With the UK government having (finally) gotten their act together and agreed to commit £1.57 billion to UK culture, the theatre industry has been able to breathe a sigh of relief. However, many students either returning to or arriving in Durham next year are curious as to how DST will be operating, particularly regarding the Assembly Rooms Theatre which closed its doors in April. While it is difficult in this time of uncertainty to plan for the future, this is exactly what the DST committee have had to do over these past weeks as they look ahead to how Durham theatre will operate in the upcoming year.
Reading the DST AGM report, it becomes clear that theatre in Durham will not look the same this October as it did last year in terms of auditions, rehearsal processes or performances. Auditions will now allow people to send in self tapes, and audition panels will have to ensure social distancing is followed inside and outside of the audition room. This makes workshop style auditions out of the question, which will be a challenge for shows which typically rely on ensembles, such as devised physical shows and musicals.
When it comes to performances, there are a range of best case to worst case scenarios for how the Assembly Rooms will operate, from performances continuing as normal with full audiences to no audiences at all with shows being streamed online. The current plan is somewhere in the middle of these extremes, with a mixture of live and streamed performances. The DST committee have decided that casts for plays put on in the Assembly Rooms will be limited to four people, to allow for social distancing on stage and in the dressing rooms backstage. Actors will have to maintain 1 metre of space between them on stage, and any form of physical contact like stage fighting or kissing is ‘out’. This will pose a challenge for theatre companies and directors in thinking of shows that can be performed socially distanced without looking strange or forced. Just imagine a version of Romeo and Juliet where our star-crossed lovers always have to remain a metre apart, and you’ll get the picture. A very awkward picture.
Audiences will also have to be socially distanced, which will lower theatre capacities and therefore the profits made by theatre companies and the Assembly Rooms. To subsidise this, there are plans to live stream shows, with online tickets being sold to those who are unable or unwilling to come to theatres. It is uncertain if these tickets will be sold for reduced rates, and they have the capacity to make things tricky in terms of distribution and rights. There are also plans to put on multiple shows in one night and open more late-night slots to maximise capacity. It is possible that other venues like Caedmon and Mark Hillary Arts Centre, which have more space both on and backstage, will be able to have larger casts. Outdoor venues and sports centres like Maiden Castle may also be possibilities, considering that the university will probably not be able to run any sports until January 2021. All these plans are to be reviewed at the end of Michaelmas term, with the DST committee hopeful than regulations may change by 2021.
With all shows limited in their cast sizes, it could be argued these new conditions will act as a leveller between larger and smaller theatre companies in Durham next year. Creativity and resilience are going to be more important than ever before, as new executive committees put their heads together coming up with new innovative ways to create theatre within these guidelines. I imagine monologue showcases and sketch comedy will become particularly popular, as these shows require fewer actors and can be performed without interaction. I suspect we will also be seeing more shows with student writing, as theatre companies will have to economise on rights considering they will likely be working at a loss. However, I have faith in the resourcefulness of the Durham drama students; whether it’s filming sketches with your household or putting on amateur shows in outdoor venues, I trust theatre will continue to find a way to flourish.
Image: from The Assembly Rooms Theatre website, photo by Samuel Kirkman