How our theatres have adapted to COVID-19 one year on

A ghost light at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City

A ghost light at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City - Credit: Barn Theatre

A solitary ghost light eerily illuminates a theatre's empty stage.

There's nobody around. The theatre's doors are locked. The venue is closed. No performers. No live audience.

Just the ghost light left on in a theatre that would otherwise be dark.

It's a "theatrical Marie Celeste", as one Herts artistic director describes the scene.

This was the situation 12 months ago when playhouses up and down the country were plunged into lockdown with their doors closed due to COVID-19.

“You should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday, March 16, 2020.

The Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City lit up as part of the Light It In Red campaign.

The Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City lit up as part of the Light It In Red campaign last year drawing attention to the challenges facing venues in the live events, arts, theatre and music industry. - Credit: Simon Wallace / MeltingPot Pictures

One year on, theatres including the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City and Stevenage's Gordon Craig are still waiting to welcome back live audiences. 

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While the country first went into 'stay at home' national lockdown on March 23, 2020, theatres were already closed by this point in the coronavirus pandemic.

The hashtag #FirstInLastOut was employed by people within the industry this week on March 16 – the first anniversary of theatres closing – to highlight those freelancers and creatives who have had no financial support for a year.

Among those supporting the campaign for the Theatre Artists Fund was Hertfordshire-based Hot Fuzz and Mission: Impossible actor Simon Pegg.

He wrote: "Many theatre workers have had no financial support. They were first into lockdown and will be last out."

Last year also saw the Light It In Red campaign, with venues illuminated in red to highlight the ongoing crisis faced by the sector.

The government's Culture Recovery Fund has helped some venues, but not all.

The Abbey Theatre in St Albans was lit up in red as part of the Light It In Red campaign

The Abbey Theatre in St Albans was lit up in red as part of the Light It In Red campaign - Credit: Abbey Theatre

The Gordon Craig Theatre this week posted a ghost light picture on its Instagram page with the words: "March 16th 2021 marks one year since we saw our much loved theatre close its doors in 2020.

"As we lit the ghost light centre stage we could not have imagined the impact the pandemic would have in venues up and down the country.

"We are all getting closer to resuming a new normal and seeing our much loved industry return.

"We have lots of exciting updates to bring and we are busy behind the scenes working towards a gradual reopening." 

Elsewhere, the show has gone on – online, that is.

Some theatres in Herts have reopened for short periods of creatively when tier restrictions and lockdowns have allowed.

The Abbey Theatre auditorium adapted for a COVID-19 safe audience.

The Abbey Theatre auditorium adapted for a COVID-19 safe audience. - Credit: Nick Clarke / Abbey Theatre

The Abbey Theatre in St Albans is one such venue.

Although currently closed like the rest of theatreland under lockdown restrictions that won't be eased until May 17 at the earliest, it has staged a number of 'hybrid' performances this past year.

These have simultaneously been performed in front of a socially distanced live audience in the auditorium and live-streamed to viewers at home.

The Abbey Theatre auditorium in St Albans adapted for a COVID-19 safe audience.

The Abbey Theatre auditorium in St Albans adapted for a COVID-19 safe audience. - Credit: Nick Clarke / Abbey Theatre

The innovative Maltings Theatre in St Albans has also been very productive over the past 12 month.

Despite restrictions, there was an early Zoom production, last summer's successful open-air shows at the Roman Theatre of Verulamium, an autumn season back in the Maltings, and a brief Christmas run of Peter Pan at The Alban Arena.

Henry V directed by Matthew Parker at Maltings Open Air Theatre Festival/Roman Theatre, St Albans A

Henry V directed by Matthew Parker at the Maltings Open Air Theatre Festival at the Roman Theatre in St Albans last August. - Credit: Archant

On having to first close its doors 12 months ago, artistic director Adam Nichols wrote in a Maltings newsletter: "We expected to be back within a fortnight.

"But our theatrical Marie Celeste, illuminated by a solitary ghost light, would lie undisturbed for three months.

"And sitting here in our little office a year later, we still haven’t returned to anything like normality.

Adam Nichols

The Maltings Theatre's artistic director Adam Nichols, who has made this year's THE STAGE 100 - Credit: Katya Nyangi

"However, as I look back over the past year and acknowledge the enormous challenges it has brought for arts and culture, our local community here in St Albans, and society as a whole, I also feel enormous pride at everything our amazing team here at OVO and The Maltings has achieved."

Creatives have had to close the theatre three times in the past year alone.

Named in the annual STAGE 100 list, Adam added: "We spearheaded the reopening of theatres after the first lockdown and our successful campaign generated news headlines around the world.

"We have employed well over 100 actors and creatives, many of whom are based in our local area, enabling them to continue to earn a living from the industry they love at a time when millions of creatives are out of work.

"In a funny sort of way, it’s felt like 'business as usual' a lot of the time – or at least a turbocharged version of normality."

Peter Pan at The Alban Arena in St Albans. Picture: Elliott Franks

Peter Pan at The Alban Arena in St Albans. Picture: Elliott Franks - Credit: Elliott Franks

Other theatres have also experimented with virtual technology since the first lockdown one year ago.

The Queen Mother Theatre in Hitchin  presents an exclusive stream of play Pronoun by Evan Placey on Thursday, March 25.

Hitchin's Market Theatre has put on successful productions that you can now watch online.

The Company of Players in Hertford made an acclaimed lockdown film, The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde, and presents Pressure live on Zoom from March 29.

The Company of Players' online production of The Strange Case of Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde.

The Company of Players' online production of The Strange Case of Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde. - Credit: The Company of Players

WGC's historic Barn Theatre has also branched out into online Zoom streams for the first time.

This month's Welwyn Garden City Youth Drama Festival was also a virtual affair with schools, drama groups and individuals entering filmed pieces.

However, everyone involved in the industry wants to see live audiences again.

Theatres could reopen from May 17, subject to the latest COVID data, as part of the third step of the roadmap out of lockdown. 

In its social media post on the lockdown anniversary, the Gordon Craig Theatre summed it up.

"We can’t wait to welcome audiences and performers back.

"What a magical sound that first applause will be." 

OVO and Maltings Theatre's production of Peter Pan at The Alban Arena in St Albans. Picture: Elliott Franks

OVO and Maltings Theatre's production of Peter Pan at The Alban Arena in St Albans. Picture: Elliott Franks - Credit: Elliott Franks


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