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‘There are big (and scary) challenges which need to be harnessed’: Chris Grady explores the Off West End theatre landscape post-lockdowns

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As the West End reopens with the welcome return of blockbusters which will get the massive press coverage with red carpets and celebrities, my gaze turns to off West End, Regional, and new work development.  I have been to Clapham Omnibus, Perth Theatre, and the Capital Theatre Studios in the last few days… alongside conversations with Broadway and Korean networks of producers. It is a fascinating time (and scary).

Next week producers come together at Clapham Omnibus and on Zoom to explore the landscape and look at how they/we can navigate a new world. And then a week later we are all at Dundee Rep to explore new models of producing and touring for the Musical Theatre and commercial theatre industry of Scotland and the world.  There are big (and scary) challenges which need to be harnessed.  I look forward to facilitating those conversations in the flesh and in the cloud.

My enormous admiration goes out to directors/producers like George Richmond-Scott who have chosen now to get work opening early. He offers us a revival of a memory play exploring the mother/son dynamic in working class Cardiff (pic above). George has been blessed with a fine company of actors and creatives to bring to life Peter Gill’s poem to his childhood.  Immense awe for Marie McCarthy as Artistic Director of Omnibus Theatre in Clapham who comes out of this pandemic determined to programme exciting new work by aspiring and exciting companies. There is nothing safe about the programming policy, and the audience wants that challenge.  She serves her community without the benefit of safety net funding – every show is a high wire act for her, her Board and the theatremakers who invest their personal reputations in the space.

Fri night it was a quick drive across the Firth of Forth to my ‘local’ theatre in Perth where they have re-opened the main house with a powerful exploration of the Tay Bridge disaster – The Signalman by Peter Arnott directed by Ken Alexander and starring Tom McGovern   Perth Theatre has offered me some amazing highlights for my theatre life – working there in the 80s marketing for Rikki Fulton’s Wee Touch of Class, driving from Buxton in 1989 to see my career favourite Sweeney Todd starring Donald Maxwell, and of course taking forward so many of the marketing and subscription learnings which Vanessa Rawlings Jackson brought over from the US from which we all learned so much.  I wish all cheer to CEO Nick Williams as he regroups with Artistic Director Lu Kemp from closure to careful opening.

Regional theatres don’t have the massive marketing dollar to broadcast their re-opening like the West End & Broadway.  They have to win back the audience and the participation one event at a time.  It will probably take years for the houses and engagement to reach 2018-19 levels, but they (like so many houses across the UK) have kept a loyalty programme online throughout the lockdown. And now they are offering a welcome as the doors open.  Please, dear reader, find a local theatre which you admire and book a show there as well as a blockbuster to give you a balanced diet.

And now to the ‘starter’ the small beginnings which will, in 2-3 years be nurtured and supported to be the new creative powerhouses and delights we need.  Yesterday afternoon I was in the Studio at Capital Theatres spotting representatives of most of the producing theatres of Scotland. We were there to see a new initiative from Edinburgh and Pitlochry Festival Theatres – The Musical Commissioning Hub – to offer seedcorn funding for development plus much needed mentor time to three new musical theatre pieces.  It felt like being back in my days running the Vivian Ellis Prize for new work [before the charity trustees closed themselves down – another story for another time].  The coming together of fledgling work, offered to us in intelligent short sharings, and  enjoyed by the decision makers of theatre.

Three pieces chosen by a panel from 80+ submissions brought us work by Shonagh Murray, then Niloo-Far Khan, Hannah Lavery & Niroshini Thambar, and finally Tommy Antonio.  There were 30 minute sharings, a short well moderated 15 minutes of appreciation and questions led by Ben Occhipinti, and then some mini-network time for the great and the good…and the useful and the aspiring.   This is the start of a marathon for the five writers and I hope they find the support they need locally, nationally, and maybe internationally for these three pieces.

I had a fascinating brief conversation with a CEO in one of the intervals around their realisation that things have to be done differently into the future.  It is something that is being talked about in all the meetings I have and facilitate in the antechambers to the power houses, and it is great to feel a parallel realisation in the throne rooms. I look forward to sharing more ideas with them which have come from our DipCP producers and from discussions at Producers’ Pool.

We have to find time. We know we have talent. And the UK is blessed with treasure we can apply to and find.  Working together in the long term, upsetting the setup and thinking differently is now needed.  Then the aspiring writers, creatives, producers, audiences and participants will have amazing opportunities into the future.  The world needs the arts / it just may not always know it.

New beginnings…

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Chris Grady
Chris Grady is a creative and business life coach who has worked in arts and project management for more than 30 years, running marketing departments and creating festivals and theatres in Bristol, Plymouth, Edinburgh, Buxton, Keswick, London and Bury St Edmonds. He has also run the Vivian Ellis Prize for new musicals, and written Your Life in Theatre, a careers guide for all stages of your career. He is preparing an MA for Theatre Producers with Mountview Academy for Theatre Arts. Chris blogs about arts management at www.chrisgrady.org.
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Chris Grady on RssChris Grady on Twitter
Chris Grady
Chris Grady is a creative and business life coach who has worked in arts and project management for more than 30 years, running marketing departments and creating festivals and theatres in Bristol, Plymouth, Edinburgh, Buxton, Keswick, London and Bury St Edmonds. He has also run the Vivian Ellis Prize for new musicals, and written Your Life in Theatre, a careers guide for all stages of your career. He is preparing an MA for Theatre Producers with Mountview Academy for Theatre Arts. Chris blogs about arts management at www.chrisgrady.org.

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