Due to the continued lockdowns and restrictions, the doors to York Theatre Royal’s main auditorium have remained closed since the 17th March 2020.
Tom Bird is executive director at York Theatre Royal, and has been for the past 3 years.
After the roadmap out of lockdown was announced – with theatres potentially being able to reopen from 17th May – we spoke with Tom to get an update. He said: “We are glad the roadmap contains specific dates and are keen to work towards opening as soon as possible.”
Hopefully we’ll be able to visit theatres again soon.
How has the pandemic affected your venue?
We haven’t been open in a normal way – we haven’t opened our main auditorium – since the 17 March 2020. We were in the middle of a production of Alone In Berlin when the Prime Minister told people not to go to the theatre. We’ve done a lot of activity since then but we haven’t opened the main auditorium as we normally would for nearly a year. For us that affects us massively, we rely on ticket sales for about 89% of our income. So it’s had a huge impact on us.
In what ways have you adapted?
We have adapted at different stages in lots of different ways. We started by joining the community effort to help the NHS so we started making PPE, because we’ve got costume makers and that kind of thing. That was at the very beginning when it looked like there would be PPE shortages.
When the first lockdown was partially lifted and outdoor performance was allowed, we pivoted and we started an outdoor theatre on the patio. We did a pop up patio stage with local artists, comedians, musicians, almost anyone really who wanted to get involved. So that was a great experience. I never thought we’d see a theatre stage on that patio, but it’s made us adapt in different ways.
Then over Christmas, obviously we adapted massively. We would normally do a panto in the theatre, of course, but we took our panto on the road. We weren’t sure how keen people would be to travel into the city, so we went to 14 different wards of York, taking the panto to community centres, schools, and that kind of thing. So we’ve definitely adopted and we’ve been really busy.
The furlough scheme has been important for us, we’ve tried to use it as much as possible. But at the same time you want to do as much activities as you can, so that’s a tricky tightrope to walk.
What have been the most difficult and most uplifting experiences from the past 12 months?
The most difficult time was definitely the beginning, because for all the experience you might have in your career, for all the training you might have done nothing ever said: “What are you going to do if there’s a great big pandemic?” I think we didn’t realise the severity of the situation. So I’d say the first couple of months of shutdown like April or May of 2020 were really tough because you’re looking at it and thinking how the hell will we survive. But eventually we worked out a way of surviving. The most difficult experience was that initial scrambling, going ‘can we get through this or not?’ But then once things started to stabilise life became a bit easier.
Definitely the most uplifting experience was over Christmas. It was just amazing seeing kids bounce out of community venues saying ‘that was brilliant’, laughing and smiling. So we absolutely loved the travelling panto. It’s one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever been involved in. When people have had such a nightmare of a year, such a dark year, to be able to give them a bit of joy at the end of the year in 2020 was just such a massively uplifting experience.
What have you learned from the pandemic? Will you do anything differently going forward?
I think we’ll do lots differently. I know this is becoming a cliché now but it’s given us a chance to stare long and hard at ourselves and say ‘Okay, we’re good at this but we can be better at this.’ For example, we took our panto on the road, in a way as a reaction to people maybe not being sure about coming into the Theatre Royal, maybe not being sure about getting the bus into town. But then we were like, this is something we should have been doing anyway. Taking theatre out into the city is a brilliant thing to do pandemic or no pandemic. So we will basically have more of a presence out and about the city is how we’ll be different. It’s an inadvertent effect of the pandemic. I think decentralisation is the answer, that’s a big change for us.
Sometimes you need these moments of massive social, political, economic upheaval to really be jolted into making work in a different way, or doing things in a different way. It’s been a good wake up call.
What’s next for York Theatre Royal?
Basically the minute we’re allowed to open, we will open. We’re doing a thing called ‘The Love Season’, which is a season of love stories of all different shapes and sizes. We want to celebrate human connection, and we noticed the way that humans have been forced apart by the effects of the pandemic and we just want to celebrate togetherness both in the theatre and out in the community. Lots of opportunities for people in the city to get involved as well: whether it’s their kids in youth theatre or joining book clubs, joining photography groups, joining the choir, all that type of thing. Not just coming to see shows in the theatre, you can get involved in all sorts of different ways.
A lot of people were still very worried last year, but now that a lot of people have been vaccinated or are being vaccinated, and case rates are dropping so quickly, I do think that demand is going to be there. People are writing to us to say, ‘when are you opening, we’re really desperate to come back.’ It’s going to be a really exciting first few months coming back. So many people want that experience again, so we just can’t wait.
There’s scientific research that UCL did a while ago that shows how people’s hearts basically adopt the same rhythm when they’re all sitting together in a theatre. It’s a properly visceral physical experience that we have together. It probably goes for when you’re watching a theatre show together, or a football match together, or a film together in a cinema. We’re desperate to do that again. We simply offer something that sitting at home watching TV just can’t ever replicate. We’re here for the community, and as soon as we can open we will be open.
How will York’s cultural scene have been changed by what’s happened?
One thing I’m really interested in is the space in the city centre and the empty space that is existing in the city centre. I think it’s overstated the extent to which it’s because of the pandemic. But certainly what’s happening is the city centre is empty. Half of Coney Street is empty. Half of one side of Davygate is entirely empty. I’m really interested in how we can help York’s artists, especially freelance artists, inhabit those spaces. So how can we work with landlords, local authority, whoever it may be to help artists. Whether they’re artists, visual artists, dancers, you name it. If we do that, we do two things at once. We’d give that group of artists, who’ve had the worst year ever, a chance of work but also we invigorate the city centre, which has been absolutely decimated.
I do think in York there’s a constant refusal to point out any of the problems that are in the city. So I’m really keen that we say ‘Let’s all work together’, because there’s not a debate about whether it’s empty or not. Let’s not be defensive about it, let’s work together and make it better. So that’s a massive opportunity. It can be so much better than lots of empty streets.
I just hope there is a way of working with landlords. If we invigorate the city centre that is good for the commercial property industry, and it’s good for the city centre, and it’s good for the community, and it’s good for artists. I hope we can, but it’s not easy.
What have been your cultural highlights in York?
I loved the Marshmallow Laser Feast exhibition at York Art Gallery as part of York Mediale. That was incredible. I love the performance poetry group ‘Say Owt’, I love those nights. I love seeing music at The Crescent. I take my kids to York Art Gallery all the time. So many things, too many things to say.
What do you think York’s cultural scene is missing – or what would you change?
York could get better at keeping creative people here after they finish studying or whatever. We have to make sure that it’s a viable place to be a writer, to be an actor, to be any kind of creative. It’s not bad, but I think we can get better at that. So we have to make sure there’s always a reason why creatives want to live here. We have to allow – this comes back to city centre space – and also people being a little bit less precious about the city. We have to allow there to be a Fringe, a place where younger artists can experiment – that feels really important. We have to make sure that it’s a place where indie artists can live and work.
What are your hopes and fears for York’s cultural scene in the future?
I hope that the leadership in the city supports York’s cultural scene. We received capital funding from the council, but the council cut our funding a couple years ago, that does make it harder for us to improve the health and wellbeing of people’s lives that we can do.
I hope the city council better fund culture in the city in the longer term. There are commitments made, but there’s no money committed. And I think it’s really important that that happens. We’re really grateful for the capital funding that we have. But I feel like we can go further. There are local authorities surrounding us that support culture much better. Leeds supports culture much better, and in areas like Stockton-on-Tees. I think they can teach us a lot about how we can help the wellbeing of our citizens.
Anything you would like to add?
I’d love to say to people that theatre is an incredibly safe thing to do. When theatre’s were open in between lockdowns there wasn’t one single recorded transmission of COVID in a theatre anywhere in the country. And because we can do social distancing so well, and so easily, I think that theatre is a really wonderful way of entertaining the whole family and also it’s a really safe thing to do.