The devastating impact of lockdown on Wales’ theatres, festivals, galleries and museums

Three and a half months into lockdown, it is still an uncertain time for arts and culture within Wales.

Like most industries, the coronavirus pandemic has been devastating for the arts. Like every other part of the Welsh economy, they’ve been hit hard.

Theatres, venues and museums closed their doors in March and have been in a state of limbo ever since, and festivals due to take place across Wales have either been cancelled or seem unlikely to go ahead.

One venue we spoke to even had everything ready for their next show – the sets were built, the lights were up, and the rights for the play paid for – until the lockdown was announced and it was all halted.

However some artists have taken lockdown as an opportunity to try new approaches and innovative ways of reaching out to people, with many others determinedly riding the storm.

This is the impact lockdown has had on some of Wales’ theatres, festivals, galleries and museums.

Tin Shed Theatre Company, Newport

Tin Shed is a theatre company in Newport with a focus on outdoor performances. The people behind it think this has helped them adapt.

Lockdown had given them creative freedom, and they’ve been lucky with their ability to change the way they work and create.

But the brains behind the group know for others it’s been drastically different.

“We’ve been lucky, I know we’ve been really lucky,” said Justin Cliffe, Tin Shed’s artistic director.

“A lot of other people in the creative sector have been really damaged”

“The company doesn’t rely on a venue or being in a building, because we do so much work outdoors and do so much site-specific work.”

Justin Cliffe (middle), with Georgina Harris and Antonio Rimole of the Tin Shed Theatre Co. pictured at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013
(Image: Getty Images)

Overcoming the restrictions imposed by lockdown and reaching audiences through new means is something Justin has also become passionate about at Tin Shed and beyond.

“I’ve created work for National Theatre Wales and worked with three actors, a technician and a stage manager who I’ve never met in real life,” he said.

“We sat and we worked for two weeks and then we performed it online, and I’ve never physically met these people.”

He is also one of the brains behind innovative arts project ‘Sofa Share Wales’, alongside fellow creative Mohamad Miah, which provides a platform for artists across Wales to reach people through workshops, performances and more.

“We created that as a space to give people some hope, give people access [to arts] and give people something to do,” he said.

The Sherman Theatre, Cardiff

The much-loved Sherman Theatre in Cardiff has had to think on its feet to adapt to the situation.

“As soon as the government’s social distancing measures were announced in March, we began to think about how we could continue to do the work we do every day, the work which keeps us at the heart of our communities,” said a spokesperson for the theatre.

“We had to consider how we could continue nurturing and supporting Welsh and Wales-based artists, developing young people, connecting with our communities, and providing our audiences with memorable theatre experiences, even though our doors had to stay closed.”

Thinking about how it could carry on reaching people, Sherman Theatre developed its ‘Interval’ programme of online events, including a range of performances available to stream, one of which, Gary Owen’s ‘DAD’, stars actor Michael Sheen.

“Sherman Theatre has created a digital programme which has gained over 20,000 views and had nearly 700 engagements with young people and our communities.”

Actor Michael Sheen stars in DAD, written and donated by Gary Owen to the Sherman Theatre:

Everyman Theatre, Chapter, Cardiff

Another theatre adapting to life in lockdown is the Everyman Theatre based out of Chapter Arts in Cardiff.

“Everyman Theatre had a show which was going up in May, Blue Stockings, and I think that was pulled about a week before,” said Peter Harding-Roberts, chair of the theatre’s annual open air festival.

He explained that they had everything ready – the sets were built, the lights were up, and the rights for the play paid for.

“The plan is with that, with the sets stored and everything, ideally maybe we could do it next March.”

Amateur actors from Everyman Theatre in the RSC production of A Midsumemr Night’s Dream in Cardiff

Financially, Peter said, the theatre should be fine if everything resumes as normal next year. However, as is the case for everyone right now, there is no way of knowing where the theatre will be in the future.

The theatre is also in a similar situation with its festival, which should be running right now, the last week of June, in Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens.

“We get around 12,000-13,000 a year, by far the largest open air theatre festival in Wales, probably one of the largest in the UK. With all of the infrastructure, the whole festival costs around £200,000,” said Peter.

Despite uncertainty around costs associated with organising the festival, and whether or not contracts will be able to be postponed until this time next year, the theatre has found support in the community.

“We put out a public appeal, and to be quite honest with you I was astonished with the response,” said Peter, explaining that the they have managed to raise several thousand pounds.

“I was humbled by the response. We’ve been fortunate really, due to the generosity of others.”

Everyman Theatre’s festival isn’t the only one to be impacted by the pandemic.

Machynlleth and Aberystwyth Comedy Festivals

This year’s Aberystwyth comedy festival is due to take place in October but, as things currently stand, it is doubtful whether or not it will be able to go ahead. Machynlleth’s comedy festival, scheduled for May, has already been a casualty of the pandemic.

“The impacts of Covid-19 on the festival sector as a whole should not be underestimated,” said Henry Widdicombe, director of Little Wanderer, the organisation behind both festivals.

“An entire season of events has been lost, and in all honesty there is a big question mark over how they could safely run next year.”

The Elvis Festival

Another festival affected by the pandemic is the world-famous Porthcawl Elvis Festival, the largest festival of its kind anywhere in the world.

“The festival’s not been postponed, but you’ve got to be realistic . I’ve gone from being very confident to doubtful, I would say,” said Peter Phillips, the festival’s organiser.

The festival is held at venues across the town, the largest of which is Porthcawl’s Grand Pavilion theatre.

Unfortunately, the Pavilion, like other theatres across Wales, decided it would remain closed into the autumn. This means that the festival, originally due to take place in September, would no longer have its main venue even if it were to take place.

The annual Elvis Festival in Porthcawl. The event sees thousands of people descend on the seaside town to take part in the largest Elvis festival of its kind in Europe.
(Image: Robert Melen)

Peter explained that for the Elvis festival the situation isn’t disastrous, as they are able to go ahead with their event in Spain later this year, provided that the situation there remains stable. The worry for him is the impact the loss of this year’s festival will have on the local economy.

“Most important is the knock on effect on the Welsh economy. The Welsh Government did a report a few years ago, and it was estimated that it [the fesitival] brings in around £5 million to Porthcawl,” said Peter.

“The Welsh Government are holding back protecting any specific sector, in this case hospitality and tourism. They should be putting some financial support for them.”

Museums

Elsewhere in the cultural sector, for museums, lockdown has also come with a range of challenges.

In Newport, the pandemic has prevented the opening of the city’s famous transporter bridge to the public, “resulting in the loss of three months’ income.”

Elsewhere in the city, the picture is a little more optimistic at least. At the renowned medieval ship museum, the period has been used as a chance to take stock and plan for the future.

“Lockdown has been used as an opportunity to redevelop the displays and exhibits, as well as remodelling several sections of the interior of the building, and a number of research projects that will help with the continuing ship rebuilding process,” said a spokesperson for the museum.

On Bear Ridge, a National Theatre Wales and Royal Court Theatre co-production, which ran at the Sherman Theatre last September. Pictured are Raike Ayola as Noni, Jason Hughes as The Captain and Rhys Ifans as John Daniel.
(Image: National Theatre Wales and Royal Court’s On Bear Ridge. Image by Mark Douet.)

How does the future look for arts and culture within Wales?

Justin at Tin Shed Theatre Co says in a way that lockdown has been a bit of a “shake up” for arts within Wales.

“I think what it tells venues is that they need a stronger, more honest connection with their communities. There’s lots of things that I think could be a positive outcome from this.”

“That’s not to say that there’s not going to be a lot of damage done, and we really have to think about how we deal with that. But I think that in dealing with that, we build something new rather than rebuilding the old.”

He explained that the current situation has made him reconsider how his work can reach people in a fairer way.

“For example, as a theatre maker, I put my performances on in buildings and expect people to come to them. And there’s lots of factors in that which exclude people.”

“First of all, theatre buildings are not hugely inclusive spaces. Secondly, people have to travel so there’s a whole economic barrier, let alone the ticket price.”

Justin has found that, with Sofa Share Wales, artists are free to experiment with live streaming and digital technology, “exploring and plumbing the potential of this resource.”

Audiences at a previous Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival, organised by Everyman Theatre

Another similar example is the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who launched a series of free digital concerts to reach people living in care homes across Wales, performing pieces and soundtracks, for example Doctor Who, for people who may be feeling isolated and lonely.

Understandably, for some working within Wales’ culture and arts sector, looking to the future is incredibly worrying.

“The impacts of Covid-19 on the festival sector as a whole should not be underestimated,” said Henry Widdicombe,

“There are very few positives right now in the arts, and it looks like it’s going to get a lot worse before it has the ability to get better.”

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales launched a series of free digital concerts to people living in care homes:

For Peter at Everyman Theatre, it is hard to know what the future will look like when so much is dependent on how the coronavirus progresses over the coming months.

“If we go ahead next year we won’t have written off too much money,” he said, talking about the festival.

“If it weren’t to go ahead, and people weren’t to return to the theatre, then we will have written off around £10,000 to £15,000.”

No matter what happens for arts and culture within Wales, however, it’s clear from the support shown by people throughout lockdown that these venues and organisations are still very much on people’s minds. And, likewise, artists across the country have thought more about their relationship with audiences.

“After all this we need to be way more in tune with communities and with people and involve them in what we’re doing from the ground up,” said Justin.

“If there’s anything that’s come out of this it’s that it’s so easy to feel isolated, and so easy to feel removed from the whole.”

Article source: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/devastating-impact-lockdown-wales-theatres-18497200