The South Devon Players Theatre & Film Company is a small, but growing, female/ mixed-race-led touring theatre company based in Torbay, in South Devon, England. Founded in the winter of 2005/6, the Players was formed by local actors, to create world class performance opportunities for professionals and aspiring professionals, in the region, as a response to a local lack of opportunity for careers in theatre for local people. Welcoming performers and crew of all races/genders/sexualities/religions etc, equally, the company has won a number of local, national and international theatre awards.
- Immediate impact of COVID
Solution: We had to decide very quickly whether to close, or whether to explore more creative solutions for interim survival. Within our organisation we decided to embrace digital technology to survive, and are remaining active with productions which are cast, rehearsed and performed solely online with the actors working from home using video conferencing software, and streamed on our website and social media platforms, using ticketed links to earn ticket sale income for the actors.
Issues we have encountered have included:
A) No access to external technical assistance; we all had to teach ourselves, and help those team members less confident with technology.
B) Relying on peoples home equipment and internet connections. In a very low income area, meaning that people are using old second hand equipment, with known slower or non-existent internet speeds in some areas of Devon, this resulted in a number of unavoidable technical difficulties, namely 3gb upload of a performance to our website taking over 12 hours (May 30th 2020 in Brixham, despite the new fibreoptic cables laid in the area).
C) Lower spending power of audiences due to job losses or furloughs resulting in lower ticket sales.
D) Illegal foreign streaming website targetting our show and streaming it on their site without permission or recompense. (No response from official copyright authorities when we reported this, though finally managed to get the hosting company of the illegal streaming site to remove the video).
Requests for assistance to relevant departments, organisations, or funding bodies, with regard to all these issues have gone unanswered.
- How effective has support from DCMS, other government departments and “arms length” organisations addressed the sectors needs?
As an organisation, and despite having a strong fundraising team, we have applied for various grants for short and long term assistance, and barely had any response at all (none positive). From our observations, the assistance has either gone to large organisations, or to voluntary organisations only, leaving those of us who do not fall into one of those extremes, with absolutely nothing other than to try to survive by our own devices.
This is not entirely new. We have found that long term there are a number of clear misconceptions about theatre companies such as ours, namely that regional/ rural based theatre is “all amateur” (we encounter a lot of surprise when we challenge this misconception, usually surrounding surprised exclamations of “but you are local!” or “you are not based in a city!”). We also find a great deal of wariness in all sectors of society, of theatre that is led by a woman, and even more so that it is led by a woman of mixed race heritage. In an experiment, in 2015, we fronted a marketing campaign with a person of white heritage, and found positive response to first contacts, increased by an additional 50%.
Due to these aspects we have always found ourselves pushed to “the back of the queue”, and despite a huge international following for our work (evidenced social media following around 22,000), and local, national and international awards, there is no actual support, funding, or advice available.
We have been completely reliant on our own devices to survive, since all enquiries for information, or appeals for assistance, have been either unanswered or turned down.
- The likely long term impacts of COVID on the sector will affect all aspects of creating theatre. In general terms, as already stated, it can take 12 – 18 months to book shows into theatre venues. These venues need to know that they will have survived and be able to reopen. 2 – 6 months is needed for marketing these shows. There is likely to be a fall in numbers of audience; many theatre audience members who are in “at risk” groups due to age, or health, will understandably have less confidence about returning to a crowded indoor venue. Theatre auditoria are not places where it is possible to socially distance – a regular theatre that we attend, of 240 seats, would be reduced to around 16 seats in order to allow for social distancing, and neither the venue, or the theatre company, can afford to run an unsubsidised event on only 16 ticket sales, with any hope of survival.
This situation can only be remedied by a vaccine or other highly reliable treatment for COVID, meaning that the distancing is no longer necessary.
On a positive side, it has temporarily forced organisations, especially those in our position, to be very creative, or learn new ways of creating work, to survive. For example, our choice to work online, has resulted in the creation of new approaches to delivering our work to audiences, and in a post-Covid world, will mean that we are able to livestream our shows to people not able to physically attend our performance venues.
- Lessons to be learned. Nobody could have foreseen this pandemic, and it has harshly illustrated how fragile the theatre industry is. It has been hard – in many cases impossible – to find official information for our sector; and what there is, has usually been passed around by word of mouth between practitioners personal networks, or via trade unions; eg Equity. Regional performance companies seem to have been largely ignored (see previous comments), and even now, while there is some guidance appearing for film and TV productions, there is nothing out there for theatres; certainly nothing that is backed up with credible information or assistance. Most actors, and stage crew are out of work.
- In the future, new ways of working will need to grow from this situation; identifying, challenging and rectifying outdated marginalisational stereotypes, and developing a more co-ordinated, robust, central system where organisations could locate information and potential assistance; maybe a national directory of venues and performance companies – and those who rely on them – and emailing list for national information relating to the industry.