Putting on Theatre in Coronaville
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
In the middle of a little hamlet, in the heart of the Cornish moor, there stands a great big tent. Not one of those cheap pop up tents you might take to a festival, but a giant canvas canopy propped up by large metal pillars. Outside, volunteers wearing purple face masks calmly instruct the ticket holders to use the plastic soap dispenser which has been nailed to a wooden post. After this, they are shown to their seats which have been clearly marked out with yellow tape. Despite these formalities, the atmosphere is a jovial one. Upbeat funk music plays through the speakers as families and friends chat excitedly about the novelty of having an evening out. Backstage, my cast-mates and I wait nervously. This is the first time we've performed since the remaining dates of our tour were suddenly cancelled back in March. The stage manager announces the beginners' call and we head to our positions. As the lights go down and the safety announcement plays, I wonder to myself 'How the hell did we get here?'
Joel Nash, Rhian Lynch and Roddy Lynch in Box Clever Theatre's Romeo and Juliet at the Sterts Theatre Cornwall
That was on August 19th at Sterts Theatre in Cornwall. Back then, getting the chance to perform felt almost as unlikely as Dominic Cummings resigning. But now, as theatres begin to re-open, and as Lloyd Webber turns the doors of The Palladium into a glorified car wash, the idea of performing on stage sounds less ludicrous than it did a couple of months ago. Yet sadly, despite these developments, this global pandemic isn't showing signs of stopping any time soon. And with rumours circulating of a second lockdown, it looks as if we'll have to live with Covid-19 for another year (at least). But what does this mean for performers and theatre makers? And how do we exercise our craft when the industry we work in is hanging by a thread?
I was lucky enough to speak to Chioma Uma (The Wild Swans) who, like me, also got the chance to perform publicly during the pandemic. Chioma describes the moment her agent called to tell her that The Watermill Theatre had offered her a part in their concert performance of Camelot.
"I remember looking at my phone and literally thinking 'I don't know what this could possibly be?' I said yes because I love the Watermill and of course I want to be working, but there was this apprehension where I was thinking 'okay, I just want to go in and see what's happening'."
Chioma Uma in Camelot at the Watermill Photo by Pamela Raith Photography
A week later, Chioma found herself rehearsing with 9 other actors in a little barn in Newbury. It would only be seven days before they were in front of a paying audience.
"The first day was strange. It was great to be with everyone, but you couldn't really touch anyone, talk too close or stuff. But...because we knew we had such a quick deadline, it was kind of getting over the awkwardness of 'do we hug?' We just kind of say 'Hi, how are you?' and then you just start straight away."
Knowing the tactile tendencies of most theatre lovies, I was quite impressed to hear that a cast of ten could go a whole week without any physical interactions. However, though it may be fairly easy to socially distance when rehearsing concert performances, can the same be said for fully fledged productions? Can social distancing be implemented? And if so, is there a risk it may compromise the quality of the piece?
Chioma Uma in Camelot at the Watermill Photo by Pamela Raith Photography
Elliot Mackenzie (Assistant Artistic Director of The Bohemians) expressed to me how he felt that social distancing will make it especially difficult to create work with Actor Musicians.
"Actor musicianship is so defined by space...say you've got a load of musos in a play, they might be playing live, they might have a relationship to what's happening on stage. But as soon as you pick those guys up and move them to the pit, suddenly it's not really actor muso. I think actor musicianship is so defined by space and spatial interaction with music. If we're not seeing them kind of in the world of the piece playing, I don't think you really can call it actor muso."
Elliot Mackenzie in his workspace during lockdown.
During lockdown, Elliot grappled with this challenge first hand while working as a Musical Director for Action to the Word Theatre on a series of online pieces. Instead of a cosy barn in Berkshire, Elliot had to make do with a virtual rehearsal room in the form of Zoom.
"Zoom singing calls were quite interesting...you have to do this sort of to and fro thing where they mute their microphone while you're kind of doing the note bashing...You have to be even more specific than you are generally with parts and stuff. I sent everyone a copy of the sheet music, made sure it absolutely lines up with the guide vocal and if anyone had a problem with ranges I had to adapt every part...it's just slower!"
Elliot Mackenzie working in lockdown
I asked Elliot if this more meticulous approach had taught him anything that he'd want to take into a real rehearsal room when given the opportunity.
"I wouldn't necessarily want to work like that in the room because I think it takes something away from that collective voice. And particularly when you're doing actor muso stuff, you really want that."
Listening to Elliot and Chioma made me wonder if the 'collective voice' (as Elliot so eloquently put it) is under real threat. Can we create a sense of comradery in a company if we're forbidden from occasionally patting each other on the back? How do we connect to our cast-mates in a way that bypasses the yellow tape and the glitchy delay of a zoom call?
When my cast-mates and I got the chance to perform Romeo and Juliet at Sterts Theatre we chose not to socially distance. It would have been interesting to see a version of the consummation scene that adhered to the 2 metre rule, but for the sake of the show (and our own dignity) we decided to stick to the original blocking. In hindsight, this may not have been the most responsible decision, but it was one based on trust. Trust cemented by the fact that before lockdown we'd already spent five months touring together. This meant that when we performed during the pandemic we felt comfortable taking those calculated risks together, and consequently our 'collective voice' wasn't compromised.
However, that word 'risk' is a scary word for a lot of theatre producers. And so it's no surprise that some of the UK's biggest theatre venues have ditched the idea of big ensemble productions entirely, instead opting for one person shows and solo concerts from established musical theatre stars. This isn't entirely a bad thing, and perhaps it might teach the West End that big budget spectacles aren't everything. However, as much as I love seeing a good solo story on stage, for me the real joy of live theatre is watching a company of actors bounce off each other's energy.
I'm not one to reel off cheesy quotes, but I heard one the other day that felt fairly relevant. It goes like this...
'The strongest presence is often absence.'
But what's that got to do with anything Joel? Well, I'll tell you! In a way, I think I might have learnt more about theatre in its absence than I ever did when it was present. The difficulty of staging theatre during this time has almost highlighted for me what a collaborative art form it is. How much it depends upon a bunch of people being in a room together and taking risks. It's reassured me that theatre most certainly has a place in our society and that, whatever craziness is going on in the world, people will always crave stories. And not only that, people will crave the experience of seeing a story being made before their very eyes by real people on an actual stage!
So to any other theatre makers out there, whether you're in a tent, a barn, or a Zoom call...stay strong, stay safe and keep creative.
Joel Nash is a founding member of the Bohemians and a writer, poet, actor, director from Cornwall.
Chioma Uma is an actor musician, writer and composer from East Sussex. Alongside being a general creative genius she runs her very own blog called Staying Stylish. Check it out...www.stayingstylish.co.uk.
Elliot Mackenzie is an actor musician, musical director and the Assistant Artistic Director of The Bohemians! You can hear Elliot talk more about working with Actor Musicians on The Bohemians' 'Busk It' podcast...https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNIGcjfQYVo
Disclaimer: We appreciate certain Covid regulations may have changed by the time this article has been published and recommend following the latest guidance when creating live work. It is also worth noting that Box Clever Theatre's choice to not socially distance for their production of Romeo and Juliet was in line with the fixed teams option in the performing arts guidance at the time.