Theatres are full of traditions, quirks and superstitions. One of the most poignant is the ghost light. Usually an exposed lightbulb on a pole, left switched on and placed centre-stage in an empty theatre, the practical advantages are clear: no one wants to fall off a dark stage. But the ghost light has an emotive significance beyond this. It ensures the theatre does not go entirely dark; it keeps the ghosts at bay; it is a reminder that the lights of the stage will shine again, on another performance.
Nottingham’s theatres are currently dark; outside of the theatres, hundreds of freelance performers, directors, writers, and more, search for ways to fill the downtime, the dark time. This is not a happy time, either. But their creativity is still shining – like ghost lights in a dark theatre. We spoke to just some of them to see how they’re feeling and what they’re up to when the stage is silent.
At Nottingham Playhouse, the closure came during the final week of rehearsal for Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. Adam Penford, Artistic Director, said, “It was going to be a stunning production. We were looking forward to welcoming schools and family audiences…” The closure also led to the cancellation of the Playhouse’s Easter Fest. “Usually it’s a wonderful kind of chaos with hundreds of children running about the place,” says Adam. Meanwhile the Playhouse’s Head of Paintshop, Claire Thompson, should already have been working on sets for May’s Piaf but is now furloughed. As she points out it’s “impossible to be painting scenery from home due to the scale of the work.”
Things will return to normal and I anticipate we’ll see a surge of people attending theatres and cinemas. There’s only so much streaming you can take isn’t there?
Over at the Lace Market Theatre, Matthew Huntbach was in the midst of directing Fin Kennedy’s How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, “a great show that’s rarely performed,” he says. “We were doing some excellent work and almost ready to perform; we had an ambitious set designed and ready to be constructed. The excellent ensemble cast of five were keen to get onto the stage. We’re essentially on pause now.” The play is currently postponed, not cancelled. Matthew points out that, “We are luckier than most small companies or amateur groups in the sense that we own the building the group performs in, so although we’ve lost out financially in ticket sales and performance royalty costs, we haven’t lost any venue hire costs. This is a really difficult situation for many other companies and performers.”
One such company is Chronic Insanity Theatre Company, who were meant to be staging two shows in Nottingham; Pull by Emily Holyoake and Phonecall by Joe Strickland (also co-Artistic Director of the company), both now postponed, as well as rehearsing a show for the Brighton Fringe, a summer festival that’s now cancelled. As Joe notes, “Our company stages at least one show a month, so the disruption has been rather significant for us and a lot of different projects need to be reorganised so that we can still put on shows and pay cast and crew for their input.” And Johnny Victory, a self-employed vintage performer who is familiar to audiences across the East Midlands, adds to this bleak picture: “2020 was originally going to be one my busiest years to date with a wide variety of events from private parties and performances to shows in museums, festivals and more.” He is facing cancellations for the whole summer: “I don’t know when I will be able to start working again.”
Despite the impact of COVID-19 on their livelihoods and schedules, there is a lot of hope to be found in the essence of why theatre and performance is so important, especially in a time of crisis. Adam Penford explains, “Theatre brings people together. It can entertain and offer escapism but also provoke empathy by asking the audience to look at the world through somebody else’s eyes. It’s been interesting seeing how many people are choosing to watch theatre online during lockdown.” Claire Thompson agrees: “Art gives us a way of engaging with each other through shared experiences and strengthens bonds. Theatre really reaches out to people and can educate, stimulate, and challenge our views.” Matthew Huntbach feels “the arts have always been important and it’s a shame they’re not pushed as much as science and technical subjects in schools. There’s always been an unfortunate assumption that working in the arts isn’t ‘real work’. This is of course, nonsense. A life without art is no life at all, right?”
He’s being proven right, of course, as we see countless artists, theatres, writers, actors (and more) finding enthusiastic digital audiences during the lockdown. We’ve seen online content from the Playhouse, and Johnny Victory, who is live-streaming weekly, reminds us that it’s good for us too: “Visual stimulation and music help boost our serotonin levels and keep us well. Our social activities have been curtailed which usually help to stimulate our minds and keep us positive.” Joe Strickland is keeping busy as well: Chronic Insanity Theatre have online performances planned too. As he explains, “we still have the resources and motivation to create work so we feel like we should so that people have something to do; to escape with or to examine the crisis through depending on their prerogative.”
Theatre brings people together. It can entertain and offer escapism but also provoke empathy by asking the audience to look at the world through somebody else’s eyes
As most of us are, Adam Penfold is looking to the future with enthusiasm. “The first performance back at the Playhouse is going to be a very special night.” Claire Thompson adds, “I know the Playhouse production departments will all work to the max to make the shows as spectacular as we are able as soon as we are let back in the building!” She also thinks “as soon as people are allowed to, they'll want to do all those things that we've been prevented from doing for what feels like an age already.” Sentiments echoed by Matthew Huntbach, “Things will return to normal and I anticipate we’ll see a surge of people attending theatres and cinemas. There’s only so much streaming you can take isn’t there? Audiences are going to be hungry for live performance happening in front of their eyes, or the shared experience.”
But there are reminders that this future isn’t guaranteed. The Playhouse has launched a fundraiser, and Johnny Victory expresses a hope that “Government assistance for self-employed will come off and soften the financial blow from this period. I do, however, worry that with the amount of free shows being offered online that some organisers will never go back to paid engagements in certain sectors.” Joe Strickland thinks streaming is a positive for breaking down barriers and that people will “keep creating and find ways to make the work they want to,” but acknowledges that “a lot of people are going to have a much tougher time making theatre once this is done.”
The performing arts have always been at their best when they reflect real life. Those involved with theatre and performance are creative and resilient but, like the rest of us, uncertain what the future holds. Perhaps Matthew Huntbach offers the brightest glimpse into a future when he says, “I think the post-lockdown enthusiasm for live experience will invigorate the industry. We’ll likely see COVID-19 inspired plays, films and TV shows popping up further down the line. Hopefully with a happy ending.”
Nottingham Playhouse has launched a fundraising campaign: The Curtain Up Appeal and is sharing digital content and a new podcast. Find out more via their website:
The Lace Market Theatre will be rescheduling shows for later in 2020 and is asking ticket holders to donate the value of their tickets rather than receiving refunds. Updates via their website:
Chronic Insanity Theatre Company is planning online content and rescheduling plays to later in the year. Follow them on Facebook or Twitter for updates:
Johnny Victory is live-streaming a show every Sunday afternoon, find out more via his Facebook page or website: