Yorkshire theatres reflect on a tough year - but the show must go on in 2021

It has been a tough year for our theatres but, as Nick Ahad reports, the energy and verve with which they have reacted, plus the public’s support, gives hope for the future.
Leeds Playhouse streamed A Christmas Carol. Photo: Leeds PlayhouseLeeds Playhouse streamed A Christmas Carol. Photo: Leeds Playhouse
Leeds Playhouse streamed A Christmas Carol. Photo: Leeds Playhouse

Shakespeare called parting ‘‘sweet sorrow’’, but there has been little sweet about the parting of theatres and their audiences this year.

I appreciate the word ‘‘unprecedented’’ has never been called into service quite like it has in 2020, but there really is no more apposite word to describe the closure of our nation’s theatres this year.

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We have to reach back to the plague outbreaks of the 16th and 17th century to find such an annus horribilis for British theatre. Not even the first or second world wars closed our theatres for as long as Covid has.

The Snow Queen, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Picture: Tony BartholomewThe Snow Queen, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Picture: Tony Bartholomew
The Snow Queen, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

What has been remarkable from the off has been the energy and verve with which our theatre sector has tackled the problem of a pandemic-caused lockdown – as you might expect from an industry populated with artists used to coming up with creative solutions.

Alan Lane, artistic director of Leeds-based theatre Slung Low, has been particularly inspiring in his response. The theatre company pivoted in the early days of the lockdown and began to provide a service that has turned out to be literally life saving.

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“It’s been quite a ride this year,” says Lane, with typical understatement. “We released a short film in March with a huge cast featuring members of Leeds People’s Theatre to create a riot on the steps of the Town Hall and then we went into lockdown and had to bring together a different kind of army. We’ve been a foodbank caring for the ward of Holbeck and Beeston since then and we’ve done 7,750 referrals.”

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Slung Low has continued to provide art to people – a lamppost art gallery, a live-streamed game show, a picture book delivered to schools, but first it made sure people could eat. “This is the year of the foodbank for us,” says Lane.

Each theatre and company across the region has had to make difficult decisions about how to survive. York-based theatre company Pilot Theatre was in the middle of what was shaping up to be an impressive national tour when coronavirus arrived and stymied those plans.

“In lockdown we’ve focused on two major projects: with our Northern Girls project we delivered a show in the YMCA car park in Scarborough. We also shared webcasts of Northern Girls and Crongton Knights, and created more digital work which included developing an online game about happiness,” says Esther Richardson, artistic director of Pilot Theatre.

Technology has been a vital part of the theatrical response to this year. While it has been impressive to see theatres embrace their online worlds so fully, there is no denying that there simply isn’t a digital-world equivalent of gathering in a physical space together. Mikron Theatre, the Marsden-based company that travels by narrowboat, knows this better than most.

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Marianna McNamara is the company’s artistic director. “We missed touring so very much in 2020. We’re feeling discombobulated, poor Tyseley, our boat, hasn’t moved much all year. In true Mikron style our supporters rallied and the response to an appeal we made was absolutely incredible, surpassing our expectations and raising over £77,000. It’s the only reason we’re still here and able to make tentative plans to tour in 2021.

“We in turn have supported Marsden Help, our community foodbank and resilience fund established in response to Covid-19. The skills needed to run a theatre company were perfect for transferring to help our local community. Seven months on we’re still involved and seeing an increase in demand.”

To borrow another quote from The Bard, many of our companies have felt this year that it was a case of facing up to new challenges tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Tom Bird, chief executive of York Theatre Royal, says: “We survived this year by taking positive action in our community, making PPE for York Hospital, collaborating with the BBC to make audio versions of the York Mystery Plays, making a pop-up theatre on our patio in August as a platform for local artists. It helps remind our supporters that we make a huge impact on the creativity of our community.”

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One of the most difficult things for theatres has been the state of limbo in which so many have found themselves. While the tier system meant some theatres could open, like Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, those in charge face the headache that potential audience members might live in different areas with different rules, forbidding them from travel.

“We did reopen, one of the first theatres in the country to do so, and trust me, we considered ourselves very lucky to be able to. So many of our friends and colleagues across the sector couldn’t. We put together a reactive, flexible and opportunistic programme of film and theatre, calling on our brilliant associates and our industry ‘family’ for help,” says artistic director Paul Robinson.

In Leeds, those in charge of the city’s Playhouse found themselves less fortunate. Artistic director James Brining faced a series of impossible options. “Leaving aside the financial and logistical problems, perhaps the biggest challenge has been the fact we haven’t been able to welcome people into the theatre for most of the year and do what we love, which is make extraordinary and diverse theatre for communities across the region.

“I have been inspired by the way we have refocused our creative engagement activities and supported thousands of people through programmes of online work, combating isolation and loneliness. What really shines through the last nine months is the resilience of our staff, artists and companies and the need and desire people have to return to the theatre.”

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Robert Hastie runs Sheffield Theatres, the organisation taking in the Crucible, the Studio and Sheffield Lyceum. He has found himself in a similar predicament to his Leeds counterpart.

“We had our hopes raised and dashed so often, it was tough sometimes to keep hope going strong,” he says. “What kept our spirits up were the messages and donations from our audiences that said ‘we can’t wait to come back’. They spurred us on to keep making our buildings safe and welcoming and to keep planning making theatre online and in readiness for audiences in person as soon as possible.”

Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre has been incredibly fleet of foot this year, moving at lightning speed to get its work online when the lockdown hit.

Henry Filloux-Bennett is the theatre’s chief, not long in the post when suddenly faced with the challenges of the past year. “If there has ever been a rulebook for how to make or run a theatre, that rulebook was trashed by the end of March,” he says. “Almost everything we thought we knew we found out that we didn’t. The one thing that has remained is that there is still an audience, whether it’s our local community or global, online or live, the support we’ve had has been incredible.”

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