you lose your job, no one will give you another job. So it’s hard to protest – they will track down people who ‘misinform’ about the existence of a virus. Really, it’s a system that resembles the time of Chernobyl, major disinformation.
For 25 years we have been saying that it was necessary to deal with the root of the problem – dictators, and while the West plays along with dictators it will have huge consequences. Russia has used media aggression in Ukraine and Belarus – these are test-grounds for major media technologies – propaganda – and the moment that starts to work, it gets spread to the UK, US etc. In the democratic world, the West never believes it will get hit – it thinks it will only be somewhere very far away, but that is exactly the problem, For years we have been saying that dictatorship is contagious – we’ve seen what has happened with Hungary. Dictatorship is like a virus and it has the power to destroy societies.
So we have started a campaign called ‘LoveOverVirus’. The only hope for our company to continue in Belarus is for people to support them through donations – it has always been a big battle. We have always live-streamed our shows, for free. That has happened throughout our existence – we’ve always insisted on accessibility to the arts, for anyone in any corner of the world – even care-homes. When we did Staging the Revolution, we knew there would be an audience who couldn’t get online, so we sent copies of the shows to care homes and community centres.
Most of our people are in Belarus where the company is banned and it’s vital to find funding to keep that activity going. In the UK, I don’t think we get the support the company deserves, as the only company in this country that is refugee-led. I think if we are not successful then the company will talk about whether its existence in Minsk can continue but as always we will fight on.
click here to donate
For more info visit: belarusfreetheatre.com
Each weekend, April-June, 2020, an archive production will be made available to watch online at BFT’s YouTube channel LISTING: Zone of Silence (2008), 8pm Sat 11-04; Discover Love (2008), 8pm Sun 12-04
Belarus Free Theatre is the only theatre in Europe banned by its government on political grounds. Since 2011, the company has been based between Minsk and London where its co-founding Artistic Directors, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, are political refugees in the UK. New theatrical productions are devised and rehearsed over Skype with BFT’s 12-strong permanent ensemble based in Minsk
Suba Das, artistic director of HighTide, Suffolk 06-04-2020
I was on a conference call with 20 other artistic directors a few Mondays ago when Boris and the government did the first of their briefings – and that guidance not to go to the theatres was issued. We were all on the line together taking that in. For many of my peers and friends running buildings it has been the most gruelling, devastating exercise. We were in the comparatively luxurious position that we were not due imminently to go into production.
Our producing pattern has historically been creating a festival every September in Aldeburgh. As part of coming in as the new artistic director, I’d been looking at an overhaul of our output and the things we might do differently anyway. So we had scoped shifting the festival to March next year, it’s easier to tour work at that time of year, and consequently we were thinking that over the next six months we were going into a period that was more about company structure. So we had some head-space. We were going to announce the launch of the UK’s first summer camp for playwrights to be based in Aldeburgh, bringing together some of the most exciting writers from across the UK with a focus on writers from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. That was going to culminate in a programme of readings.
I had come into the role and talked to so many writers and heard that there is something about having space, time and opportunity – the welcome HighTide has always been able to create – which meant that we didn’t need necessarily to create an expensive public-facing full-scale festival moment, we could make that happen at a different time – and over the summer we could have a more artist-led exercise. So, those were the plans and we’ve had to change them. Hopefully we’ve been agile – the activity plans were about wanting to create platforms, provoke conversations. We invented the Lighthouse programme in about three days – that was about reworking those activities and going: there is a need for a moment of support now and a gesture that is around creating focus, and encouraging looking past the end of these current circumstances. We set a £10k fundraising target and smashed that within four days, which is humbling really.
There is something galvanising about asking “what we are here for?” at a moment like this. We had the great good luck to be able to ask ourselves that, without being in the middle of making a load of work. So, because of that we felt we had to pull our finger out, stick our heads above the parapet.
We’re still figuring out what the long-term impact is – it’s not just about taking a few weeks off. We continue to have some really brilliant plays under commission and the five writers (Aisha Zia, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, Ben Weatherill, Dawn King, Debris Stevenson) who are creating the Love In The Time of Corona monologue series are those we were going to be commissioning over the next year and a half. The series represents a wonderful opportunity to introduce our audience to those artists because we are with them in the long-term. They all turned in the first drafts of the monologues within five days.
As a company we’re reserving the majority of our budget to produce our festival in 2021, but we will continue to evaluate whether that can exist in the way we want it to. We may need to rework those plans – if we find ourselves in a universe where we can’t bring audiences in for that physically can we explore how those plays instead become a radio play or exist in a more innovative, digitally interactive context? There is a moment coming down the line for arts organisations, as the picture becomes clearer. If we’re in for a longer-term disruption we are all going to have to step into thinking about what real innovation of form might look like.
The manifestation of that work next spring may not be about certain kinds of physical rural touring, it may be about how that work continues to manifest in a digital fashion or in a postal fashion, or down the telephone. We’re in this interesting moment where we are trying to keep our powder dry. We have some resource to retool what that work looks like next year.
For me, in the space between the artists and the communities we serve sit one of the most important groups – vulnerable artists from minority backgrounds and from financially challenging backgrounds. I fear we may lose those voices in this period of disruption – the access points and pathways will be even more unclear to them, which is why we’ve set up Dawn King’s playwriting course online for 10 weeks. We were clear about the registration criteria – everyone is welcome but we are especially wanting to ensure that writers from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and the East of England are participating. It has always been the case for me that it’s not about art for art’s sake. We want to create and nurture extraordinary voices and ensure that when those works go out into the world they’re met by audiences that reflect some of the diversity and breadth of opinion that our artists have. Even is this crisis concludes, I think one of the important things for us is how we remain match-fit and ready. This is a moment that should encourage us all to improve the accessibility of our work going forward.
Elizabeth Newman, artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre – 01-04-2020
I think it’s responsible for them not to proceed with the Edinburgh festivals [this was announced earlier that day]. I think it’s what needs to happen, I think it’s the best thing for the audience and the artists. Then people need to turn attention to the future and look to what they can be doing during this time. There is a danger in people becoming fatalistic about things. I’m seeing this as one chapter in its history – if you look at a pandemic like Spanish flu, it passes, it becomes the past.
So, I feel like we’ve got to live through it but we have to be in dialogue with it. We have to go into a physical lockdown, we don’t have to go into an artistic and emotional lockdown. What would be interesting about the fringe festival is what those artists that were going to be going to Edinburgh are going to do now. They’re going to think differently, behave differently. Maybe they’re going to decide they didn’t need to go to the festival at all – next year they will go to Naples, or set up a festival in their community, and make it about their place because that’s where they’ve had to be for six months.
I don’t want to sound too Pollyanna-ish about it. If we had spoken three weeks ago, we were in the most awful situation. Krys [Bryce, executive director] and I fundraised £335k in a week in order to mean we’d still be solvent. We were heading for bankruptcy by yesterday. So we laid people off, pre furloughing. It was horrendous – 60 people. We were praying that the government were going to hand over something like that scheme. We need to make 85 per cent of our income – if we’re not producing anything, we’re not making money.
We started scenario planning at the beginning of rehearsals for Barefoot in the Park, anytime I wasn’t in rehearsals we were thinking about it. Everyone has their emergency plans, but we came up with what we would do. In technical week it became clear that we weren’t going to get many shows out. Kris and I were readying ourselves, by March 9th we knew that it was coming.
You knew they were trying to shut down London. You could track it. Because I’m a data-obsessed person you could see where we were going. We were keen to make sure we weren’t so shocked we weren’t capable of doing anything, in fact we were still shocked. It’s shocking to have to gather your staff and tell them to spread out, keep them two metres apart and tell them ‘this is what we’re doing’. We gathered them on the Monday. We carried on for a bit to ease us into the situation we now find ourselves in. We sent everyone home who didn’t have to be there, we managed to record Barefoot on the Tuesday, when the full announcement came in that people shouldn’t come into work unless they have to.
The thing I’ve really struggled with most was the government took so long to say they would help. I cannot describe to you the conversations we had with our insurers. When I arrived the theatre was in a really tricky financial situation. Literally two weeks before this we had a board meeting where we were finally in the black, it was on the road to being sorted. In two weeks, we had gone from being a theatre that had been losing half a million a year to being in the black and producing work at a high quality to being an organisation that once again was staring down the barrel towards insolvency.
What Krys and I did was we worked out that we could bring forward the holidays for next year in the financial structure we had – which was six weeks, they could mix and match it with unpaid leave. We worked all this out and prayed that hopefully this would get us to the point in time when the government announced their initiative. The government will now reimburse us – we’ve done that now, but that Friday we had to start laying people off, because in two weeks we would have been bankrupt – the pay-roll every day is £8k. We arrested it, then turned it round, so 95 per cent of the staff are now furloughed. It’s not loads of money that these people are on but we’re the largest employer in Perthshire. The government are saying ‘three months’ of this scheme, then they’re going to let us know – and that’s a problem.
What did it feel like? It felt like the job, actually. I’ve had lots of different conversations with artistic directors at this time and everyone has reacted very differently but no one sent a memo saying it was always going to be easy. I’m privileged to do my job, I love it. In those moments I go ‘you can’t have that without this’ – the reason we’re paid what we’re paid is because in these moments we have to do this. Kris and I took it in terms to have our wobbles – it was not knowing what was coming, staring into an abyss of uncertainty. I’m quite a hands-on AD, I am the producer – we don’t have any producers full-time on staff. It was easier to get my head round this. I know some of my colleagues have struggled to get their heads round the business side of it. The £335k we raised – that’s foundations, trusts, individuals. Krys and I sat there and wrote to people and rang them. We got some people going “Why do you think we’re so special?” – and we listed all the reasons!
The other side of it is how do you support people? If our organisation’s function is to help people understand the world, now is not the time for everyone to go on a holiday, ‘this is a good time to have some self-reflection’ etc… I get all that, love all that, but you have to do something and help people. You have to realise that people are really lonely and are going to get depression. I’m not saying we need to be responsible for the mental health of the world. But I do think we participate in supporting people to navigate difficult situations.
I’m obsessed with audiences and how we connect. The choices I made about the 2020 season were about how best to do that at this point of time, and as much as I’m sad I’m not going to make Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this year, those pieces aren’t right for now. What I’m doing is commissioning as many writers as I can from the pots of money I’ve raised and bringing that forward, and connecting with other theatres, to do stuff online. The world doesn’t need Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It needs harp-playing…I know that’s not how other people feel. Some people are deeply grieving for their programmes of work. It’s not that I don’t care, I do, but I care about what I need to do now – that’s what’s making me get out of bed in the morning.
What we’ve done is lifted the whole season to 2021, so all those creatives have still got that work, and are entitled to their next payment. All the actors know they will have seven months work next year, as well as three months that we managed to box and cox so they can do all this online work. Our workshop had built four of the sets pretty much, so we can still use that; it’s about not wasting resources. There’s no denying that some ticket-holders will ask for their money back, but hopefully many will want to transfer over or donate.
We need to come out the other side. The objective is to be able to make theatre for people. They’re going to need a place to congregate to process what they’ve been through and I don’t mean plays about coronavirus. I mean sitting an audience together and having moments of joy, grief, transcendence – our community needs to be a hub of activity and a beacon. What we’re doing is picking up from Perth and Kinross council’s local resilience team – which caters to a range of needs among the local population – they’re diverting calls to our telephone club, and people can talk to us if they’re lonely or scared.
I became really aware that people at this moment are going “let’s go digital”. I’m totally up for that. Years ago I did a job for the BBC and ran one of their digital departments. I love digital. A lot of our theatregoers are on facebook etc and are technologically savvy, but more than anything they want to have a chat – the best way to do that is on the landline phone. What Royal Mail did was agreed to post for us in the local area, getting a leaflet out saying the number to call, so we’re going off-line and analogue.
I could also tell from what people were saying that they were anxious about being at home with their children. So one aspect is helping with that and people were needing moments of respite too. We can offer escape – poetry, prose, songs – and since the worst thing is people sitting down to vegetate, we’ve got dance classes, origami sessions. Our mission is Light Hope Joy – we’re a public organisation, we’re a service to the audience, let’s serve them.
I think people are scared for their livelihoods. You can go “What would you rather a theatre or a ventilator?” – of course we’re all going to pick the ventilator. But it shouldn’t have to be a choice, because to come out the other side as a society you can’t lose the things that make us a society. I do think at the moment we haven’t fully comprehended the death toll, if you look at how things are tracking, the overall numbers of people who die from this will move into the millions. That will create a knock-on into how society is impacted. That is coming, and that will affect our industry in another way.
I’m already living in 2021. I see people being really sad and that affects me. They will have lost months of their lives, they will be grieving for that, which I don’t think people have contemplated yet. And illness is not the same as war. There are some similarities in that we can’t go about our daily business, there’s rationing of sorts. I can see how that narrative is helpful but this is going to affect people very differently – they might have seen a parent or child carted off in an ambulance. We’re dealing with something fundamental here which is that we can’t overcome nature – we are realising our own mortality.
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