I took over as the artistic director of the Rose Theatre, Kingston in January this year, and if there’s one thing I have learned about the building so far, it’s that it blooms with activity. The stage is alive pretty much every evening of the week – with drama, family and children’s shows, music, and comedy. In the last few of months we have hosted everyone from Stormzy to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to our Youth Theatre performing Treasure Island.
And it is not just our main stage that pulsates with life. Our studio is in constant use by Kingston University’s drama course. Students can often be seen rehearsing in our foyer while young mums gather in our café to chat, breastfeed their newborns and watch as toddlers totter about in the dedicated play area. Every Tuesday a group of OAPs meet to sit together and knit. And on Sundays? Well, that is when the church meets for worship in our 800 seat auditorium, before the evening is given over to some of the best comedians in the business: John Bishop, Bridget Christie, Ahir Shah.
And then…? A little over two weeks ago, as the pandemic unleashed pandemonium, it all stopped. We sat in our office listening to Boris Johnson advise that all businesses should remain open but the public should stay at home nonetheless. There were gasps of anger from my colleagues as he said this. How the hell was that supposed to work? It costs money to stay open and if we have no audience and no one buying drinks and food in our bar, we would soon fall off the edge of a financial cliff. But, no sooner had he finished speaking, we received a press release from SOLT/UK Theatre (the industry body to whom we are affiliated) announcing that, on the advice of DCMS (the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), all their venues would shut with immediate effect. So that is how we found out we were closed until further notice.
Since then, as my team work from home and speak everyday via conference call, our work and planning has fallen in to two distinct boxes: short term and long term. When you have no idea of when you will reopen you can’t really think in the medium term. In the short term our focus is on the welfare of our staff and our freelancers, and on making sure we can stay afloat financially. We are furloughing all those who can’t work so that we can claim 80% of their wages from the government (though we have committed to topping up everyone’s pay beyond this so no one will be out of pocket). And we are rapidly rescheduling all of the shows we had coming in, in order to ensure that extraordinary creativity of all the artists we work with is honoured and will find an audience eventually.
And despite all this frantic activity (it’s amazing how busy an empty building can be!) my job is to keep my eyes firmly fixed on the horizon. I am continuing to plan for my first season which will happen next year. I am talking to actors, to directors, to writers and to producing partners. My job, while all hell is breaking loose, is to calmly imagine what the future can be. Because when we get through this – and we will – our audience is going to be hungry for more great art. They are going to want to come to the Rose, as they always have, to laugh together and to cry together; to celebrate together and just to be together.
That is the unique and curious thing about this crisis: it stops us doing the one thing that humans always instinctively do when things go wrong – we congregate. At the moment we are all having to do this virtually. But Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are no substitute for bodies being together in a room.
So I am hopeful, because current events are demonstrating precisely why theatres are such vital and important places. And when this crisis is over, our foyer, our bar, our auditorium will be thrown wide open once again. And everyone will be welcome.
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