LifestyleTheatre

The challenges of theatre in the era of covid by James Haddrell

The last three weeks at Greenwich Theatre have been among the hardest I’ve spent there, and I’ve worked at the theatre in various roles for 20 years.

Our pantomime, The Queen Of Hearts, having finally opened to the public after being cancelled last December and then again last Easter, and having secured an Offie award nomination for London’s best pantomime, saw its final two weeks – the biggest weeks of the run, spanning Christmas and New Year – cancelled.

James Haddrell, artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

We saw Covid sweep through the company, and while most of those affected had only mild symptoms we saw every member of the acting company test positive, along with half of the stage management team and then, at the end, one of the musicians.

However, rather than all coming at once, the reality was a day-by-day check-in with everyone to see who was still Covid-free, where anyone else had reached in their isolation period, and whether we had any new cases.

Our stellar understudy covered three different roles in the show, and our assistant stage manager was even due to take over from the drummer, but then when we lost our back-up villain the number of people off just became impossible to manage.

With the short notice cancellation, we shared the list of audience members between the core staff and hit the phones – the last thing we wanted was for families, some of whom travel a long way to see the pantomime at Greenwich, to arrive to find the show cancelled and the theatre dark.

The responses from bookers were fantastic.

The Queen Of Hearts, the pantomime

Many committed to transferring their tickets to next year straight away, with some offering to donate the value of their tickets to help us through.

Without that kind of audience loyalty, we’d have found ourselves in real trouble.

Having to refund everyone who had booked, all at once, would have made it very difficult for us to continue with all of the overheads of running a building and a company, let alone making new shows – and that is what we are determined to do.

The story of Greenwich Theatre throughout the pandemic has been one of optimism, and although the last few weeks have been a huge challenge, that’s how we will continue.

We have never cancelled anything unless we absolutely had to, we have never let any staff go, and we have never stopped communicating with our audiences – sharing shows online, engaging people in writing and performance challenges, running professional advice sessions and making shows cast entirely from emerging or marginalized performers.

When many theatres remained closed in September 2020, we reopened.

We had full safety measures in place and it was hard to operate, but we did. After the cancellation of our 2021 Easter pantomime, we came back the following month with an ambitious production of Bad Nights and Odd Days by Caryl Churchill starring Paul McGann. Instead of scaling down, we scaled up.

The last thing we have wanted to do at any point in this challenging time is reduce our ambition and short change our audiences, and that spirit will continue into 2022 – so on January 10 I’ll be back in the rehearsal room to start making our next in-house show – a revival of Alarms and Excursions, Michael Frayn’s hilarious comedy about our relationship with technology.

With audiences being so supportive of us now, it seems only right that we offer them an uplifting comedy to launch what we all hope will be a far more joyful year.

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