‘If we can’t bring the people back to our building, then we should go to them’
- Credit: Arcola Theatre
In March, Arcola Theatre - which turned 20 this year - closed its doors to the public, cancelling its anniversary programming and community outreach.
Apart from the executive director and accountant, staff were furloughed. "Everything stopped completely," says co-founder Leyla Nazli.
The theatre has remained closed - social distancing at two metres would have reduced capacity to 25 - but the team were never comfortable reopening the building if it wasn't properly ventilated.
"We didn't want to jeopardise people's lives and actors' lives," Leyla says.
She anticipates the venue will not open until autumn 2021 or the beginning of 2022, after improvements are made, the vaccine has been rolled out , and people feel safe to return.
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The theatre also chose not to stream past performances or deliver outreach programmes online. In part, because of the quality of the footage (shows had only been filmed for archival purposes), but also because streaming didn’t feel right.
“We were so devastated not to do theatre live,” says Leyla, “it didn’t feel natural for us to stream.
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“We also didn’t want to connect with our community – our 60+, mental health or youth theatre groups - behind screens. It’s not very human to me.”
The pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the theatre industry. The Theatre Artists Fund has awarded more than 4,600 emergency grants worth £4.8 million to the army of freelancers and self-employed who make the industry tick.
As part of the Government's Culture Recovery Fund, 24 theatre and arts organisations in Hackney received a total of £4,347,233 including Arcola Theatre (£296,160), Hackney Empire (£585,064) and Grow, Hackney (£247,484).
A further round of funding, closing on January 26, has been announced to support organisations from April to June 2021 acknowledging that Covid-19 will continue to wreak havoc on cultural industries.
Yet despite the turmoil and uncertainty, the theatre community has shown great strength as they adapt to the new normal. 2020 been a period of creative thinking as theatre-makers reconceive how to show their work.
Since Arcola staff returned from furlough in August, plans have been underway to present new work in April 2021, despite the building remaining closed.
Instead of returning to their planned anniversary season, Arcola will reopen with a festival Today I’m Wiser and Arcola Outside - an experiment of sorts for continuing to make theatre in uncertain times and a "huge part" of Arcola's organisational development going forwards.
“One thing I learnt from lockdown is that change is inevitable and we adapt to everything,” Leyla says. “We thought maybe Covid-19 might stay with us for 10 years and that’s when we started thinking about Arcola Outside, because you need to learn how to live with it.
“As an organisation we don’t trust that everyone is going to be vaccinated and everyone will go to theatres immediately. People will still be very cautious, and we are very cautious.
“If we can’t bring our audience and community back to our building, then we should go to them,” she adds.
Arcola Outside is an outdoor bar and performance space planned for a site on Ashwin Street currently used for storage - it housed a temporary performance space Arcola Tent from 2011 to 2014.
The £100k cost will be financed through fundraising and public money, including some of the money from the Cultural Recovery Fund.
The benches and structures to keep staff and audience dry, including a roof (approximately £70k), can be packed down and reassembled in other locations - the concept of Arcola Outside includes plans to create pop-up outdoor theatre spaces in squares, parks and even back gardens around Hackney.
While locations are yet to be determined, Leyla hopes it will help them reconnect with the community and create opportunities for freelancers.
The Ashwin Street set up will only be suitable for casts of up to four actors, as long as they are not on stage simultaneously. Taking theatre into Hackney will enable Arcola to produce larger shows, continue with established events such as alternative opera festival Grimeborn, and perhaps use it for community outreach programmes.
Artist submissions are now open for Today I’m Wiser which riffs on the theme of what you have learned from the pandemic. Shows “could be anything” says Leyla including storytelling, talent shows, circus acts or music, as long as they stem from the experience of being locked down.
“The idea is what have you been cooking inside your bedrooms or kitchen in those four, six months? What ideas came to you? Come and share them with us.”
By programming a diverse festival, she hopes to reach new audiences and create more revenue. While the Arts Council only provides 10 percent of the theatre’s income, Leyla acknowledges that as the industry’s crisis deepens, accessing funding in the future will become “even more of a struggle”.
The longevity of Arcola Outside and Today We are Wiser depends on how they are received. The Ashwin Street site is intended to be temporary and Leyla expects to use it for two to three years, depending on demand.
And while the festival begins the trial, she harbours grander hopes for this idea born out of necessity.
“I always wanted to do a mini-Edinburgh festival in Hackney. It was my dream,” she says. “Maybe with Today I’m Wiser we can achieve that. Even if it’s on a small scale, maybe we can initiate that.”