During lockdown, with theatres up and down the country and around the world closed for the foreseeable future, I’ve been catching up with theatremakers to find out how they’re faring. Here are Out of Joint’s artistic director Kate Wasserberg and CEO Martin Derbyshire discussing how coronavirus is affecting the touring landscape.
Talking to… Out of Joint
Kate Wasserberg: The real unknown is when people are going to want to go back into the theatres, regardless of government advice. We don’t know that. It will be a long road. Until there’s a vaccine, I think people are going to avoid big gatherings – but it’s hard to predict group behaviour. We are extremely fortunate that we are not a building. We are following those stories, but we are not in a position to solve that problem and it’s also not what is preoccupying us at the moment.
We were at the beginning of the tour of The Glee Club – it was a huge shame to have to stop that – and we had things that were about to land in slots that now won’t but we hope will still happen down the road. We were relatively lucky that we could pivot quite quickly. We’ve now got an opportunity to really talk about what kind of work we’re going to put into this world, what is going to make people walk back through the door, what a stripped-back landscape – where there’s a bit less money floating around – looks like.
We spent some time thinking about digital. The work that is being made by other companies is great but what we’re for is live art and we’re better placed to be revving up to be ready with a load of great stuff to offer and being robust as a company so when we can have a shared experience with the audience that’s what we’re able to do. I think as a director you can only make work you’re compelled to watch yourself.
We are looking at our legacy – at the way that Joint Stock and Out of Joint made work in groups, with quite a stripped-back aesthetic. It’s about the story-telling experience, it’s not about big sets, it’s not about things flying in and out. We’re thinking about how to create that. There will be an emphasis for us on new theatre work. I’m steering away from the phrase ‘new writing’ – that carries a lot of associations that aren’t necessarily audience-facing. I think audiences want to go and see a great piece of work. I would say we’re much more thinking about a joyous great night out, populist work with real integrity, rather than politics with a big p. Out of Joint has always been engaged with politics and sometimes done issues-driven stuff but it has always been wrapped in a great show, a great drama. The bigger productions were about trying to embrace a certain kind of mid-scale and where we’ve come to is that midscale doesn’t have to mean big production, it has to mean big story. We’re going back to the drawing-board and hoping to make a new kind of mid-scale work using some of the old tools from the Out of Joint tool-box.
I don’t want to speak for the Arts Council but I think there will be a lot more flexibility when it comes to requirements. One of our requirements is to do with the number of touring weeks and I imagine there will be flexibility about that. Either way, we have to now look at our business plan and adapt to the new circumstances. The theatres that survive won’t have the funding to put on big shows. We will need to look at smaller more fleet of foot productions and more audience-focus. We need to put emphasis on development right now. Theatres will need new products and they might not be in a position for a while to develop work. The timelines for developing work and theatres being open might be very different – it might be six months or even longer. As soon as we can we will start developing work and re-purposing our business plan to focus more on development than on touring, because who knows how long it will be before the mid-scale touring venues are ready to receive work. The overall ambition will be to produce more work than we have done in the past few years.
Liveness will be at the heart of everything we do. If theatre is going to come through this, it’s because liveness is what audiences crave. We’ve been talking about abandoning anything where it feels like theatre is trying to be TV or cinema and grabbing hold of the rough aesthetic that made the company what it is. It used to be the case that touring companies brought in fresher and riskier work – that has unhelpfully shifted until this moment – touring companies have been expected to be safe. That has not been great for audiences. I think the people who run these buildings are going to be hungry for these bold artistic partnerships but it has to be affordable.
For a long time it has been bleakest on the mid-scale touring circuit, where there is the least amount of funding and where audiences have been falling the fastest. I don’t think it’s going to be a time of revolution, more of evolution. What happens with those venues? Hopefully most of them will survive, the bigger organisations might be more at risk than a small receiving-house which didn’t have that much in terms of an engagement team, all those things that cost quite a lot of money. Our job is to make content the audience want to see – the old model of taking out quite expensive revivals we hope will attract a big audience probably isn’t going to work in these circumstances. In the 1990s after the funding cuts of the 1980s, theatre did scale down – the subject-matter became more visceral, the production costs went down. The new work on the mid-scale won’t be what has been going out recently..
The midscale has been underfunded – and maybe the whole thing needs reimagining. The sector has been talking about that for some time. Maybe we’re in a position to lead the way on that. There has been a lot of talk of audiences craving feelgood work. We need to think about what feelgood means – we’re not imagining creating the next Blasted nor are we trying to create work that’s conventional. You’ve got to thrill people. It will be all about the work again.
We have done shows at the National and also done shows in village halls – being midscale allows you that adaptability in ways that other companies might find hard. The mid-scale was already badly underfunded and what the arts need now is unfortunately a big bail-out. We need financial support or the sector will be in danger. There is a danger on the focus being on the big organisations, which will mean more London-based theatre. Everywhere in the country will need art, at the moment it may seem insignificant compared to funding the NHS but I feel that a society without art is like food without flavour. There should be no reason why we can’t do that.
Our funding covers our running costs. As long as the Arts Council can fund us we are able to continue but there is this issue of needing to make work and put it on somewhere. We have worked at the Nuffield, Southampton many times. If we start seeing those venues that are our regular partners closing it will have a really bad effect on us.
In the last five years it has really felt as though financial restrictions have started to bite. We’ve seen lots of desperation, lots of people deciding to leave the sector, the commercialisation of the subsided sector – which affected the ability to take risks. I’d like to see a return to the idea that it is legitimate to fund the work, not the education or the community outreach programme… because that is why we are special as a sector, that is why people keep coming back. It feels like there has been a drive to fund anything but that core work – the other stuff is really important but I hope that the theatre community learns to fight for that central purpose. I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat down to write a funding application that says ‘We don’t fund core-activity’ – that’s what we need for the next few years, the core activity funded. A friend of mine who is a director said that this felt like first time since we were 18 when we were able to take a breath, when the industry wasn’t juggernauting ahead of us – we can stop for a second and think: what can we do. For us this has been a moment of privilege and I think it will be the making of us in the future.
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