Regional Theatre at Risk: Lock Down at Sheringham Little Theatre
As we begin working with Sheringham Little Theatre across a number of projects, Theatre Director Debbie Thompson shares her experience of leading one of North Norfolk’s most-loved venues through lock down, explaining why regional theatre is now more important than ever.
Being Little is helpful sometimes. We can be agile and flexible and, definitely, that is what we have had to have been during this challenging time! The Little Theatre was devastated when the pandemic forced us to close in March. We were just about to open our Easter youth musical, Guys and Dolls, and had just had 30,000 brochures printed to promote our 2020 60th Anniversary Summer Season!
We allowed ourselves a short time to have dramatics; shouting, crying and screaming and then, in true theatrical style, we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and started all over again. We quickly contacted all the artists and customers and got everything postponed. Then during lock down, we turned all our attention to online activity. Now this was fun! We hadn’t been doing much online before the crisis and suddenly we were discovering new audiences and new ways of engaging with our community. We ran creative challenges and worked with Single Shoe Theatre Company to produce an online project. We even ran a virtual summer season!
Our Patron Lord Walpole offered to help and in July, we staged an outdoor concert with The London Mozart Players at his Mannington Estate. This sold out in two days and was incredibly moving – the first time we had held a live event in 5 months. Hearing the beautiful music interspersed with young people telling their experiences of lock down was totally fitting for the first event to share with an audience.
Then very slowly in August, we were allowed to start opening again… Firstly, the Hub café – it was great to be able to welcome our loyal patrons back and serve them our homemade cakes. We normally could seat 60 customers and would be full up all day. Now only 27 people are allowed in at one sitting and sadly we have had to curb the chatting as there is a waiting list for tables. Next we were allowed to show films, but with a reduced capacity from 160 to 48. This isn’t really commercially viable, however we feel it is vital that we continue to offer a service to the community and carry on!
While being Little is a blessing, so too is being in the heart of the community. As a local community theatre, it is vital that we survive. It is small regional theatres who offer a much needed training ground and inspiration starting block for young people. Young people who then go on to have thriving careers in the arts. In this way the whole industry grows. We are so fortunate to have been able to build our community links over many years, whether this be with our volunteers, our youth groups or our local amateur companies. It means that we have local people who are willing to support us and help us in our hour of need. But we can also be there for them and help them through this crisis. This weekend would have been the 1940’s weekend in Sheringham which our older audience members love. While they are still shielding and nervous of venturing out, we are taking our 1940’s singalong to Zoom, and supporting them with engaging online, combating their fears and helping to alleviate the sense of isolation.
We were fortunate enough to receive emergency funding from the Arts Council and we have applied for the recovery fund too – we are waiting to hear with all our fingers and toes crossed!
Meantime, the show must go on and not being able to operate commercially has offered opportunities for us to try different things and given us the freedom to re-think our normal patterns of programming. So in October, we present my favourite one act play, Blink, by Phil Porter. It is so exciting to bring more experimental works like these without the pressure of having to sell 160 seats (we usually also rely on an interval to help with income and are nervous of new writing which can be hard to sell).
We are also embarking on an outreach project called Rewriting Rural Racism which has been devised by a group of young people who grew up at The Little Theatre, came home for lock down and spent the time responding to Black Lives Matter with this project idea. In normal times, we would have struggled to find the time to support the amount of planning required for such a project.
So, it’s challenging times, but it’s also inspiring times and while we grow and flex, we are so grateful to have Norfolk & Norwich Festival supporting our marketing. I’m sure we will benefit hugely from their experience and knowledge – it is all happening at the right time and we are very excited!
Sheringham Little Theatre are currently hosting a range of films and talks in their newly Covid-safe auditorium, and are offering several digital experiences including a recording of their recent Mannington Hall concert with London Mozart Players and Orchestras Live.