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  • Bob Tomson


GODA Associate Bob Tomson takes a look at how groups in the South East have been getting creative during lockdown.

As 2020 drew to a close, theatre groups in N.O.D.A.’s South East Region were contacted to hear how they had coped with the lockdowns and what hopes, and indeed plans, they might have for 2021. It was hoped this could be a useful snap-shot of what groups throughout the U.K. have been tackling during last year and might stimulate new ideas which groups might consider in the new year.

Understandably numerous groups faced with closed venues, no paying audiences, and with many of their own members self-isolating or shielding someone in their family, they reported that they just about succeeded in keeping in regular contact with each other. Monthly phone get-togethers have been the new normal and, for those groups comfortable with I.T., A.G.M.’s, committee meetings and play readings via Zoom have proved popular.

Many groups who responded acknowledged how dispiriting the lack of real activity had been and how hard it had been to keep even the barest of contacts going, particularly if they had an elderly membership wary of the internet. Concern was raised by a number about how far the lockdowns had particularly impacted on their younger members, but how they were resolved not to let young involvement wither away. What is clear from their replies, however, was how so very many groups were fiercely determined to win through these testing times, and were highly motivated and poised for when restrictions are lifted and their inoculated audiences flock back.

For some groups who own their own theatre spaces, the periods between the various lockdown closures were an opportunity to tackle refurbishment or overdue maintenance. Hurstpierpoint Players, for example, rolled their sleeves up, dug into their cash reserves and redecorated the frontage of their venue and box office. FASATS Drama Group in Southampton deep cleaned their entire venue to make it Covid safe for the future, and Bromley Little Theatre, after filming a number of ambitious projects, joined the SOLT/UK Theatre ‘See It Safely’ scheme and gained a kite mark for staging socially distanced performances in a safe environment.

Several groups are currently rehearsing on Zoom their postponed panto presentations to be performed by Easter or later, ruefully commenting on ever shifting dates. Other groups linked up online for end-of-the-week social meet-ups or quizzes. Beckenham Theatre, who invested in a Zoom Pro Account to give them longer sessions online, even attracted past members from Spain and New Zealand for often hilarious, virtual get-togethers. What has been constantly striking in the replies is seeing how many groups, never previously needing the internet for ‘meeting up’, managed to learn how to rehearse together in a new, virtual theatre space. Even if they did have a few false starts.

For some enterprising groups the challenge of 2020 meant they could tap into their members’ dormant film skills, with some pantos being filmed and then made available on Zoom to their loyal audiences. Upchurch Players not only accomplished this but built up to their online panto with a daily ‘Advent Calendar’ trailer on Facebook - their members sourcing their own costumes and video backgrounds. Both Cobham Players and Hartley Arts Group seized upon recording radio plays, and found them easier to organize with social distancing, and after some editing made them available to listen to at any time. Interestingly, Kent Drama Association’s Radio Play Festival has attracted 18 local groups and it will be fascinating to see how well they do in the Zoom ceremony to be held in May.

Alton Operatic and Dramatic Society not only found suitable plays for their members to enjoy performing online, but also reached out to local playwrights offering them invaluable online read-throughs. Several groups kept active by encouraging their members isolated at home to perform and record monologues which were then posted on their websites. Shooters Hill Players kept them selves busy by accepting their local radio’s request to create a weekly three minute play, while Alternate Shadows in the Medway towns filmed a highly ambitious series of themed Dickens two handers – complete with period costumes and authentic locations.

While many drama societies were frustrated by the ever-shifting restrictions last year and discovered that even the very limited ‘rule of six’ was withdrawn, what has been striking is learning how resilient and imaginative have been their reaction. The summer months saw several enterprising and first time attempted open-air productions. Similarly, a considerable number of groups, obliged to resorting to Zoom sessions and recording their performances without any audience, discovered it gave their members an unexpected opportunity to flex their otherwise dormant film muscles. While every respondent mourned the lack of live events, several hoped that in future years filming their productions might offer a parallel strand to their output – especially for groups having tech-savvy youth wings.

All of the theatre groups mentioned above have examples of their 2020 accomplishments on their websites and might be able to describe how they have kept impressively active in the circumstances which hit us all so heavily last year. If drama societies are looking for fresh inspiration, making contact with your colleague groups might reveal some new performance models that might be worth a try in the coming year. What’s a good motto for our community of amateur theatre societies in 2021 apart from the ubiquitous ‘The Show Must Go On’? How about – “If In Doubt, Reach Out”.

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