London’s theatres went into lockdown on 16 March 2020. (The date is stamped in my memory as it was the day before I was due to see Uncle Vanya.)
It was sudden, to say the least. Actors and audiences alike were given about an hour’s notice. The lockdown was also, initially, ‘advisory’ – which I believe was a way of avoiding insurance obligations. In a stroke, actors, designers, technicians and producers were rendered out of work, with no sign – for some time – of respite or financial help.
The NATIONAL THEATRE stepped in, with alacrity. For several months they streamed a play a week, free, from their archives. THE SHOWS MUST GO ON, set up by NBC Universal, did the same thing, beginning with Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals.
This was a life-saver, but there was a snag. Audiences got used to watching first-rate West End and Broadway productions for free (though donations were much needed and appreciated). The smaller theatre companies, left high and dry, could not compete.
One lesser-known touring company, THE ORIGINAL THEATRE COMPANY, is a case in point. Their production of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art was due to begin touring the UK. When the shutters closed they filmed it instead and streamed it, charging, as I remember, a ‘pay what you can’ token fee. Then, with no experience of filming they set up ORIGINAL THEATRE ONLINE and decided to mount a new version of an earlier production, Birdsong, on Zoom. As ambitions go it doesn’t get much braver than that. (See my review of it here: https://londontheatrevisits.com/2020/07/02/theatre-in-lockdown-part-two-birdsong/)
They had huge problems: with sound, synchronisation, lighting and with rights. Having set a deadline of 1 July – the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – and garnered a good deal of publicity, they had to stick to it. After a lot of experimentation they settled on actors filming themselves individually, in their homes, on their mobile phones, in full costume and makeup, in front of green screens. All this was put together by filmmaker Tristan Shephard in two weeks and resulted in a massive hit that deservedly won them five star reviews from the international press.
Since then they’ve produced three more plays written and filmed during lockdown: Watching Rosie, with Miriam Margolyes, Apollo 13 by Torben Betts and, currently, The Haunting of Alice Bowles, adapted by Philip Franks from an M R James short story.
They have also filmed a three-parter called Home Made: The Evolution of Original Theatre Online, in which the artistic director, Alistair Whatly, tells the full story of the company’s remarkable transformation.
It is the best example I have come across of remarkable innovation and sheer guts in the face of disaster.
The Haunting of Alice Bowles is streaming until 28 February, tickets £15.
The Habit of Art is also streaming until 28 February, tickets £10.
Next up is Good Grief, streaming from 15 Feb to 15 April, tickets £39.
Details of these productions and Home Made (free to watch, donations very welcome) can be found here: https://originaltheatreonline.com/productions
© January 2021