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A look back at how Theatre has survived 2021.

9 months ago

Between Christmas and New Year, SOTA Director, Juliette Caton, spoke to Phil Kennedy on Radio Berkshire about how Theatre has faired a very challenging year. Here she gives us her thoughts in more detail.

You’ll remember that theatres across the Country first closed on 16 March back in 2020, and when it first happened we just thought it would be for a few months.

At the time my sister, Sophie, was performing in her cover role as Madame Giry in Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesties Theatre. The cast were sat in the auditorium in the middle of a notes session, the Stage Manager appeared and said I’ve just got off the phone to the office. You are all to go home. The theatre is closing tonight. It happened that immediately.  

Just two streets away – one of our former pupils, Cat Hannay, was about to perform in Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward Theatre, a theatre I adore, it’s where we created the musical Martin Guerre, and there she was in her West End Debut – and it was cut suddenly unexpectedly short. 

Sadly, the closures weren’t short term at all. 

Theatres remained closed for over a year – until they finally re-opened in May / June of this year… 

All change in the world of Theatre

During that long period of closure a number of things happened.

Equity, the Actors Union renegotiated the performers contract for both West End and Touring Performers, to include reduced performances per week and a reduced wage and they also withdrew the Sunday Payment, making it even harder for West End performers particularly who previously could barely afford to live in the City they have to work in. But the new negotiations were put to a Members Vote and the majority felt they had to support the ‘Contract Variation’ as its called, to make it possible for Producers to stand a fighting chance of getting productions back on their feet. 

To survive many Theatres created ONLINE performances for us to enjoy and a local Berkshire friend of mine, Michael Quinn, who has gone on to become a very successful Performer and Producer, produced with his company Ginger Quiff some outstanding pieces of online theatre – filmed specifically for people to consume at home remotely. And we started to see this more and more – the ways in which we are regularly consuming theatre began to transition and change. We wanted to still be entertained and we were only too happy if it helped our theatres to financially survive. 

Some theatres took the opportunity to undergo much needed renovation. Her Majesties – which had housed Phantom for 33 years without stopping – underwent major renovations also putting in a new modernised version of the production that had been created for the Phantom Tour.

A long running production that underwent a major renovation, was in fact the Worlds Longest Running Musical, and I know that only too well because I was in the Original Cast of Les Mis when I was 11. Les Mis under went such major changes that it’s Producer, Cameron Mackintosh, came under scrutiny from the Musician’s Union for wanting to end the original orchestra members contracts to create room for a totally re-worked orchestral line-up when it was allowed to re-open. Some of these contracts had been held by the musicians for potentially 35 years since it opened! As a musician you ‘own’ your seat in the pit for the duration of a productions run. 

The Musicians Union basically said ‘if you are going to re-open Les Mis with completely new direction, and a totally revised orchestral line up – you can’t possibly still call it the Worlds Longest Running Musical – because it has clearly changed so dramatically! And lo and behold – the production was successfully revived and it re-opened at the Sondheim Theatre and now referred to as simply ‘the Musical Phenomenon.’ 

Which leads us very nicely to the phenomenal efforts made to reopen theatres in general. 

We mustn’t forget that throughout the closures there had been repeatedly desperate calls to the Government for support which simply fell on deaf ears, until a £257 million injection from the Cultural Sector Recovery Fund in Oct 2020 – but for many it was sadly too little, too late.

Tragically we did lose some theatres to permanent closure – which is not surprising when The Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre estimated that the sector has taken an annual economic hit of between £507 and £725 million – annually. 

Another Opening Another Show

The fact that theatres were even able to re-open was such a huge relief to our industry. 

We saw standing ovations on re-opening nights in May/June of this year, with triumphant and emotional speeches made by Cast Leads, who took to the stage at their first curtain call back to simply thank audiences for returning to the theatre and to declare and celebrate that our theatres had opened once more. We had not seen a moment like this since the re-opening of theatres after the Second World War. 

But our fight was not over. Challenging isolation rules meant there were shows regular cancelling performances with companies of 60 or 70 healthy cast and crew sitting at home unable to go to work because of what many called ‘unworkable’ government policy. Unlike Film and TV, Theatres don’t have Covid insurance, they have ZERO protection.

And in that instance, if audiences don’t rebook tickets for cancelled performances, production companies have to honour refunds out of depleting box office takings. So it’s really important if we can to rebook for a cancelled performance or even consider donating some of our ticket money if we can’t rebook. That’s one way we CAN help.

The Show Must Go On

Things did ease as the isolation rules changed but then Omicron arrived like the Grinch.

And that’s why performers like John Owen-Jones – who hadn’t sung the role of Jean Valjean for over a year – was suddenly – with no rehearsal – back onstage playing Jean Valjean in Les Mis again. 

The old saying ‘The Show Must Go On’ has never been truer. Cast members, be they leads, ensemble, covers, alternates, swings, have all been doing incredible work over the last months just keeping theatre lights on across the nation, with the huge surge in Covid cases and inevitable missing cast members – it has been all hands on deck to keep shows open. 

One of our pupils at School Of The Arts (SOTA), young Aidan, who is 9 years old, I’m very proud to tell you is currently playing his professional debut as Paul in the Disney Tour of Bedknobs and Broomsticks and their production has managed to run successfully without closure. 

Some theatres have been terribly unlucky, we’ve seen productions cancelling performances for weeks at a time and towards Christmas, half the West End has been shut.

For one small local theatre company it’s been a case of ‘The Show Can’t Go On’.  

Reading based Rabble Theatre had to take the heartbreaking decision to cancel the entire run of their play about a local unsolved murder called ‘Who Killed Alfred Oliver’ because two key members of its Company tested positive. And with losses estimated at 35k it’s just devastating. This is a multi award winning local company. 5 star reviews in the Guardian! They are part of the life blood of Berkshire’s culture. We cannot let them disappear. 

When the theatre world then lost the Greatest Musical Theatre writer of our life time, Stephen Sondheim, in late November – we could not – after all we had been through – have felt his loss more. The Shakespeare of musical theatre became a giant in the sky. Hopefully many you will be experiencing the thrill of Stephen’s brilliant lyric writing in the re-make of West Side Story which is currently showing in cinemas. It is hard to fully communicate how impactful Stephen Sondheim was on our world of musical theatre and boy do we need the genius of Stephen’s work in our lives more than ever. 

The future of Performing Arts training

For schools like ours, that trains children in performing arts, we have seen countless real life examples of how essential the skills we teach in our acting, singing, dancing and musical theatre classes actually are. We teach our pupils resilience, to think and problem solve with creativity and imagination, to develop personal resilience and to work as a company to make things happen, against the odds. If the last year has shown us anything, it’s that the next generation need these skills more than ever. We don’t just train our pupils to survive the industry, how we train them, helps them to survive life.

A New Year Wish

It’s been a shocking year for theatre – and as it draws to a close we must finally look ahead with a wish for Theatre in 2022… 

As we know Banksy made that incredibly generous gesture, to sell the stencil of the Oscar Wilde work he created on the side of Reading Prison in order to raise 10 million to add to the Councils 2.6m bid towards the purchase of Reading Gaol so that we might turn it into our own Arts and Culture Centre here in Reading. 

My New Year wish for our creative and theatre community is that bid will be accepted. That we will have a new arts and culture hub and within it there may even be a 200 – 300 seater theatre for all our wonderful local theatre companies, dance schools and amateur dramatics companies to host performances in their town. 

Reading Rep have this year opened their wonderful new theatre, which is very sweet, but it isn’t big enough for a lot of Reading based companies and organisations who still have to leave their own town to perform in a theatre space suitable. We need to change this. And so my New Year wish for us here in Reading is that we will be granted the opportunity to create a new Theatre and Cultural Centre. 

Regardless of whether this wish were to come true… the fact remains that theatre, as an art form, will survive. It must survive. We need it. We need to be transported away from life’s challenges or to help us deal with them. We need to tell and to share stories. We need to be moved and thrilled by music and dance.

In the words of the late, great Stephen Sondheim – 

‘We shall have the world to keep. 

Such a lovely world we’ll weep. 

We shall have the world forever. For our own.’ 

Juliette’s interview on Radio Berkshire: