Our Artistic Director talks about the future of the RSC, his own changing understanding of Shakespeare, and the impact of the pandemic on the RSC and the arts.
What has the pandemic meant to you personally?
The theatres closed overnight and then began one of the most extraordinary periods of my career. So many emotions and so many heart-breaking decisions to be made.
But I also feel as though I understand Shakespeare better than I did. Shakespeare experienced a pandemic on an even greater scale than we are now, in 1603 when the plague closed the theatres for 18 months. With a death toll far greater than what we are seeing, he watched the city of London die around him.
Between 1599 when he wrote As You Like It and 1603/4 when he was writing Measure for Measure something profoundly changed, then he tumbles into the abyss of King Lear, Macbeth and Coriolanus. There’s a sense of dislocation and anxiety with doubt and destruction on a colossal scale. I don’t think the pandemic has taken us there but I think it has led to an extreme sense of anxiety in the country and that can lead to cynicism and despair and it’s very important to try and counter that. I have to look forward with optimism believing that we will face the ongoing challenges head on and respond creatively to what lies ahead. Believing that live theatre will return, and the RSC will continue to inspire and captivate audiences.
Why haven’t you opened with socially distanced audiences before now?
With no regular income we have to ensure that we continue to keep our costs to a minimum whilst still serving the audiences and communities we work with. This has involved keeping up to 90% of colleagues on furlough while the CJRS lasts. We have taken choices to protect jobs for as long as possible and to offer socially distanced performances outdoors in our gardens through the summer.
We also have created a huge amount of video and streamed content for our partnership programmes with schools, community groups, regional theatres, and our Youth Advisory Board, and Shakespeare ambassadors and audiences across the country and beyond. We had already translated the techniques we use in rehearsal rooms to take into a classroom, and through the pandemic we’ve worked with teachers to translate them for online learning platforms.
We are now planning for the re-opening of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and had looked forward to welcoming some audiences back for socially distanced events, but since Stratford and the rest of Warwickshire has gone into tier 3 Covid restrictions, we have moved to streamed only events.
How will you ensure audiences returning to the theatre feel safe?
We must make sure audiences feel confident when they return to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, so we’re introducing a range of new measures including enhanced cleaning between performances, statutory face coverings, socially distanced seating and one-way systems through the building alongside clean air ventilation in public spaces.
When we're able to open to audiences, you can choose to sit in the Stalls or the Circle, then you will be allocated socially distanced seats, safely on arrival at the theatre. This will enable us to ensure our audiences feel comfortable and safe when they visit us.
Why aren't you opening the Swan Theatre in 2021?
Our theatres remain central to what we do and we recognise the significant role that they play in the visitor economy of Stratford-upon-Avon and surrounding areas. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is our largest auditorium with 1,000 seats and attracts the largest number of visitors from beyond Stratford, and we believe we can maximise our income, minimise our costs and support the local economy through focussing our attention on one theatre in 2021.
What will be the affect of the closure of The Swan and The Other Place?
The 158 potential redundancies we’ve announced are as a result of the reduction in activity and the closure of the Swan and The Other Place. We are bringing this number down significantly during the consultation process through a number of measures including voluntary redundancy.
We are proud to have kept 35 freelancers on contract through the crisis to date, working across our education activity, in communities nationally and delivering socially distanced performances in Stratford. We will do what we can to continue to engage as many theatre freelancers as possible as we reopen but it could be as much as a 30% reduction on previous years. We continue to lobby for support for the freelance workforce and for more activity to be funded.
What does the future hold for UK theatre?
There are huge challenges. There’s the challenge of social distancing and how we get audiences back into the theatre and to build confidence amongst our audiences, alongside an immediate crisis about how we retain our freelance talent and craftsmanship, whether that’s actors, designers, composers, movement directors etc. The danger is that there is a drain from the industry of that extraordinary talent, with people retraining and leaving because they have to pay the mortgage.
But there’s also an extraordinary level of innovation, with people thinking of different ways of working on different platforms. I don’t think for a second that we’re ever going to lose the live theatre experience, but the way we engage and think about producing Shakespeare and other work will change.
We’ve also found ourselves in a time where people demand a reset. It isn’t good enough just to go back to what it was before, because of at least three global movements - #MeToo, the climate crisis and Black Lives Matter. We – the RSC and the theatre sector – need to find really proper ways of giving platforms to more underrepresented voices.
How can we support theatre and the arts?
We all need your support to ensure we can re-open as soon as possible. If you can, give back the cost of your tickets rather than asking for a refund when performances are cancelled, or take a credit voucher for future tickets. You can also consider supporting your theatre by making a donation.
Writing to your MP to show what theatre means to you and your family and friends is also helpful as the more people that demonstrate that theatre is important to their lives, the more government will understand it’s importance to the nation. You can find out the name and contact of your local MP at theyworkforyou.com
When will you reopen fully?
Well we hope to stage full scale Shakespeare productions in Spring 2021. Of course as soon as we know that we can reopen with full productions, it takes us many, many weeks to prepare for those performances and make sure we are ready to welcome our audiences back.
We hope it will be The Winter’s Tale we open with. We’ve kept acting company with us in order for them to be ready to go and I’m delighted it will be that play, because there is no better play about regeneration, recovery and reunion than The Winter’s Tale. I usually have tears in my eyes when that statue come to life, but this time it will be very heartfelt.
Tales for Winter is allowing us to be back in the theatre and performing and giving audiences the opportunity connect online. But we won’t be properly back until we have a full Shakespeare play in that space.
I’m really hoping that in 2022 we’ll get back to having the Swan and The Other Place, and will be able to look forward to 2023, which will mark the 400th anniversary of the First Folio and is an opportunity for us to think beyond this period of retrenchment.