What’s next for the arts?

We look at how the impact of the pandemic led to some incredible innovation from our local arts venues, and what they need to bounce back…

Featured image: The Inside Out Collective, Free Up Festival, Battesea Arts Centre

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the arts, but if the last year has shown us anything, it is just how resilient our theatres are, and the ideas that came out of the crisis have been groundbreaking, expanding what we see as live performance. It has also seen the industry forge even closer relationships with their communities, while also attracting new audiences.

Community support

As doors closed for performances, many theatres looked at what they could do to help as we battled the pandemic. Several opened as food hubs, while others looked at how to keep people occupied during the lockdowns. Battersea Arts Centre ran a number of initiatives, including helping out with creativity packs for kids, running online Beatbox Academy workshops for teenagers, and supported young people from Winstanley Estate through its programme The Agency, to lead their own initiatives to support their community with creative projects. The venue was even turned into a vaccination centre, commissioning artists to create welcoming artwork as people arrived for their Covid jabs.

Says Liz Moreton, Battersea Arts Centre’s director of Creativity and Social Change: “There have been many positives in this really difficult year. Everything that’s happened has really made us, as well as the wider sector, re-examine our civic purpose, strengthen our social values and take the time to reprioritise supporting our local communities to rebuild themselves through culture and creativity post-pandemic.”

Barne’s OSO arts centre, meanwhile, became a ‘Crisis Kitchen’, working with local charities to repurpose its auditorium as a kitchen and provided over 10,000 free meals to those in need, including key workers. Says artistic director Jonny Danciger: “Community has always been at the heart of the OSO, and with our available resources we wanted to do whatever we could to help when the pandemic hit. We also tried to stay as active as possible on the arts side, arranging free digital content, creative opportunities, and pop-up music by the pond. It gave everyone a ray of hope to hear a live opera aria or brass band on their daily walk! The community have in turn helped us weather the storm, in part through so many wonderful volunteers joining the team, and also through donations and bookings. We’re now closer to the community than we have ever been.”

Wimbledon’s Polka Theatre for children delivered an extensive online programme, including storytelling, films, and live workshops. Says Polka’s executive director and joint CEO, Lynette Shanbury: “Adversity often brings people together and highlights what is important, and we’ve tried to respond to the needs of children, teachers and families with our digital content. Activities like our intergenerational Re:Sound choir (in partnership with Merton Music Foundation) have continued online and we released an inspiring recorded performance by them, showing what is possible even in lockdown.”

Theatres really saw just how much they mean to their communities. Says Lesley Bossine, arts centre manager for the Landmark Arts Centre in Teddington: “We realised that the community was right behind us and really cared about the Landmark. We always hoped people would support us if we were ever under serious threat, but we were still humbled by the huge response to our Save The Landmark appeal, launched in early April 2020. We had so many messages of support too, with people telling us how important the Landmark is to their lives and not to give up.”

New connections were formed, too. Says Lesley: “Another positive was establishing relationships as people came forward to offer practical help. A couple of examples were Teddington Together organising a virtual all-day concert which raised nearly £4,000; the Teddington Society also organised online recitals to support us. Local actor Amanda Root brought together a superb cast of actors to donate their time to perform a play in the round. We are delighted that Amanda, together with writer Jed Mecurio, have recently become new Landmark patrons – both relationships that have developed out of the crisis we faced in March 2020.”

The Rose in Kingston launched Readings from the Rose, with actors and creatives reading their favourite poems, as well as the Through Rose Tinted Specs podcasts, which are ongoing, with artistic director Chris Haydon chatting with creatives across the industry. Says Kristen Gallagher, director of revenue: “The digital initiatives have been a great way to keep people engaged with us and extend our reach, and it’s something we are using going forward.”

The theatre also launched the #RoseEndures appeal to help with fundraising. “We had people posting pictures of themselves on social media holding up a card with the hashtag. We had a great response. We have also had over 1,850 donations. It has shown just how much people appreciate having the theatre.”

Theatres have also been able to reach new audiences – those who might have gone to the West End have looked local, when restrictions allowed. And they have been able to reach those that might not have ordinarily gone into a physical theatre.

The International Youth Arts Festival, which takes place across Kingston, moved its programme online last year. This has led to a hybrid festival this year, expanding the scope for creative ideas. Says Charlotte Levy, from Creative Youth, which produces the festival: “Audiences can watch in-person in a theatre, outdoors at sites around the town, and also online, and this is something we are keen to develop further due to the flexibility it gives performers and audiences.”

IYAF’s Digifest last year found a worldwide audience, including children in Kenya watching its youth theatre production projected on a wall in the centre of a slum.

Artistic innovation

With necessity the mother of invention, creativity continued apace. The digital sphere proved a fruitful platform. Says Marie McCarthy, artistic director at Omnibus Theatre in Clapham: “We launched our digital platform just two weeks after we shut our doors in March 2020, and to date have attracted almost 35,000 views. We initially focused on platforming artists from our cancelled 2020 summer season, splitting donations 80/20 in the artists’ favour. Platforming digital work was completely new to us, so it has been a steep learning curve, but we are immensely proud of the work we have put out over the past year.”

Other great ideas came out of the confines of lockdown rules, when theatres could reopen with a socially distanced audience. Says Jonny: “Our ‘cabaret style’ seating was conceived as a solution to social distancing, but it has also elevated the audience experience that we can provide, with candlelit table service. We’ll certainly continue to use it beyond the pandemic, mostly for our weekly Piano Lounge events, but also for some theatre productions.”

BAC also looked at how to creatively use its spaces – comedy in the outdoor courtyard was a big hit and will be back this September.

New seasons ahead

This wave of creativity is feeding into programming, with extensive new seasons looking more diverse than ever. Homegrown local creatives are being given a voice at BAC with the likes of FREE UP FEST – a weekend festival produced by alumni from its Agency programme, and created as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Chris Haydon at the Rose, in his inaugural season, will bring a focus on women’s voices and the theatre’s own work, as well as hosting popular touring shows.

At Polka, while it is still working on its huge redevelopment programme, will take its live performances out into the community with Maanika and the Wolf, at a pop-up theatre space at Centre Court Shopping Centre.

Adds OSO’s Jonny: “We’re working with so many wonderful artists who have used the past year to gestate and innovate, emerging from the lockdown with some really unique shows. I’m certain we’ll see one of the most eclectic and enjoyable arts seasons ever across the whole country. Our own programme at the OSO is the most diverse it has ever been with everything from shadow puppetry and clowning to gig theatre and opera. We’re also really looking forward to hosting the Barnes Pond Summer Festival later this summer, with a whole programme of outdoor theatre, music and cinema on Barnes common.”

Looking to the future

While theatres are creating programmes to bring in audiences, old and new, all hopes are on the vaccine and low case numbers so that all social distancing can finally end as anticipated on 19 July. Being able to run at full capacity is vital for theatres to be viable. “We have had great support with awards from the Culture Recovery Fund and we have done well with fundraising. But we rely on revenue from tickets and we need to be able to switch to full capacity as soon as it is safe to do so,” says the Rose’s Kristen.

Clarity from the government is also essential. Says Polka’s Lynette: “Alongside clear guidance on rules and timelines, we need security through a bespoke insurance scheme to help protect our industry from the impact of further shut down or capacity restrictions.”

We, as audiences, can also play our part by heading back to theatres: “We’re working incredibly hard, alongside all our peers in the arts sector, to make sure that audiences are safe with a range of measures in place to keep our venues Covid secure. There really is nothing like the shared experience of live theatre,” says Lynette