Words: Paul Crofts and Photos: Paul Crofts and Angela Ferguson
As coronavirus continues to have an impact on our every day lives, We Are Chester writer Paul Crofts takes a look at how creatives from the arts world are rising to the challenge of keeping us entertained and bringing the magic of theatre in to our own homes during these uncertain times.
March and April were shaping up to be really busy and exciting months theatrically for me, with tickets booked to see shows at venues including The Forum Studio Theatre, Christleton High School, Storyhouse, Theatr Clwyd and Liverpool Everyman.
In addition, Chester-based theatre company Against The Grain of which I am a co-founder along with my good friends Mark Newman, Marian Newman and Stuart Evans had been gearing up to announce details of our latest play Mr Dumpling.
Nobody in the UK could have predicted just what would unfold only a few short weeks later as we were told to avoid theatres, pubs, restaurants etc followed by the lock down which we find ourselves subject to today.
Mr Dumpling is a new twisted comedy written by Mark which we would have been staging at The Forum Studio Theatre in July. We had the play, we had the poster, we had the venue and we had a launch date, it was full steam ahead.
What a great few months ahead I thought, lots of great shows to see and our own production to promote and get on stage. That was, of course, until the dreaded Covid-19 threw a massive spanner in the works.
Even at the beginning of March, nobody in the UK could have predicted just what would unfold only a few short weeks later as we were told to avoid theatres, pubs, restaurants etc followed by the lock down which we find ourselves subject to today.
As the implications of the initial Government advice sunk in, one by one, our local venues including The Forum Studio Theatre, Storyhouse and Theatr Clwyd had no choice but to suspend rehearsals, postpone productions and temporarily shut their doors.
The very last piece of theatre I managed to see before the lock down was a production of the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers at Chester Little Theatre which featured my friends Mark, Marian and Stuart in the cast.
Gaps had started to appear in the audiences each night, such was the understandable fear of catching the virus amongst older theatregoers. None of us present on the last night knew when we would be gathered together again or if we would see any of the future productions scheduled at the various local venues actually go ahead.
And then, the lock down was announced, sealing the fate of shows and events the length and breadth of the UK. Covid-19 had succeeded where even the Luftwaffe failed during WWII, to temporarily close our theatres and every single arts venue in the UK, not to mention around the world.
Connecting with audiences
But, the arts and entertainment industry loves a challenge, there’s no people like show people right? And so, within days of the lock down, creatives were using social media possibly like never before to connect with their audiences.
Here in Chester, for example, Storyhouse has launched a daily storytime at 11am and 6pm each day featuring well known faces from amongst their team as well as from some of the theatre’s most recent shows.
Storyhouse Young Leaders present warm ups suitable for primary school age children and there is also a virtual version of the ever popular Rhymetime.
In addition to these brilliant events for children, the grown ups aren’t left out with Storyhouse staging the now weekly Quarantine Karaoke via the Zoom app each Wednesday at 7pm. Go to www.facebook.com/storyhouselive for more details.
Zoo on your doorstep
Having the world’s best zoo on your doorstep is fab but what if you can’t visit because it too has had to close its doors.
Fear not, let Chester Zoo come to you! Hundreds of thousands of people watched the first virtual tour on 27 March, with the zoo’s Facebook page seeing thousands more followers in the subsequent 48 hour period. Keep checking www.facebook.com/chesterzoo1 for details of future virtual tours and to see the previous tours which are available to view online.
Just over the border, Theatr Clwyd are launching Theatr Clwyd Together which will include improvised music and dance workshops, and behind the scenes footage with more content being unveiled in the coming weeks. More details can be found at www.theatrclwyd.com/together.
Meanwhile, nationally, the showbiz world has risen to the challenge of keeping us entertained during these uncertain times including the National Theatre who will stream recordings of some of their iconic productions each Thursday at 7pm including James Corden in One Man Two Guvnors which aired on Thursday 2 April and is now available for a limited time on YouTube. Upcoming plays from NT Live include Jane Eyre on 9th April, Treasure Island and Twelfth Night with more to follow. Full details can be found at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.
Good old BBC
Not to be outdone, the good old BBC has launched Culture in Quarantine across its TV channels, digital platforms and social media.
This will include filmed stage versions of productions including the brilliant Wise Children which came to Storyhouse last year and the Almeida’s production of Albion being part of the initial line up.
Keep checking back at www.bbc.co.uk/arts for scheduling and lots of diverse content including film shorts, interviews and new writing by upcoming talented young creatives.
If musicals are your thing, Andrew Lloyd Webber himself has been taking to Facebook to perform various of his own compositions at the piano whilst in self isolation at home, with even the orchestra from his London production of Phantom getting on board for a surprise virtual performance of All I Ask of You.
West End Supergroup The Barricade Boys performed a moving version of Bring Him Home from Les Mis with special guests including Alfie Boe, in tribute to our brilliant NHS.
Various stars from the worlds of variety, West End and Broadway have gone online in recent days to bring their talents to various social media platforms.
Andrew Lloyd Webber has also announced that filmed versions of his musicals including Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar will be available via a new YouTube channel, The Shows Must Go On starting with Joseph from 4 April.
When a theatre temporarily closes or “goes dark”, there is a wonderful tradition whereby a ghost light is left on, centre stage indicating that the casts, crews, creatives and audiences who are the beating heart of any theatre will one day return.
It is therefore not surprising that another fantastic online initiative recently set up as a virtual “two fingered salute” to corona virus is the aptly named Leave A Light On, featuring a series of live streamed musical performances by stars of the West End’s current musicals at London’s Theatre Cafe. Full details can be found at www.thetheatrecafe.co.uk.
Over the next few months, we face a great battle to keep our loved ones safe and to overcome this terrible virus, but, overcome it we will and as life returns to normal, our theatres and other live venues will need our support more than ever.
Hopefully, as many shows as possible will be rescheduled and take place as they were meant to before this unexpected “interval”. As we marked World Theatre Day recently, one of the most common hashtags I saw on social media from the theatre industry was #wewillbeback and that is exactly the message we need right now.
The arts industry will have kept us entertained throughout this crisis so the least we can do is return the favour, book a seat at your favourite theatre, go see a live band, book tickets for yourfavourite musical.
Whatever you do, please continue to support the arts in all its wonderful and various forms because I can guarantee we’ll all need some escapism by the time the plot of this particular horror story has played out.
Stay safe, stay healthy, stay home! See you all on the other side! #wewillbeback #leavealighton
Paul Crofts, April 2020.