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‘It’s a testament to what a connected & dedicated community we are’: Nina Dunn speaks about the creation of The Dark Theatres Project

The video designer and photographer spoke to Emma Clarendon about The Dark Theatres Project and the lack of support for theatre during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thanks so much for talking to me. Could you tell me more about your Dark Theatres Project?
The Dark Theatres Project started as a photo essay documenting London’s dark theatres during lockdown and has evolved into a charity project. It’s generating funds for four theatrical charities who are working hard to keep both the workforce and the buildings going during the restrictions that have been placed on the industry by the government to curb the spread of the pandemic.

How did the idea for the project come about?
I am, by regular profession, a video designer for theatre and live events but in the few brief hiatuses that I have seen in my career – usually due to having children – I have always turned back to photography. The idea came to be around eight weeks into the spring lockdown. I had started to recover from the shock of the sudden closure of the theatres and with it the subsequent evaporation of all my forthcoming projects and I began to wonder what the theatres were like inside after such a sudden departure by cast, crew and creatives.

I also desperately needed a creative focus: I’m sure like so many of my colleagues it’s just an intrinsic a part of who I am. I approached ATG and requested permission to gain access and photograph a selection of venues and on one day in June, just as other industries were starting to open and theatres remained firmly closed, I went in with lights and a sense of trepidation!

I knew from the start that I wanted to tell the stories of the people who had been there when they closed as well as the buildings themselves so after the shoot, I spent around a month interviewing theatre professionals from all areas – backstage and production, cabstand creatives – to hear what it was like for them as the news came in on 16 March, how they had ben surviving since and what they hoped for our eventual return.

I was keenly aware how badly freelance theatre workers had been hit by these closures and I wanted to help in some way so I decided to use the photos and stories in two ways: firstly to release them online in a series to raise awareness and secondly to build towards a book that could become a surviving legacy that documents this moment in time and that could generate funds for charity not just now but every time someone buys a copy of the book in the future. It’s a lovely hard back book and will be available from 1 October in a variety of independent book shops and theatres including The National Theatre as well as online.

How do you feel the theatre industry has been treated throughout this whole pandemic?
In the first couple of months, it became apparent just how little the government knew how the theatre industry operated.They are still seemingly miles away from understanding the complexities of how we work both structurally and what it takes to put on shows.

It’s a very finely balanced ecosystem that also affects many other industries locally and nationally: everything from the restaurants and hotels nearby, the freight services and equipment suppliers – and it employs hundreds of thousands of people and was growing fast before COVID. This pandemic has forced us as an industry to explain this and also prove our worth in hard figures and facts – which of course cost valuable time as we watched the first theatres go into administration.

We’re an incredibly resourceful and hard working bunch and earn royally for the government so when the £1.57bn rescue package was announced, we all breathed a sigh of relief and shed a tear of pent up emotion and exhaustion – it felt like they finally got it. I was actually out in the West End doing some guerrilla projection-mapping for the #FreelancersMakeTheatreWork cause and #LightItInRed and it felt like real victory. Artists had become activist again and we had made a difference. We were all very grateful but since then it feels like there have been more set-backs than steps forward, culminating in the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak’s implication last week that our jobs were unskilled and unviable. This is a huge insult to such a valuable and resourceful workforce. We choose with both feet to work in the way we do and we live and breathe our industry not to mention having trained for years to be part of a pool of world-beating talent but it seems that this government will never recognise a career path that deviates form the straight and narrow concepts they have of what ‘work is’. We train for the same amount of time as a Lawyer but you would never question their skill level. My sister is a doctor and I can tell you, we keep the same long hours (complete with the same levels of adrenaline keeping us running) and often talk about this fact! We can’t claim to save lives directly but the arts offer a very different form of medication to humanity: it’s one that unites, heals, educates and frees and performing arts do this in a way that can be shared in and by a community simultaneously. Arts are for everyone. Just try a day without the arts – no music, TV, film, gaming, design – and see how that feels.  Even without interrogating the merits of the arts to society, fundamentally if a government closes down an industry in this kind of a scenario it should provide sector specific support. It’s a no-brainer. We are now seeing the true colours of the people who run this country and how they compare to their European counterparts and it can only be described as systematic neglect. Yesterday my husband and I joked about emigrating. Today we realised we weren’t joking.

(c)Nina Dunn

What have you missed about live theatre? I miss being in a amazing space with amazingly talented people, creating a story in a multifaceted and truly collaborative way then watching thousands of people come in  to see what we have in store for them. There’s nothing like that feeling when the lights go down in the auditorium after you have poured blood sweat and tears into a show and packed your kit away for the day: you know that the audience have no idea what you have cooked up but that they are in for a treat!

What do you think that theatre offers that perhaps no other industry can? Live storytelling experienced collectively. When the impossible or magical unfolds before your eyes to tell a new story and you feel the collective emotion of the audience around you it’s unbeatably compelling. I like many others have been thinking about and experimenting with all sorts of mediated performance – virtual reality / AR / live-streamed theatre etc – and through that process I and my colleagues have discovered a great deal about the unique and in so many ways unmatchable experience of being right there when it happens. There is a contract beaten the audience and the performer that is intrinsic – they feed off each other (you can see this most clearly in comedy but it’s true across the board) and although I do hope we find better ways of mediating live performance and increase our audiences and reach by doing so, I don’t believe anything will ever match the live collective experience that Theatre offers.

Which charities are you trying to raise funds for? I chose too donate profits to four charities that support backstage and technical theatre workers, actors and theatre buildings. They have been really supportive and it gives me great joy whenever I can send them the latest funds raised! They are: Acting Up ,Back Up – the Technical Theatre Charity,The Theatrical Guild and The Theatres Trust.

What have you enjoyed the most about creating this project? Connecting with colleagues – new and old – and helping them to tell their stories. Some of the people who have bought the book have also shared their position or story in the briefest of ways with me too and it’s really heart rending. It’s a testament to what a connected and dedicated community we are – audience and theatremakers alike.

By Emma Clarendon

To find out more about The Dark Theatres Project visit:

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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