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Diary of a theatre under lockdown: 'we're on our third version of worst-case scenario' | Stage


Week one: ‘On press night, I give the option for the audience to leave our new musical’

We weren’t expecting Boris Johnson’s statement when it came and we never thought our press night for The Wicker Husband would be at risk. By the time of the announcement, on 16 March, most of the audience had arrived. We had a management meeting and decided to close the theatre the following day but to push on that night – I went on stage and explained the situation, giving the audience the option to leave the musical, which had been seven years in the making.

By the following day we were in full-on crisis management mode. We suspended rehearsals for the all-female Hamlet scheduled to open in mid-April. On Thursday we announced that we would suspend all performances for three months. This is unprecedented and it led to emergency budget and board meetings so we could review what to do in the short term with forthcoming shows Goodbye Mister Tom, Hamlet, Camp Albion and Our Man in Havana.

There has been an amazing display of creativity in thinking how we might be of help in this crisis and we have already started doing deliveries for people in the local community who can’t go shopping as our catering team has access to wholesalers’ supplies. But it’s tough all the same; as an artistic director it is in your DNA to keep the venue open. The whole industry works on the basis that “the show must go on” and although it’s unavoidable, it feels like you’ve failed on some level.





Yazdan Qafouri and Laura Johnson in The Wicker Husband at the Watermill. Its press night came on the same day as Boris Johnson’s announcement to avoid theatres.



Yazdan Qafouri and Laura Johnson in The Wicker Husband at the Watermill. Its press night came on the same day as Boris Johnson’s announcement to avoid theatres. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Week two: ‘We ring everyone to tell them about the cancellations’

The focus now is on closing down the building and sending staff home. As of Friday, the site is pretty much abandoned. The only people left are my family and me (we live onsite) as well as the general manager in another house with two actors who do not have homes to go to right now.

The second most important thing is for the box office to ring everyone to tell them about the cancellations. Emails have already gone out but we want to make sure we speak to everyone because we’ve always had a personal relationship with our customers. We’re offering refunds but pushing for credits or donations and we have been absolutely staggered by the generosity. One group alone donated £400 in ticket purchases.

I am most keen to protect our staff and keep some structure in place, especially now that we know it is looking longer than three months. All of this has put the focus on thinking more digitally but not sacrificing the quality of what we put out. We produce 12 shows a year with a very small team so we are constantly moving from one show to the next and have very little time to create additional digital resources. We’re now suddenly in a position of moving all our work online.





Paul Hart.



‘I am most keen to protect our staff’ … Paul Hart. Photograph: Philip Tull

Week three: ‘Seeing the drop in cashflow is horrifying

We are having a lot of conversations with unions, the Arts Council and other theatres, which makes us feel supported. But the other thing we are having to do is furlough 75% of our workforce. We’ve spent the majority of the week phoning staff to break the news. Once they are gone, there will be only 12 people – including me – to keep things going. I’m aware that there are theatres in worse situations – we are 14% funded by the Arts Council and we’ve had a few commercial hits in recent years such as Calamity Jane, Crazy for You and The Wipers Times, which give us some breathing space – but I sometimes feel uncertainty about how we will bounce back from this.

I spent a lot of time with the finance director and seeing the drop in cashflow on paper was horrifying. All income streams have been decimated. Obviously I knew that already but to see it in black and white was brutal.

What’s been overwhelming is the positive ideas generated by the theatre’s selfless team. There hasn’t been a single complaint despite the huge weight placed on their shoulders. It’s a reminder of what makes this place so special.

Week four: ‘We shut the gate to prevent lockdown picnics’

We had a production meeting to talk about the timeframe for reopening and it was a good guessing game. We have to consider how quickly we can turn things around when theatres reopen: because we’re fairly small, we could do it in two weeks if we needed to.

The site itself is looking absolutely beautiful but we have had to shut the gate because quite a few people were coming in for picnics which is crazy given the terms of the lockdown.

The theatre’s outreach team has been putting together a programme with drama therapy videos and puppetry workshops. We’ve done some mailing to ask for donations and had an incredibly moving response; people have even put cheques under my door! Another piece of positive news is that one of our costume team, Ros Kison, has been making scrubs for the NHS.





Ros Kison making scrubs at the Watermill.



Ros Kison making scrubs at the Watermill. Photograph: Kezia Buckland

Week five: ‘Our all-female Hamlet should have opened this week’

I keep thinking that we would have been opening Hamlet this week. My job here is both as artistic and executive director but I have been only in executive mode for the past few weeks. Remembering that I would have been co-directing this show makes me desperate to get back into the rehearsal room.

This is the first week when the majority of staff have been furloughed so there’s a restructuring of the organisation. Some who remain might have to take on the work of four people. Those who are furloughed are bored and those left are overworked. People who work in theatre are so used to working non-stop, it’s strange for some to be told “don’t do anything!” We work in this industry for the passion and not the money.

One of the shining beacons of light this week is that we’ve had a lot of freelancers saying, “Is there anything we can do?” I’ve found this really moving. Freelancers are in a very uncertain place for the next few months; I can’t tell you how much it’s meant to have that support from people.





‘We have a responsibility to our audiences’ … the Watermill’s grounds.



‘We have a responsibility to our audiences’ … the Watermill’s grounds. Photograph: Jim Creighton

Week six: ‘We need a plan for not opening until 2021’

Yesterday Chris Whitty suggested that social distancing could go on for the rest of the year so I’m on my third version of the worst-case scenario.

We have now been thinking about how to get audiences back if we need to maintain social distance. Our calling card is our amazing grounds and there have been ideas around putting on a show outside or where people watch from inside their cars. We’re also looking at what it would mean to sit two metres apart inside the theatre.

We had to ask the whole team to take a 20% pay cut and we need a plan for not opening until 2021 – but the consequences of that could be devastating. We might run out of money or have to mothball the organisation for period of time.

One good thing happened this week: someone drafted into the local paramedics unit got in touch with us. He had nowhere to stay and he asked if he could stay in our actors’ cottage. We gave him a room for free.

Week seven: ‘I am thinking ambitiously about going forward’

I have begun to think about things creatively and ask myself “will we need to rethink our programme?” We’ll certainly have to consider productions with smaller casts and cheaper production values. And how do we rethink things without losing our identity? Rather than playing it safe, I want to work differently but keep our sense of “event theatre”.

I’m thinking ambitiously about going forward. I don’t know how the Watermill will bounce back but I have no doubt that we will. As bleak as things look at the moment, I believe that quite strongly. We have a responsibility to our audiences.

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