Will Suffolk’s outdoor theatre shows go ahead in 2020?
PUBLISHED: 18:30 06 May 2020 | UPDATED: 10:53 07 May 2020
Outdoor theatre has long been a feature of the summer but could community shows become our new normal in a world afraid of enclosed spaces full of strangers?
One of the great success stories of lockdown has been the take up in theatre streaming. Everyone from the National Theatre, the RSC to the Colchester Mercury and the New Wolsey have been streaming recordings of choice productions and they have been rewarded with television-sized audiences.
As welcome and as accomplished as the streamed recordings are not the same as a live performance. However, with news that restrictions on social distancing may be easing as May turns into June, theatres, which have remained shut since mid-March, must be hoping that there can be some semblance of a return to normality in the not too distant future.
Theatre and the arts are important for morale and for out mental health, social interaction is important for our mental health, but while the government and its scientific advisors may be looking for ways to get us back to work and our children back in school but it is unlikely that our theatre buildings will be re-opening anytime soon – certainly not before the summer.
But, that does not that regional theatre won’t exist. With summer arriving in the next couple of weeks, now is the opportunity for outdoor theatre to thrive. Promenade performances and outdoor theatre are well placed to rescue us all from a cultural abyss and help restore live performance into our lives.
Suffolk-based producer and promoter Karen Goddard is optimistic that smaller touring companies could be well-placed to take advantage of our need for public entertainment and our renewed appetite for theatre.
“Smaller touring companies are much more agile, more able to respond quickly to changing circumstances, than large institutions with vast buildings and layers of management to engage with. Also, you have to recognize that although people enjoy theatre and the streaming of plays and shows has been incredibly popular, the public may not be as willing to go straight back into an enclosed space, sitting in a crowded auditorium with hundreds of people they don’t know.
“It is much more likely that it will be easier to engage with audiences in small community settings, in village halls, where everyone knows one another and where you can apply social distancing measures in an effective yet subtle way which doesn’t destroy the atmosphere.”
She said that seating could be set out in a less formal way, allowing for greater distance between people or groups. “Eastern Angles did a village hall and community centre tour The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart in 2017 and they had the audience seated in groups at tables, so each venue resembled a pub or a club setting.
“It would be very easy to increase the distance between tables and to ensure that groups sitting together either lived together or knew one another. Of course, in the summer outdoor performances would be even easier to police, creating picnic pitches two metres apart from one another, or moving the audience along with the action, moving them from location to location as part of a promenade performance.
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“Outdoor performances during the summer months could be very popular as proved by the Edith Pretty play, Edith In The Beginning, we staged at Sutton Hoo last year.”
Ipswich-born Mark Hayward, artistic director of outdoor theatre company The Pantaloons, said that although, potentially, smaller touring companies stood to gain an advantage and could fill the theatrical gap if social distancing regulations were relaxed over the summer, there were still a lot of practical problems to be negotiated.
“The biggest problem is whether the venues themselves will be open. We haven’t cancelled our summer tour of Twelfth Night, in fact we are developing plans to rehearse over zoom, but at this point we don’t know whether the venues will be open to allow us to perform. But, we have to remain positive and be optimistic. We are very adaptable and hope we will be able to respond quickly and deliver a show that people will enjoy.”
He said that he was developing a range of stand-by plans: “I have plans A, B,C.D and E, trying to second guess every eventuality, hoping to be ready to match our production to whatever rules the government decide to impose.”
Red Rose Chain’s Theatre in the Forest, one of the big outdoor theatrical events of the summer, held at Jimmy’s Farm, is currently hovering in a cultural purgatory. Artistic director Joanna Carrick said that no decisions can be taken until the government decides what shape the easing of lockdown regulations will take. “The safety of our audiences and our performers is paramount,” she said. “All I can say is that we are dreaming up some creative alternatives to entertain our audiences and to assure them that we haven’t forgotten them.”
Ivan Cutting, artistic director of Eastern Angles, said that they hoped to remount their Red Skies community tour, telling the stories of George Orwell and Arthur Ransome, in the spring of 2021 but, he was currently looking at safe ways to stage the company’s hugely popular Christmas show.
“At the moment we are looking at a number of different ways of doing the Christmas show differently. Do we look at setting out the auditorium like a cabaret? I don’t know. Do we put Perspex screens between the audience and the actors at the start of the show? It’s a difficult one. There are no easy answers.
“What I worry about is atmosphere. If you haven’t got a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere you haven’t got a show. What we do when we come out of lockdown is taking all my attention at the moment.
“Casting is a huge worry. Where do these actors come from? Do they come from London and if they do where do they stay? Will local people want them lodging with them? These are all unknowns. If one person in the cast starts exhibiting minor symptoms do we shut down the whole show? Cancel the tour and then discover that’s just a cold? These are all things we have to think about and at the moment we don’t have any answers.”
He and Karen Goddard have been discussing the feasibility of creating a theatre drive-in on atmospheric locations like the Bentwaters Hush House or Debach Airfield, placing the vehicles in a circle and getting the actors to perform in the round, transmitting the sound and dialogue onto car radios.
“At the moment we are looking at all sorts of options, just trying to keep everyone safe and engaged in the plays.”
The future may be uncertain but it’s clear that there is a wealth of theatre waiting in the wings, ready to do what is necessary to provide live entertainment, to keep us happy and to iron out the mental kinks which have been building up since lockdown began six weeks ago.
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