Bringing a show to stage in the Pandemic

Southwick Players – 17th February 2021

Bringing a show to stage in the Pandemic

By Gary Cook, President of Southwick Players

Back in March 2020 BP (Before Pandemic), the Southwick Players had just completed a very successful run of “The Elephant Man” and there were vague rumbles in the media of some kind of virus being found in the UK… The Players were looking forward to a great season, little knowing that a few days after the show closed, the UK would be plunged into lockdown.

As the Committee began to meet via the internet, we, like almost everyone, looked at the practical requirements and physical demands on cast members of upcoming shows in the light of Covid. Much of this discussion was speculative, of course, as the Barn Theatre (Southwick, our home stage) was closed, and we were unable to access anywhere to rehearse. Everything came to a halt apart from monthly Committee meetings, the publication of our newsletter, online play readings (still running successfully at the time of writing), and online quizzes.

In terms of the season, we soon realised that the next show due onstage (“Naked Truth”) needed substantial rehearsal time and also that the show involved a lot of “close contact” by the cast. Although the show had been cast and some elements of the set were in the process of being assembled by the workshop team, the sad decision was made to defer the show to 2021, and soon after, in spite of the partial summer relaxation in lockdown, it was decided to move “The House They Grew Up In” (our Autumn show) into 2021, and to move our Pantomime “The Sleeping Beauty” into 2022 (the panto slot being bi-annual).

In spite of this halt in productions, the partial lifting in the Summer did give an opportunity for the workshop team to clear away the remnants of the “Elephant Man” set – months after the get-out – and to have a good tidy in the workshop.

At this time, we were re-jigging the 2021 Season, and it was decided to move our production of “Hedda Gabler” (which I am directing) to become the first show (April) of 2021. As I had spent a good deal of time planning the show, I was able to present the set ideas and a rough maquette to the workshop team during the lifted restrictions. They grasped the nettle and very quickly assembled the “bare bones” of the set before, predictably, we were once more locked down…

In the meantime, still hopeful for an April easing, I went ahead and cast the show, using a combination of self-tapes and online auditioning. I was incredibly lucky to assemble an amazing and committed cast – and Hedda was on course for April!

With a read-through in December, we began rehearsing online (using Zoom) in January. I had no real idea how this would work out, and was fearful that we would be able to do little more than read-throughs. However, my doubts about the process were unfounded. After a couple of rehearsals, it became clear that with a committed (and talented) cast, work-throughs could be found. We read through each section, French-scening the text and noting down points of action, visual ideas, and very roughly blocking the show, using a scale plan of the set. Running each act through a second time without interruption enabled us to pick at the characterisations vocally, and then something magic happened – on subsequent runs, the actors (where practical) moved their cameras far back, so that they could see each other standing up, as it were. Still on-book, they could see the notes they had taken, and were able to show movement, reaction and understanding of this cyber-blocking.

Of course, we will need to stand the show up with everyone in the same room sooner rather than later! This was obviously time-critical as the show had to go up in April. Ha ha!

The introduction of the January lockdown meant that realistically all we could do for the time being was to work over Zoom. Looking at the timespan to sort costumes, finish the set, source props, etc. as well as starting proper rehearsals, it was looking ridiculously optimistic to aim for April. The Committee were also mindful of the “return to theatre” – will that be, as seems to be the Government policy at the moment, one of the last things to re-open? Would the public want to buy tickets as soon as restrictions lift? So many questions – eventually resolved in the decision to move Hedda to September and leave only the December slot open for 2021 (so that we would have 2 shows in 2021) – with the rest of the programme bumped over to 2022.

The rescheduling bought its own problems. One key member of the cast was unable to make the September slot, and so sadly had to be replaced. Happily, his replacement is excellent, and the cast remain solid. Online rehearsals continue, and are offering a welcome fun distraction from the lockdown blues for us all. Currently, we are awaiting any and all announcements that could allow us to progress into in-person rehearsals. We are looking at moving the rehearsals either indoors or into an open-air setting (restrictions and weather permitting) as soon as possible.

What happens next in this saga is anyone’s guess, but my determination to bring Theatre back for the Players, The Barn and our audiences remains undimmed. I am determined that this version of Hedda will be a brilliant show.

Tickets will be on sale soon, from both the Players and Barn Southwick Website.

Put it in your diary and come along! September 15th to 18th (probably).

Gary Cook, President of Southwick Players