Northern Ireland news

The New Normal: Theatre professionals on the 'devastating' impact of lockdown

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the arts sector, with many groups and venues warning they face closure. Claire Simpson speaks to two theatre professionals about the challenges they have faced during the six-month shutdown and their hopes for the future.

 Patrick J O'Reilly, artistic director of Tinderbox Theatre Company. Picture by Hugh Russell

With no planned date for the re-opening of theatres and arts venues, many people working in the sector have found lockdown a huge struggle.

Patrick O’Reilly, from Belfast, has been artistic director of Tinderbox Theatre Company for the last four years.

He said although the company receives funding from the Arts Council, the long shutdown has “had a devastating effect financially”.

“I’ve spoken to artists who feel they might not continue being an artist because the very air that we breathe isn’t safe and a lot of people have lost jobs,” he said.

READ MORE: The New Normal: Music teacher Martin Rafferty on music and mental health

The company had to cancel or postpone its workshops and productions during lockdown, although it produced work online and is continuing to develop new plays.

“In terms of being able to go into a venue, it seems very uncertain because the guidelines are just not clear enough,” he said. 

“Of course everyone’s safety is paramount. Things can’t open until there is a level of safety for everybody. But people are still continuing to make work.”

The day after lockdown, the company set up an arts fund which paid performers £100 for any pieces they submitted. Funding was later extended and the company was able to help scores of artists.

Tinderbox also hosted several online performances and uploaded Repose, a soundscape aimed at helping people suffering the effects of lockdown.

“We decided as a company that we would shift everything to an online experience,” Mr O'Reilly said. 

“We developed a play (Lucid) that we put on YouTube at the beginning of June.”

Viewers were asked to offer donations, rather than pay for tickets to Lucid. 

“We’re not a film company. We are a theatre company. So we had to accept the limitations of what we had in lockdown,” he said. 

“There were 12 performers in Lucid and one of the main priorities for us was that it needed to feel home-made.”

Tinderbox Theatre Company's production of Back by Popular Demand. Picture from Patrick O'Reilly

He said although many performers relished the challenges of filming on their mobiles, including occasionally having to tape their phone to a lamp, the actors missed live performances and being able to share ideas.

"Obviously what we really wanted was to be back together and performing in a room,” he said.

He added: “When you’re in a room with people you’re connecting not just through words, it’s body language, it’s presence, there are so many other signals. When you’re on your own in a room with your phone it’s a very lonely experience.”

He said the company is looking at other ways of performing, ahead of a possible second coronavirus wave.

“For me it’s very interesting how you can continue storytelling in a world where people aren’t touching and can’t be very close,” he said.

The company aims to perform two new plays next year - Back by Popular Demand, about a theatre company performing a production of Hansel and Gretel to schoolchildren, and Immaculate, a play with rock music.

“The one thing that we missed a lot in lockdown was the community,” he said.

“We’re thinking about a project called Theatre in Motion. We’re hopefully going to purchase a van and we’re going to take our work across Northern Ireland, in venues, in car parks, wherever we need to go,” he said.

Mr O’Reilly said despite the huge challenges and uncertainty, he is remaining positive.

“One thing that’s been really powerful is how resilient we are and how we’re able to adapt as people," he said. 

"Sometimes I don’t think we celebrate that enough. Often I think we often focus on what we don’t have...Theatre and art is what connects people together."

Writer and actor Clare McMahon runs theatre company Commedia of Errors with her husband Benjamin Gould. Picture by Hugh Russell

Performer and writer Clare McMahon from Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, said all the acting work she had planned for this year “was wiped out in April”.

“My show I Am Maura, written and performed by me, was due to go out in November for an all-Ireland tour and it’s just not going to happen this year," she said.

"If I’m lucky it might happen next year.”

The 32-year-old, who trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, said the arts were “not a hobby profession". 

"For every £1 I think £7 is put back into the economy here," she said.

“We’ve all missed something - whether it’s a music gig or a theatre gig - it’s hard to see fellow actors have to shelve their careers for a year."

She added: “It was a bit like grief at the start.

“Everyone was mourning for the work… Once we got through that I think the arts community here have really tried to keep creating content and reaching audiences.”

Ms McMahon, who also runs theatre company Commedia of Errors with her husband Benjamin Gould, has been working on an Arts Council-funded play about Irish radical Mary Ann McCracken during lockdown.

Her company also adapted its live theatre variety show, Plays Aloud at Home, which was streamed in several care homes via smart TVs.

“Then we did a public show, with subsidised tickets, for anyone at home,” she said. 

“That was great because we got lots of people who had either been calling in on neighbours or people who were minding family members at home watching from their living rooms, which was amazing.”

She said arts venues and groups need the same government support given to restaurants in August.

“There’s been a big push for Eat Out to Help Out. Maybe the government could do Seat Out to Help Out and contribute a tenner to every ticket,” she said.

She added: “I think there’s something so special about theatre, whether it’s a comedy or a drama or whatever you’re into. It’s strangers sitting in a room experiencing something together that disappears as soon as the lights turn off. I really hope that we’ll get back to that point but to survive we have to work a little bit differently for the next six months.”

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