2 January 2020

THE SHOW MUST GO ON!

I am sitting in my living room writing this article whilst I should be performing our final performance of Cinderella. Sadly, due to Warwickshire moving into Tier 4 we are unable to continue. The cancellation of the production has been difficult to accept mainly due to the number of trials and tribulations we had already encountered and overcome. But looking back over the tour I can only look about with pride and amazement that we overcame so much.

2020: The season that never was

The beginning of 2020 started out positively with rehearsals for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Macbeth due to open in April. When the pandemic struck we were forced to close and had to explore alternative ways of paying our overheads; local government funding, ‘Go Fund Me’ pages and putting on zoom online acting classes. In the summer we toured an outdoor production of The Wind in the Willows which was a big success, was well attended and financially sustained us until Christmas.

Could Cinderella save Christmas?

From September to November we needed to plan for a seasonal production to help raise funds to keep us going until April when hopefully we can reopen again after a long 12 months of closure.

We were due to perform Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in December had we have been in The Attic Theatre, but due to the amount of cast and technical requirements it just wouldn’t be possible to perform it in an outdoor setting, so we quickly decided on Cinderella. To be honest when we first broached the idea of an outdoor pantomime a lot of people within the industry were sceptical that such an event would work.  The script was written by Ben Humphrey who is the former Artistic Director of Worcester Repertory Theatre and ‘Whats On Worcestershire’s funniest Dame. He very kindly offered to write the script for free in order to help with the outgoings of the production. The script was full of topical jokes, dad humour and magic to delight everyone and was the perfect length.

Assembling a team for any show is never easy but Catherine and I were determined to use creatives who were local and had been adversely effected by the closing of the arts industry. This proved difficult due to the uncertainty of whether the show could actually happen. We offered roles to actors who sadly had to turn them down; with the collapse of the theatre industry performers have had to take jobs in other sectors and were worried about their financial security should the pantomime be cancelled.

The first person we got on board was our musical director Elliott Wallis. Elliott was a well-known face in Stratford for a number of years working at the Fourteas, the now demolished Picturehouse Cinema, running his own company ‘SE Theatre’ and working with me as an Assistant and Musical Director. When the pandemic struck Elliott was forced to return to home to Northumberland. As soon as we told him we were preparing a pantomime he began working on the musical score and original work.

We managed to assemble a fantastic cast of actors to work with. Matilda Bott would play the title role. We have worked with Matilda many times and she will be a familiar face to those around town as Matilda had been working at the RSC as a front of house assistant and tour guide until the RSC were forced to close their doors. The Ugly sisters were perhaps the biggest challenge. Pete Meredith who is our current in-house dame for pantomime was cast but we needed an actor to compliment him. Usually I play Dame but I knew the onstage look of Pete and myself would not work so I contacted Robert Moore, another familiar face around town from the RSC who agreed to perform in his first pantomime and first Dame. Completing the cast was myself as Buttons, Charis McRoberts a local Northern-Irish actor to play the Fairy Godmother and finally Joe Deverell-Smith who is from Stratford and has been in many shows for us and also a front of house assistant at the RSC.

With the creative team assembled we then began assembling the other elements of the production such as staging, lights and costumes.

For the past five years I have worked closely with Worcester Repertory Theatre and seeing us in need the company agreed to help us with some props for the show and the majority of the costumes used in the show are designed by their wonderful Head of Costume, Hannah Marshall.

 

One of the trickiest elements of the production was sourcing a stage. Financially trying to find lighting, radio mics and a stage within a very tight budget was incredibly challenging. In the end I sent several dozen emails to local staging companies to see what was available and received a promising reply from The Stage Bus, a company based in Weoley Castle in Birmingham. They invited me to view a new stage that would suit our needs. The company is run by Andrew Teverson who created a stage called The Stage Box. A former shipping container that had been converted to a stage, with fully working lighting rig, high specification sound equipment, radio mics and tech support from his team. On top of this the stage was solar powered. The company had lost their entire years worth of work and when I highlighted our plans for Christmas they were excited to get involved. Booking this company was one of the most sound investments we have ever made (more about them later).

Cinderella was ready, but where could she go?

One area that was an ongoing concern was which venues would be able to put on the production. Several venues had expressed interest but with the worry of cancellation and tougher measures from the government, many were reluctant to book. Again we wanted to work with local companies and were lucky to work with the fantastic family-run Wethele Manor near Leamington for the first leg of our tour. Our next venue was a hotel in the centre of Stratford but the company dropped out at the last minute so we owe a huge thanks to Bill Bruce of Moss Cottage, who got us in touch with IIona at Stratford Racecourse who agreed to be our second venue for Christmas week. We then ecured Tiddington Home Guard Club working with the fantastic Jackie Proctor, who couldn’t do enough for us and has done so much for the people of Tiddington. We would then finish our tour at our very first venue from the summer, Binton Social Club. We were also lucky to be invited back to Ettington Park Hotel to perform two shows.

With all the particulars sorted we jumped into our rehearsals. At the beginning of this process our MD and Prince Charming were in different parts of the country so our initial read through and sing through was done on zoom. It was an incredibly productive rehearsal and we all came away hopeful of getting the show on. This quiet excitement quickly turned to worry as the government announced a two-week lockdown leading into December. At this announcement all parties from venues to staging became worried about the possible cancellation of the project before we had set foot in a rehearsal room.

Cinderella - reheasals 1.jpg
Cinderella - reheasals 4.jpg

As we were meeting for work the guidance allowed us to rehearse and we prayed for the stars to align so we could get the show on the road. These rehearsals were handled very sensitively. Only those called on that day would attend – the others would join on zoom if required. All rehearsals were performed outside (anyone wandering around Stratford near Cox’s Yard no doubt would have seen little parts of rehearsal) and social distancing observed at all times.

As the lockdown neared its end as did our rehearsal process the anxiety amongst the company as to what Boris Johnson would announce was clear. On hearing we would be heading into Tier 3 our initial feeling was that we would be unable to continue with the production. However on reading the guidance alongside holding conversations with our local MP and councillors we were given the green light to continue as long as we followed the guidance

The final preparations

So on the Thursday before we opened we travelled to The Stage Bus HQ to begin our tech and dress rehearsal. Due to logistical problems this was only the 2nd rehearsal Joe (Prince Charming) had had with us and what a baptism of fire-walking into the tech!

Stage Bus HQ is located in a yard where learner lorry drivers go to pass their tests. The entertainment value of watching lorry after lorry drive past us with bemused drivers as we danced to I’m a Believer complete with dame ugly sisters was a memory that will stay with us for a long time. It was also Elliott’s first time playing outside in the elements and it certainly made him realise he would need gloves, a hot water bottles and copious amounts of hot tea!

The dress run went without incident – in fact it went smoothy thanks to the can-do attitude of the cast and the professionalism of The Stage Bus team.

Opening night

Then the big day came Saturday 12th December our opening day – a day 4 weeks previously we weren’t sure we would ever come to. We had three shows that day – a nice early 11am performance to ease us in. We were anxious, excited, thrilled and scared all at the same time. The Stage Bus arrived and the cast and team of Wethele Manor looked on as the bus unfolded to reveal the amazing stage held within. Audience started to arrive and it suddenly dawned on us that we had managed to get a pantomime on stage.

The moment when Elliott began playing the overture and the excited voices, cheers and laughter began which grew to an amazing crescendo when our Fairy Godmother appeared on stage was so thrilling.

We ran at Wethele from 12th-20th December and all in all it was relatively issue free. Audiences loved the show. Wethele alone sold 1000 tickets to people over the course of the run. Many people questioned whether performing three shows a day was a good idea. But in order to get that many people to watch the show, safely and comply with government guidance It was vital we performed to far smaller audiences than the venues could hold.

 

Our first unfortunate experience was mid-way through the run at Wethele when the manor received a phone call from the local inspector informing them that a complaint about an event at the venue had been raised. This upset both us and the venue as such care and attention had been given to ensure that the event was safe and every precaution had been taken. Once the inspector had seen the paperwork and heard first-hand the lengths both ourselves and the venue had gone to ensure its safety, we were once again given the green light to continue – much to the relief of the cast and crew.

 

We were kindly allowed into the barn to look at the donkeys who were there as part of a nativity scene. Our stewards Kevin and Denise (Catherine’s parents) went to the tuck shop to get the cast soups only for Denise to return, miss her footing on the stairs and fall down 3-4 steps spilling hot butternut squash soup everywhere. Luckily she was not seriously hurt but the Prince realised half way through the show that he had butternut squash on his boots – that was the worse luck we had at the venue until our final weekend.

We had been due to perform at Ettington Park Hotel on the evening of the Saturday night. However, due to the Tier 3 restrictions, with London being sent into Tier 4 all their bookings disappeared and with so much uncertainty surrounding what might happen, we mutually agreed to cancel the evening show plus our boxing day evening performance. Luckily for us Wethele agreed to host an extra evening on the Saturday.

 

Wethele became a second home for us all. We were made to feel so welcome with complimentary food and drink, a lovely warm changing room and friendly staff. When the day came for our final performance we were sad to leave. I also felt the need to press on the cast that we had been treated like royalty at Wethele and that our other venues would not be as luxurious.

 

Disastor strikes - will the Ball be cancelled?

We got a call on Sunday morning from a local caterer who Catherine had sourced to provide food and drink at the racecourse from Monday. He contacted us on Sunday morning and told us that due to London being moved into Tier 4 and looking at the lack of advanced sales for the racecourse he would not be offering the catering. Coupled with that we legally were obligated to have toilets on site at the racecourse and our original portaloo company pulled out on us that morning as well. Whilst we were performing our final round of shows Catherine was frantically contacting other companies to see if we would be able to obtain an emergency toilet replacement, but no luck.

Being resident at Cox’s Yard we wondered if we could transfer the show to the Yard – with quite humble ticket sales at this point it would have been possible to do. We ran a reconnaissance trop after the final performance at Wethele and we all agreed we would be able to move it to the yard, where audiences would have access to toilets and were in walking distance of hot drinks.

We bid Wethele a fond farewell and went to bed hoping that that the morning would bring good news.

 

I had an uneasy feeling about things, so Catherine rang the local police to ensure that we were still complying with guidance. We were rather abruptly informed that our event was considered a ‘social gathering’ and that if we continued with the event the police would shut us down plus issue us with a £10,000 fine. This of course went against everything we had been told previously by the local councils. Catherine tried to explain and was told an inspector would return her call.

 

I freely admit that I suffer with anxiety at times and when this happened my anxiety went into overdrive. I couldn’t believe that all our hard work was about to be undone. The call-back was the operator (not inspector) and it appeared that due to what had happened in London with Tier 4 the police were now going to close down any event, even if it was a small event such as ours which previously had been cleared to proceed; they believed it to be a ’social gathering’ despite protests otherwise explaining it’s professional capacity but the operator abruptly ended the call. A later follow-up call made by Catherine led to different operator asking us what the legislation meant as we explained that our research led us to believe DCMS had given the go-ahead for drive-in pantomimes and once we had additional confirmation of this, we were asked to phone back the police to help them with any future enquiries. We now had two options-cancel the show or turn the pantomime into a drive-in experience. In everyone’s minds there was one clear choice and we altered our plans to revert back to the racecourse and become a drive-in pantomime. Thanks to the Stratford Forum on Facebook we managed to find Tom, a local farmer who had a portaloo that we could have for the time period too. It was stressful particularly as all the cast and crew contacted members of the audience to inform them of the changes to the show whilst setting-up and warming up. The vast majority took the change very well and understood our dilemma – sadly there were some audience members who accused us of false advertising and defrauding the public – these people were, as I say in the minority, and they had situation fully explained and refunds given.

 

So at 5.30pm our toilet arrived and at 6.30pm we went on to our very first drive in pantomime. We were all so nervous not knowing what would happen and how the show would be received and how you could interact without hearing or properly seeing people. We needn’t have worried! The drive in event was a huge success with honking of horns and flashing lights were used to communicate the audiences enjoyment of the show. Even when I asked the audience which direction Cinderella went I was greeted by 20 cars all using their indicators to show me which way she went! It was an amazing experience and listening to the audience at the curtain call with cheers and beeps (I wont lie) made several of the cast feel very emotional. What a 24 hours we had had – from thinking we had lost everything to be greeted by such a positive and warm response was euphoric.

The racecourse sales suddenly shot up, we were selling a large amount of tickets and actually having to turn people away due to sell out after sell out, helped of course by the 5 star reviews that started to come in from local papers and blogging and what’s on sites. The local residents even promoted listening to the show in their gardens, particularly praising the singing and diction.

We had been very lucky with the weather up to this point. We had only one day of really bad rain on the 23rd December but we battled through much to the appreciation of our audiences. Mark, our technician informed me as we left that there was a flood alert over-night but it wasn’t a warning so we should be fine. Also, the local residents were positive that being so far from the river we wouldn’t be affected. We left the racecourse in high-spirits excited to return on Christmas Eve – which both myself and Elliott had voiced was our favourite day of shows to do as such a festive feel was present from audiences.

Water, water everywhere: Local heroes to the rescue!

What followed next you could not even make up! I woke around 7am to glorious sunshine and was excited to make it down to the racecourse. I had asked the cast to arrive a bit earlier than our normal 9.30 call time and bring yard brushes in case we needed to sweep some water away. I arrived first at 8.50 and I could not believe my eyes! The entire performance area was submerged. Luckily the stage is on hydraulic legs so was safe from the water, but nothing else could be seen. As the cast arrived the enormity of the situation hit home. The entire area was submerged and even the toilet, which we had desperately managed to sore lay under several inches of water! Speaking to a local resident they informed me they had not seen a flood this bad at the racecourse for 10 years!

Our first show was at 11am and it is now 9am and audience arrive at 10.30am. I quickly got on the phone and called Gill Cleeve who asked me to leave it with her. She managed to speak to Kate Rolfe who contacted the district council who kindly allowed us to relocate to the park and ride on the outskirts of the town. So the van was packed with our props and costumes, but we had a problem – the stage! Andrew had luckily arrived in his lorry as he was due to move the stage to our next venue at the end of the day. He managed to retrieve the stage and load it on the lorry and we headed off to the park and ride.

 

We left Kevin and Denise at the entrance to the Racecourse to inform all our ticket holders that we have had to relocate and to give them the new venue. We arrived at the park and ride at 10.00am. Brilliant we can set up! Not quite! The park and ride car park has height restricting barriers too low for the stage van they would need to be opened! The security guard initially wouldn’t open them without authorisation so we had to wait anxiously at the door for 10 minutes until he got the go ahead to let us in.

 

Once the stage had been put in place and opened and tents assembled it is now 10.45am – we are due to start in 15 minutes, audience are arriving and we realise we are missing something! The two set of stairs we need to get onto the stage. The van is now in position and it is too late to go back with it. So both myself and Robert jumped in our smaller van and set off back to the racecourse – passing several families on route to the show. We pulled back into the racecourse and it became painfully obvious there was only one way to retrieve the steps and that was to go in ourselves. So going in near knee deep into the freezing cold water we opened the van doors and started to retrieve the stairs. Using allen-keys below the water line and treading on the rocks of the hard standing plus the freezing conditions certainly woke us up. We left with the stairs and freezing cold feet but made it back to the racecourse for 11.05am. In our absence audiences had continue to arrive and had been well parked by the guest stewards Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother!

 

Just as we were about to start, the stage lost power and Andrew had to run it off the power of the van until a replacement generator arrived to fill the power cells which had emptied. Elliott began the show at 11.20am! It was totally unbelievable. The audiences couldn’t have been nicer – if anything they were more responsive than ever before. One audience member even offered the cast some (Covid-safety-compliant) coffee – only after drinking it did we realise it was Baileys Coffee!!

 

Temperatures dropped throughout the day and our final show of Christmas Eve was performed in -1 temperatures! The shows were a huge success. We wanted to be elated but after the emotional roller coaster that we had gone on in all honesty we all wanted to go home and warm up and enjoy our Christmas Day. It was a phenomenal day and if anyone had told me when I awoke that morning that we would have gone through all of those things plus performing three shows I would never have believed you. To be honest on that day performing the shows felt like down time! I cannot thank Gill Cleeve, Kate Rolfe and the District Council enough for showing such amazing Christmas spirit and real sense of community!

We finally finished our Stratford Racecourse/Park and Ride run and we headed off for hopefully a far less eventful run at The Home Guard Club in Tiddington.

Jackie Proctor who runs the club deserves a huge amount of credit for the work she does for the local community and Jackie made us so welcome and couldn’t do enough to assist us. Tiddington ticket sales suddenly exploded and the show became the talk of town on social media – even trending on Facebook for a time.

 

The cast enjoyed kicking a football around in between shows and visiting the local Spar for coffee. Rumours started to circulate than Boris Johnson was due to make an announcement regarding the Tier system. We hoped we would not be affected and continued praying that we could make it through until the end of the tour on Sunday January 3rd. We got the 29th December and we started to get worried emails from customers concerned that the show wouldn’t go on due to the snow. Luckily we had not seen a flake. Then on the morning of the 30th we performed the first of three shows at which point it began to snow – luckily not enough to settle but enough to excite the children in the audience and all the cast who said how many actors can say they have performed in the snow. Then at 3pm just as we were about to go on stage the news came in that we had been dreading - Matt Hancock announced that Warwickshire would be moving into Tier 4. As we all went on stage we hoped we could at least get to New Years Day as we didn’t want to lose the amount of tickets we had already sold (400 tickets). When we returned after performing the 12 days of Christmas skit to read that Tier 4 would come into effect at midnight on the 30th.

The final blow

It is difficult to put into words what a blow this news was. As you have read we overcame so much – floods, lockdowns, changes to guidelines, power outages, casting and venue issues. We had overcome all these challenges and to get so close to doing the entire run and have it taken away was a bitter pill to swallow. That is not to say I don’t agree or that I think it is wrong, I just wish more notice had been given. We had 12 shows left and 400 tickets totalling nearly £5,000 – which I know does not sound a lot in the grand scheme of things but to a small independent theatre such as ours £5,000 equates to months of rent. That was the money that would see us safe until April/May when hopefully we can reopen the Attic Theatre again. Faced with this situation the cast and crew had an urgent meeting and we all agreed to perform a special 4th show that day at 8pm. Catherine again was back on the phones calling, texting and emailing every single ticket holder and offering them the chance to see the show at 8pm if they could. We ended up with 30 people attending this final surprise performance.

 

The cheers as we finished were wonderful to hear but were almost to much for several members of the cast who cried when they came off stage.

I have spoken about the professional side of what we had encountered but haven’t really touched on the mental health of the team. Lockdown has been hard on everyone and Cinderella had given a small amount of actors and creatives a purpose and something to strive for. A paid job where we could bring joy to families across the county. To have this taken away with 9 hours notice was a big hit for us all.

Once the last visitors had left we began to pack up for the final time. There was a numb silence amongst us. Knowing that just like that it was over. We said our goodbyes and lit some fireworks to mark the end of Cinderella and to bring the new year in one day early.

On returning home to Catherine and my baby daughter Alexandra she informed me that we had performed for 2,500 people over the course of December and that she had also cried when hearing the news and driving off to the fairy’s beautiful singing to make the necessary calls. We were inundated with pictures, videos and thank you messages from all those who had watched the show and thanked us for bringing some joy and normality to their lives. I have never been prouder of Tread the Boards Theatre Company and what we have achieved after a terrible year, my only regret is that we could not finish what we started.

The show will go on(line)!

Luckily on the 29th with had the show professionally filmed by local film maker Simon Cox of Alphastar Productions. This film will be available to purchase at just £10 per household. We hope that we can make up some of the short fall of £5,000 through contributions to our go fund me page and buying this recorded version of the show so that we can return when the theatres reopen sometime in 2021. For more information on the recording and on how you can support us visit our Cinderella page.

 

It has been an incredible journey with amazing people both on and off stage. To perform to so many people and to have brought joy and smiles to peoples faces is an experience that will stay with me and the rest of the team forever.

 

Never has the phrase ‘The show must go on’ been so apt as with this outdoor pantomime of Cinderella.  Sadly the show had to go on - online - but we went out smiling, dancing and singing in the snow knowing we had made a difference.