We Need To Survive
That’s the message that many entertainers, theatre performers and actors are shouting about after Covid-19 has hit their industry hard. With many relying on grants, donations and reduced ticket sales, will it be enough to keep the arts alive
I spoke with several organisations within the arts and entertainment sector to get their thoughts. First up is chief executive of The Grand Theatre, Blackpool, Ruth Eastwood, who talked about its history and plans for the future.
The Grand opened in 1894 and is 126 years old. It is one of only 23 theatres left in the UK designed by Frank Matcham that is still operational.
Throughout its life, it has evolved into many things. From a lyric house when it first opened to a music hall, in the 1930s it became a playhouse, showcasing a range of famous actors including Laurence Olivier and during the second world war, when the theatres in London were closed, it remained open. The 1950s and 60s saw the theatre move into holiday variety shows, while the 70s hosted the summer time specials that were also shown on TV.
But during the 1970s The Grand Theatre wasn’t as popular with the public and it was going to close and be transformed into a Littlewoods store, it spent 10 years as a bingo hall before the local people of Blackpool joined forces and bought the building from its then owners EMI in 1981 to see it reopen as a theatre.
It has been operating ever since as a charity. Before the pandemic, The Grand was putting on around 300 to 400 performances over 12 months, selling 130,000 tickets.
“We earned 91 per cent of our income through ticket and alcohol sales with a £3m turnover. When we were told to close on 17th March 2020, all income stopped except for the job retention scheme and we had to furlough 57 staff. As well as staff, we also have the upkeep of the building to maintain due to its age,” says Ruth.
“There are five stages the government has outlined before theatres can return and we are currently on stage four, which is where live performances can return if social distancing means it is safe to do so, but we still have a long way to go. We have moved our pantomime into 2021 but won’t know until nearer the time if this is viable.”
“Currently we have four objectives: to protect the building, retain our charitable status, not go insolvent and be ready to open when it is viable to do so.”
“We want people to feel safe coming back to our theatre. They can support us through buying a ticket for a show, naming a seat, legacy giving or simply using Amazon’s smile website.”
Despite not showing live performances Blackpool Grand is still engaging with audiences through the digital age. One significant way it has adapted is through the creation of its Youtube channel ‘At Home With You’, which has provided a creative hub for inspiration and activity for all ages. From yoga sessions to theatrical makeup tutorials. The theatre’s YouTube page is a demonstration of a business brought to a complete halt overnight flipping their business strategy with rapid speed and finding other outlets to engage with their loyal audience.
For a much smaller theatre, Chorley Little Theatre has been hit just as hard. Ian Robinson of the theatre says: “Last year was our best-attended ever and we’ve been building an extension which was due for completion around Easter 2020. With everything in lockdown that project is now on hold as we have to conserve our resources. We’ve cut back on as many outgoings as possible, but still have a 110-year-old building to look after.
“Dozens of shows have had to be cancelled and others have been rescheduled. Sadly, we’ve had to postpone the December 2020 Pantomime, The Snow Queen, for a full 12 months as we weren’t sure we’d be able to stage it this year. The Panto is a big money-maker for us, so this is another blow.”
“During lockdown we’ve created a series of monologues from home, called Our Voices, which are freely available on our YouTube channel. As we couldn’t show films, we also put together Family Movie Packs consisting of a new DVD, popcorn, sweets and activity sheets for families across Chorley, distributed by the food bank at Living Waters.”
“We hope to re-open sometime in the autumn, but social distancing in a building of this age is hard to work out and with reduced audience capacity we may only make enough money to cover costs. But it’s important to re-open and be back among the community, and welcome audiences back safely. It’s been sad not seeing our regular faces, and also not getting to see our volunteers for months. Hopefully they’ll all come back over the coming months.”
“This has been the biggest challenge we’ve faced but we will come through it, and welcome audiences back soon. The support we’ve had from them has really kept us going and inspired us to make sure we survive.”
Our main income over the last few months has been our GoFundMe, and without it we probably would have closed. We’re still taking donations, so for details, visit: www.gofundme.com/f/chorleytheatrefund
For those who love opera, they will also have to wait to see a performance. Preston Opera’s Chairman Kevin Hesketh explains more: “Preston Opera abandoned its rehearsals for Carmen in early March. This led to our production being postponed first to October 2020 then June 2021.”
Since then we started holding committee meetings on Zoom, initially with only part of the committee able to join, but now with virtually full participation as people get used to what is a new technology for many. We have also organised social activities on Zoom, starting with a musical get-together on the day when we should have all sat down with the orchestra for the Sitzprobe rehearsal. We followed that with two quiz events, both of which gave one of our principals an opportunity to tell us some anecdotes from when he sang under Leonard Bernstein.
Our next Zoom event will be an interview with soprano Amanda Roocroft in mid-September and we will follow that with Zoom rehearsals leading hopefully to a Zoom concert in November. Our music director Helen Harrison is full of great ideas as to how we might do this. This will get us singing again and will help people to feel that they still belong and it might even lead to possibilities for the future, when sections of the chorus might be able to rehearse the tricky sections outside the normal rehearsals.
We are now starting to look at what we’ll need to do to get rehearsals under way. Along with all other groups we’ll have to see how we could implement a Covid-19 risk assessment, liaising with members and the rehearsal venues. The measures we may have to consider include singing with masks, which a lot of people might not be keen on. Many of our members are likely to have been shielding and I think that we can expect reduced numbers at least initially, until the situation improves and people get to feel more comfortable. Singing is unfortunately one the highest risk activities and may be one of the last to return to full normality. Our attitude is to remain flexible so that we can respond to the changing situation and not get downhearted if the virus doesn’t go away as quickly as we’d like. With low outgoings and a healthy reserve, Preston Opera can certainly ride out the storm, so we are perhaps much more fortunate than many professional organisations who are struggling.
Comedian Phil Walker is like all the other comedians and entertainers, seeing all his live work collapse monthly, not knowing when or even if it would ever return has been very hard to bear both financially and mentally. Luckily for Phil, he has a lovely family who he has enjoyed spending quality time with on long walks near his home on the Fylde coast.
“I also reignited my love for cycling which was great for me mentally, I even managed to cycle from Blackpool to Scarborough in a day to raise some money for a charity, so it was nice to have something to train for. I have written another children’s book to follow my last one that we will be published very soon.”
“I was however, really saddened to learn that my annual pantomime has now also gone due to the shows not being viable financially under current social distancing laws in theatres, so this December it’s going to be odd not running around a stage somewhere like a madman for four hours a day!”
“That said we have managed, with the help of the people at the Lowther Pavilion in Lytham to attempt to try getting some live work back in some form. In July and August we did two “Drive in” comedy shows that were attended really well and enjoyed by all who came, although it was a really strange experience as a comedian playing to people sat in their cars, Getting a honk from a car replacing a laugh was very surreal indeed!”
“We did have a few brave souls socially distanced seated on camp chairs at the front of the stage in the rain and that proved to me just how much the public are longing for live entertainment. From early September we will be moving indoors with the comedy nights, I am delighted to say with limited capacity seating and the initial response ticket sales wise has been very encouraging.”
“So, let’s hope the ‘old normal’ replaces the ‘new normal’ and we can all get back to what we do very soon.”
Details of all the forthcoming shows for Woofers Comedy Club can be found on: lowtherpavilion.co.uk