James Haddrell takes a look back at 2020 and the affect had on the performing arts

This time last year I was writing a column listing my highlights for 2020, from big West End shows to fringe shows full of exciting potential, mapping out a year of theatregoing.

Little could I know that theatres would end up closed for most of the year.

At Greenwich Theatre we had a series of exciting plans in place for the year – major shows that would launch national tours or kindle West End aspirations here in Greenwich, the return of the Greenwich Children’s Theatre Festival, a large in-house family summer show and, of course, our annual pantomime.

As the year unfolded, one after another was postponed or cancelled, but like so many other theatres, we started to think in new ways.

How to reach out to our audiences without welcoming them to the venue, how to support our artists through a period of inactivity, how to offer educational opportunities or a chance for early career actors to make a start in the business.

I could never have anticipated the way the year would turn out, even after the initial lockdown in the spring, but we found ways forward.

We produced the online premiere of Steven Berkoff’s Hamlet-inspired play, The Secret Love Life Of Ophelia, featuring 39 young and emerging actors – plus a guest appearance from our patron Dame Helen Mirren.

We transferred our annual children’s festival online.

We made an alternative festive show – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – and when we were forced to close we found a way to stream that too.

We secured financial support from Arts Council England and from countless generous donors who wanted to see us survive, and we avoided any redundancies at a time when unemployment was spiralling out of control.

We learnt huge lessons in 2020.

We discovered people around the country and around the world who engaged with our work, and we would never have reached them without moving online.

We learnt what does and what really does not work online.

We learnt just how important theatre can be to those who make it and those who participate in it.

We learnt to celebrate what we have achieved in the past, to innovate in order to achieve in the present, and to look forward to a post-vaccine world when we could welcome audiences to the theatre once again.

However, in looking forward to staging theatre again and sharing it with audiences in our venues, it would be wrong to consider that as any kind of return, any kind of “going back”. Going back means returning to what we used to do, how we used to do it, but that just isn’t right.

We should never again take the pleasure of shared live experiences for granted, creating them or enjoying them; we should never consider our audience limited to those based a walk, a drive or a public transport journey away from our venue; we should never lose sight of the freelance workforce that makes this industry possible, or the importance of theatre as a bedrock for honing the talent that populates the BBC, Netflix, Sky and Disney.

At Greenwich we are already planning for 2021, looking forward to a series of online shows, live shows, education initiatives and participatory opportunities.

We hope that they will all go ahead.

We hope that those young artists involved continue to develop, that audiences enjoy the work, that young people are inspired.

Things may change – if we’ve learnt anything, it’s that – but as we embark on 2021 we are ready for that and whatever the year holds, we can be confident that this country’s world-beating community of artists will continue to entertain, to innovate and to inspire.

It’s what they do.

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