Theatre Finds a Way

Performer Playwright Tom Hartwell shares his experience of working in live theatre with the current COVID restrictions.

By Tom Hartwell

Whilst our industry is one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, we’re fortunate that it’s populated overwhelmingly by people who are providing ingenious ways to make theatre happen

I’m sat in a tent, having written it into the script three years prior without conceiving of a pandemic world where audiences would be admitted into the auditorium 30 minutes earlier than we’re used to. 30 minutes sat uncomfortably and without moving so not to give the surprise away, my anxious breath causing condensation as I run through the opening lines in my head. Guzzling gallons of water and then abruptly stopping when it dawns on me how difficult scheduling a wee break during a one-person show will be.

I'm rusty, out of practice, but then suddenly all of that fear melts away. I'm on stage, about to perform in a show. One of the lucky few, proving that theatre can still happen regardless of restrictions. The music cue plays, I unzip the tent, my left leg has fallen asleep whilst crouching, I limp onto my mark and for the next 60 minutes, the audience and I collectively forgot that 2020 was even a thing.

I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to perform at two different venues during August, firstly at The Sterts Theatre, a beautiful open-air venue in Cornwall. Secondly at The Waterloo East Theatre who had ingeniously moved their stage outside into a neighbouring nursery playground.

Here are some things I’ve taken away from my recent experience that I want to share in the hope that it makes the prospect of performing in a pandemic more appealing. 

1. Was there an audience?

Audiences have missed live performance just as much as we have. Each venue will have its own limitations, but typically most spaces are operating at half capacity, so bear that in mind when deciding how many shows you want to programme and the number of tickets you’ll realistically be able to sell.

It’s also worth bearing in mind the demographics your piece is hoping to reach. For example, it’s currently easier to bring in a crowd of young adults, whereas it might be trickier to sell to older groups who may not feel confident about returning to larger public gatherings.

Performing to an audience in masks is surreal, and at times difficult to gauge if people are enjoying themselves, I could tell a few individuals were attempting to positively squint to show their appreciation.

2. Did you or anyone have to self-isolate beforehand?

Unlike film production that requires a huge team of various professionals to self-isolate and work in ‘pods’ before gathering together, theatre is much easier to run on a skeleton crew. The smaller the better and one-person shows are obviously the most desirable but it’s still important in the lead-up and during a run that actors limit their contact with the outside world. However, you’ll be two metres from a masked audience at all times, so as long as the basic protocols are followed there’s no need for anyone to isolate.     

3. How were the spaces COVID secure?

Each venue works slightly differently but as standard, you’ll see the usual suspects for creatives and audience alike: hand sanitiser, temperature checks, track and trace, two-metre distancing. Additionally, there’s no bar or box office - the latter is worth reminding people of should you get any walk-ups.

Dressing room rules will vary on how the venue is set up but shared space for costume changes and make-up will typically be very restricted. The more you can do before turning up to the theatre, the better. Also, it may be worth going through the script and finding practical ways of simplifying costume and set changes if dressing room rules are particularly restrictive.

4. What are the challenges of adapting to an outdoor space?

I imagine this won’t apply to a lot of upcoming shows as we head into winter but it’s worth noting should restrictions still apply as things start to warm up again. Sound is a huge factor, be it from outside sources such as traffic or pubs or challenging acoustics. Check with the venue beforehand if they have any microphones/speakers that may assist you if the outside world starts to bleed in.

Lighting options can also be limited. We all love a dramatic blackout, but it’s not as effective when you’re illuminated in twilight.

Be ready for anything, squirrels running on stage five minutes before the show starts may not have been something to look out for in the past, but this being theatre in 2020, be prepared!

5. Will I make money?

Even before the pandemic, this would have been a frequently asked question to anyone hoping to make their own work, and the answer remains pretty much unchanged. It’s worth noting that a lot of venues are now in that same bracket of uncertainty, so bear that in mind when negotiating a box office split or guarantee.

Whilst our industry is certainly one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, we’re fortunate that it’s populated overwhelmingly by people who are providing ingenious ways to make theatre happen, whatever the weather. If we have to go back to storytelling around campfires so be it, it was viable five million years ago, and it’s viable now.

Tom Hartwell has been working as a professional actor and playwright for the past five years. His work has been performed across London's Fringe and Off-West End as well as The Edinburgh Fringe and New York. Tom also hosts The London Theatre Podcast. 

Headshot by Headshot Toby

Main image by Larissa Pinkham Photography