On March 15, 2020, the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham was buzzing with life – with two sellout shows, live music and a bar packed with people.
The next day, the doors were shut and the building silent.
It’s now been a year since restrictions forced businesses to close across the UK, hitting the arts hard.
“It was really sudden,” said Marie McCarthy, artistic director of the Omnibus Theatre.
“It was an absolute shock because, like many organisations, we lost our entire income overnight.
“I remember sitting there thinking ‘What are we going to do? We have to close the doors immediately.’ ”
The theatre was desperate to stay connected with their audiences and the local community they’ve supported since opening in 2013.
Like many others, they turned to online performances to keep going, launching Omnibus Theatre Online two weeks later.
Ms McCarthy said: “The only way forward was to respond and to adapt and to learn what can be achieved on Zoom because that was the only thing we had at that point.
“We focused on platforming artists from our cancelled season in order to support them because the freelance artists, like those in every sector, have slipped through the cracks of Government support.”
The streaming service turned out to be a huge success, attracting more than 12,000 views in the first four months.
A standout success was We R Not Virus, a show created in response to the surge in hate crime against East and Southeast Asian communities during the pandemic.
The theatre was also keen not to stop their work in the community.
Ms McCarthy, who was working alone in the building to protect and maintain it, said: “I saw first-hand the social isolation and declining mental health due to the grief, the loss of routine and the breakdown of support, so these projects became really important.”
The organisation rolled out new projects with support from Age UK, the Arts Society and the April Trust, which among other things, connected the elderly and provided lunches for schoolchildren on free school meals vouchers.
Since the first lockdown, the theatre has been on its toes, ready to adapt to the latest changes in the rules.
They put on socially-distanced shows in the autumn, before closing again during the November lockdown, only to open again for a run of Christmas shows.
But a year of uncertainty has been hard for the business.
Ms McCarthy said: “There were many, many days where I thought I don’t know how we’re going to get through this.
“We’re in survival mode, like every theatre is. And it’s how we support the team, our audiences, our artists and how do we keep going – how do we keep the doors open?”
The theatre was forced to lay off more than half of their team, and the remaining staff have had to pitch in everywhere they could.
But there have also been unexpected benefits to the upheaval. Putting shows online has made them more accessible than before – not only because the audience capacity is unlimited, but also because it can reach people who couldn’t or wouldn’t go to a physical theatre.
It has also given artists a chance to rethink the work they are producing.
Ms McCarthy said: “It was a library before it was a theatre – so it’s a civic space. We’re thinking about theatre and what theatre means to people and really how accessible is it?
“It’s given us an opportunity to think about people who maybe don’t come to the theatre and why not and what we can learn from that and what we can do better. There’s an opportunity to reflect on many things – the structures of theatre and how they’re perceived.”
The Omnibus Theatre plans to continue streaming shows online, and will start live socially-distanced performances on June 3, with full capacity on June 22.
The cafe bar will open on April 17 for takeaway service, and indoor service on May 20.
Main Pic: Marie McCarthy
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