James Haddrell: Theatre’s survival in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis

What can a theatre do in a state of lockdown, when the whole reason for its existence is to bring people together?

In theatre, a mass gathering is a mark of success. An empty theatre means a failure.

James Haddrell, artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

The COVID-19 crisis has made our primary function impossible to deliver – or has it?

When the Government advised the public not to attend theatres we were presented with a choice.

Theatres across the world could either shut their doors, put up a “see you when this is over” sign and wind down.

There is a lot of sense to that. With no income we all need to reduce costs to their absolute minimum if we are going to survive this, and closing everything down is surely the best way to do that.

However, the alternative was to interrogate that belief that we exist to bring people together in a building to watch a show. Certainly that’s the traditional view, but in the 21st century is that all that a theatre can do? Is it even our primary purpose?

At Greenwich Theatre we took the view that while we are lucky enough to occupy one of London’s finest off-West End venues, we have a lot more to offer – that our purpose is certainly to entertain audiences, to mentor artists, to support actors and to celebrate writers, but that we don’t necessarily need a building to do that.

Edmund Kingsley as Castrone, Conrad Westmaas as Nano and Harvey Virdi as Androgyno in Volpone at Greenwich Theatre

Therefore we launched Greenwich Connects, an entirely online-based programme which is designed to offer audiences, writers, actors and theatre industry professionals a series of opportunities to engage with us, to continue to do what they enjoy doing, and to interact with one another despite being housebound.

For audiences, every Friday on Facebook we are streaming a video recording of one of our most successful former shows, or an exciting show by one of our supported companies.

For writers, every Sunday we are issuing a challenge – you have one week to write a new short play around a set theme, and to send it in to us. When our building reopens we will stage our favourites as professional play readings.

On Mondays we are inviting actors to film a theatrical monologue on their phone and upload it to twitter, where we will share it for casting directors, agents, producers and audiences to watch – like a free online monologue slam.

Finally, on Wednesdays we are inviting some of the major players in the theatre industry to take over our Instagram account for an instalment of Wednesday Wisdom – where they will answer questions from their peers or from young aspiring professionals.

We may currently be unable to welcome people to our building, but our welcome will not be diminished by heading online and we can’t wait to interact with audiences and artists in this new way in the months ahead.


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