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‘It has been a bit like the Wild West’: Recognising those pioneers extending the digital frontier

In a piece that appeared on Vogue’s website (after originally running in its December print issue), renaissance man Kwame Kwei-Armah — writer, director, artistic director of the currently mothballed Young Vic, and former actor — wrote an introduction to a photo feature highlighting star theatre actors.

These included Cate Blanchett and Jude Law to Pappa Essiedu, Bertie Carvel, Sophie Okonedo, Andrew Scott and Imelda Staunton. It’s wonderful how each of these actors — whose careers were all forged on stage, before becoming film and TV stars have stayed loyal to the theatre, returning again and again to it over the years.

In his piece Kwei-Armah writes of the last several months of enforced closure, “While there may be a few green shoots of hope, the sector is still by and large closed – or, as we say in the game, “dark”. And oh, how we miss it. I miss the light. There is something uniquely special about the West End of London at showtime. The people queueing outside the theatres know that over the next few hours they will be challenged by some of the finest writers, actors, directors and stage wizards in the world. Of course, magic can be found elsewhere in the city – and country – too.”

One of those dark theatres has been his own, forlornly empty on the Cut (though during the brief period between lockdowns in November, I went by one night and at least the bar was open). This summer it should have hosted the wonderful Cush Jumbo playing the title role in Hamlet.

But while Matthew Warchus at the other end of the Cut, may have the Old Vic that he presides over (without any subsidy) dark, too, actually the theatre has been in use regularly and has continued to produce throughout the pandemic, with its “In Camera” broadcasts of live performances that have been staged in its empty auditorium. These have included an online version of their Christmas staple, A Christmas Carol (this year with Andrew Lincoln as Scrooge), plus a revival of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, their autumn hit from 2019, when it starred Matt Smith and Claire Foy who reprised their performances for the “in camera” version, which brought the play to much bigger audiences than were able to see it at the Old Vic, and in many more places — it was streamed to 69 countries across the globe.

Thus the Old Vic was on its feet, not its seat, reaching brand-new audiences. The Young Vic, by contrast, has been largely inert; it briefly and for one early October weekend sprang back into life to celebrate its own 50th anniversary with a series of readings of newly commissioned work presented under the umbrella title ‘The New Tomorrow’. In a review of the gala afternoon for The Spectator, Lloyd Evans noted: “One of the show’s key aims was to attack ‘the patriarchy’ (meaning ‘the rule of the fathers’) so it was peculiar to hear Kwame reveal that the in-house DJ was Kwame Kwei-Armah Jr. Any connection with the boss is probably coincidental.”

As my actor friend Nick Holder — who just last month moved to live in France — remarked on Twitter yesterday in response to my posting of this feature: “If theatres cannot open to the public they MUST employ freelancers and make work, develop work, run workshops and prepare for new ways of working with the community… see NT trying to open its doors, NT Studio, employing freelancers, developing work in a socially distant way. See also the Royal Court continuing its writers groups throughout 2020 and producing The Living Newspaper. Theatres CANNOT stay closed paying salaried staff with the doors closed to everyone else. See also the groundbreaking and prolific online output from @AdamLenson throughout the pandemic.”

These are indeed instructive examples. And Lenson himself — who has overseen a season of new musicals that have been streamed live from Southwark Playhouse — joined the conversation, saying: “I literally don’t understand how some massively funded theatres have managed to do so little this year.”

Whereas, as I pointed out, the unfunded Barn Theatre in Cirencester has been at the forefront of digital innovation, producing a “Bard from the Barn” series that involved more than 200 creatives and attracted more than 131,000 views; as well as an adaptation of Jonathan Coe’s Eighties satire What A Carve Up!, co-produced with Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley in Huddersfield and Ipswich’s New Wolsey. According to Dominic Cavendish in a feature last week on the Telegraph website applauding the Barn’s successes, it attracted a global audience (more than 40 countries) and made over £100,000 gross (with percentages going to different charities).

Artistic director Iwan Lewis is quoted saying, “It has been a bit like the Wild West, you’re looking at the frontier thinking: ‘What piece of land am I going to claim?” Lewis, a former West End actor who appeared in Les Miserables, amongst other credits, was already ahead of the game, having seen the potential of a digital arm to his tiny theatre early on, so he already had the kit on the site to make this happen.

And although he’s notably discreet about other larger organisations not joining him in this digital frontier, he does say, “It is rather surprising that not a lot has been created by some of the big guns. I don’t think that waiting for things to blow over proves the dynamism of our industry. What we did wasn’t about trying to win big, it was about showing that we could survive under all circumstances, and that theatre has a place at all times.”

As Adam Lenson noted on Twitter yesterday, “Freelancers and smaller buildings had no choice but to keep moving and it was them that made many of the gains. Sadly most of the press followed the tiny gains made by the big venues and ignored the seismic ones made by the small people. I just think the furlough scheme made it preferable for buildings to hibernate and showed little understanding of how to support the arts. I was also shocked at how many theatres had furloughed their digital teams.”

Remembering David Johnson

On Friday the Guardian finally ran a lovely obituary online for independent (and deeply maverick) theatre and comedy producer David Johnson (pictured above), a larger-than-life character who died on December 13, aged 60, after being diagnosed with a lung condition two years ago. The obituary was penned by Mark Ravenhill, the playwright whose first full-length play Shopping and Fucking David (and his then business partner Mark Goucher) transferred from the Royal Court, which at the time was occupying a reconfigured Ambassadors Theatre as its studio space while its Sloane Square home was being refurbished, to the Gielgud on Shaftesbury Avenue, in 1997.

Mark remembers that ticket sales were sluggish during previews. But David was untroubled, saying: “It’s a different kind of show for a different kind of audience. They’ll come.” And they did.

A few years ago David invited me and Mark to a pre-Christmas lunch at the Ivy. We met at 12.30pm — and didn’t leave till after 6pm. I don’t drink and Mark barely does. But in the course of the afternoon, around 5 or 6 bottles of wine were consumed (plus cocktails). David was still not just standing but holding court the entire time!

But my other favourite memory of David is a furious letter he once shared with me that he’d written to the management of a venue where one of his shows had played, and where the box office manager was on parole for a fraud conviction, whom he had complained about but had never been told this about.

Just one tiny extract from this priceless letter:

“What the fucking fucking fuck made you fucking think that I did not deserve to fucking know about this – especially after I had fucking asked and even fucking fucking tried to insist you gave me a fucking answer (see corresp below)? What the fucking cunting fuck made you think that it’s ok that I might find out about this – not from you – but from a random third party encounter – in the presence of my artists – and – for astonishingly good measure – to put the flaming fucking crimson lid on it – in front of the Editor of the Culture section of the Sunday (fucking) Times. WTF? You stupid fucking pair of total fucking useless pretentious type of arses are you? ….Just when you think you’ve encountered everything in show biz – just when you think you have met all the stupid fucking cunts in all our stupid fucking showbiz world – then, apparently, you come across Tweedlecunt and Tweedlefuckingstupidcunt I am so fucking, fucking, fucking angry with you both I can barely type. So excuse teh typos.” [I’ve not fixed any — the only one appears in his apology…..!]

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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