1 November 2021

‘When the Arts Went Digital… and what happened next.’

By Rachel Sloane

Back in March 2020, amongst everything else that went haywire, the performing arts were left reeling. Suddenly plays, musicals, ballet, concerts, festivals, cinema releases… everything that many people would think make life worth living and bring joy to our lives, was cancelled. 

Very quickly, once the initial shock had subsided, a few people were determined for ‘The Show to Go On’ and looked for ways to bring performances to audiences locked -in at home. The first was Andrew Lloyd Webber and the filmed versions of some of his musicals which he gradually made available, free, for  48 hours (check). It was good to have something to write in my calendar, when everything else was crossed off. 

The National Theatre had a stock of plays that had been previously shown in cinemas and 15 million people across the world watched for free. Then others such as The Royal Ballet and Royal Opera joined in too. 

Local directors obviously didn’t have the same resources or finance available but, sometimes for free and sometimes for  a modest fee, they also found ways to offer audiences the chance to share in the joy of live performances, reaching thousands more people across the world than they would usually have had in their audiences. 

From March 25th, the first Wednesday after lockdown, Hattie Bennett, the Musical Director of Music in Felixstowe arranged a music performance every Wednesday morning, available for free on Facebook Live. Some were live and some recorded and, by New Years

‘s Eve, Music in Felixstowe had broadcast 41 concerts. There were technical challenges.

Never having done live streaming before we had devices, mostly iphones initially, running out of memory or ringing mid live concert. Also running out of power.  The difficulties in sending pre recorded concerts to be put on Facebook. Concerts where the performers were playing their instruments back to front. One prerecorded concert had three different tracks to be run simultaneously!”

Performers were absolutely delighted to have a chance to perform , and, when everything else had been cancelled to make some money by perfoming.

“Most of the msuicians  were colleagues, but also some whom I had booked to play live

during the season. One delightful couple playing piano duets for instance had

contacted me last year with the notion of performing for us. It turned out that

they played on the ships and were great entertainment value too. Some were

young people who had been recommended to us for our season of youth

concerts in the summer. One was a colleague from the Musicians Union

Executive, who is a professional busker. Other really interesting and diverse

musicians. Some kindly donated their fees to help others.

Payment for the musicians came from previous profits, and a JustGiving appeal to previous supporters.

“ It was important to keep the music alive for the audience and the performers. To give people something to look forward to in the week and to give them hope through the power of live music.

The performances are still available on the  Music in Felixstowe Facebook page and have been seen by between 300 and 1,000 viewers.

As the months of lockdown went on and more planned performances were cancelled, other directors looked for a way to salvage their events. 

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds held some ‘At Home With…”  live steamed interviews from actors homes. They even recreated the theatre experience with count-down warning bells leading to “Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats as this evenings performance is about to begin.”  I watched, sitting on my balcony watching on an i-pad, and laughing so much at Christopher Biggens and Lesley Joseph, talking about performing in pantomime, I should have apologised to my neighbours! And all for a £5 ticket.  1,000 people watched these live events from all over the world, including the United States and Australia.

“Over the years on our stage we’ve welcomed Sir Ian McKellan, Timothy West, Prunella Scales and Michael Parkinson to name but a few so we decided that it would be a relatively easy format to replicate online. Our celebrity friends needed no persuading and were just as delighted as our audience to have the opportunity to return to theatre.  Since the At Home With…series we have also been able to host a live event, with audience members present with Vanessa Redgrave CBE and Terry Waite CBE at St Edmundsbury Cathedral which we also live-streamed to audience members at home.”

Folk East, devasted that months of planning looked as though it would be wasted, quickly organised a two day ‘Virtually FolkEast’, in the grounds of their headquarters, for 200 people,in groups of six, at a socially distanced  picnic. The line-up was headlined by The Young’uns, festival patrons, and Sam Kelly, from Norfolk.

 “Virtually FolkEast was initially going to be an online festival but when we were given the opportunity to put on a live event we did both! I It was groundbreaking in so many ways as it was the first festival ( with real live weather!) to take place under coronavirus restrictions and the response was amazing. It was very special and extremely emotional for everyone involved – being  together, enjoying live music after so many months in a COVID secure environment .  We are incredibly proud of the whole team and grateful to all the artists that took part and to East Suffolk Council for trusting FolkEast to put on a live event in such challenging times.

As for the Cultural Recovery Grant …! It does mean that we are in a good position to go ahead next year … COVID willing … “

Theatre on the Coast (previously the Southwold Summer Theatre) determinedly carried on performances in St Edmunds Hall, with a tiny audience sitting on the raised seating area, the performing area in the stalls, with socially distanced changing rooms behind the curtain, on the real stage. As the director xxx said at the time, they didn’t have the multi-cameras that the big companies had, but were determined to carry on. A season ticket (£@!?)enabled audience members to watch all the performances on our computer screens. My highlight was xxxxx set in Sandringham when the Prince Harry announces he and Megan intend to give up their royal roles. It was very funny with some very convincing portrayals of the Royal family!

Across our counties, organisers discovered ways to continue via Zoom, Facebook Live and other ‘virtual platforms’. The Young Norfolk Arts Festival and the Norfolk and Norwich Festival went ‘virtual’ and, instead of interviewing visiting authors on the stage at the Orwell Hotel, I found myself setting up a mini studio in my sitting room, talking to them live in a digital Felixstowe Book Festival.  Instead of an audience of a couple of hundred, suddenly my interview with Carol Drinkwater, for example, was being watched around the world by 3,612 people.  

Again, the interviews are still available on the festival website.

As autumn approached restrictions eased a little again, and some venues found a way of holding a performance with a tiny, socially distanced audience, but live-streaming to others at home.  A special live performance by the Royal Ballet cost £15 to watch and  I cried at the obvious joy of the dancers, finally back on stage.

I attended some intimate performances at the Two Sisters Arts Centre in Trimley, one of just twelve people in the audience but joined online by xxxx.

Suzanne Hawkes We did three live streams in August to ‘’test the waters’ and the technology. We

have no landline in the building so had to install some sort of mobile wifi. It

was also important to get good sound quality – and my resident techie Stuart

Brindle donated quite a bit of his own equipment to get it up to standard.

Then when we opened again in September we had about eight events that were

live as well as live streamed including classical music, jazz , folk and a murder

mystery evening.

We had only been open for nine months and had just started to build audiences

before covid struck and lockdown happened. I felt it was extremely important to

get going again even if just on line to remind people we were still there but also

to support local artists and to provide some sort of relief to the community in

the form of entertainment

Performers were just so pleased to be able to perform again – even if it was to a

virtual audience. The building is big enough to enable the performers to be

socially distanced. Audience members seemed very enthusiastic and enjoyed

this new experience.

I suppose about 200 people all told have watched virtually – and so we plan to

offer this moving forward on as many events as we can. As far as the virus goes

we are not out of the woods yet – so we can still only have socially distanced

audiences which cuts down on the number we can physically have in the

building – so this is a way of increasing numbers and revenue. We also

discovered that it does enable a wider audience spread geographically – so we

had people logging in from such far flung places as America and Spain.

There is nothing like attending a live performance – I still passionately believe

that – but its a good second best – and it does mean that events can still go

ahead even in the most

Then, in November, doors to venues were closed again and the carefully risk-assessed plans for autumn/winter had to be put on hold for Lockdown Two. 

Looking back on the experience of 2020,  and with the future of the performing arts still (at the time of writing) uncertain, what do the initiators of the local projects think of what they achieved against all odds… … and what about 2021. Will they ‘go virtual again?”

Theatre Royal We have launched a new project called Walking Stories where we invited local people to write stories of the places they live which we have professionally recorded and produced and made available on our website for free download. Ahead is most certainly the way we are looking now.  Whilst we were disappointed to have to reschedule our annual pantomime from 2020 to 2021 In December we presented Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  This was an outdoor production performed to a standing audience on Angel Hill in the heart of Bury St Edmunds Beyond that we are working towards reopening in the Spring of 2021 which a full and varied programme of shows including our own productions, visiting companies, amateur groups and fundraising events.

In addition to audience events our weekly community engagement workshops have also resumed online with participation figures higher than ever before.  Two groups ran from September to December – one for over 18’s and one for over 55’s and both working with theatre professionals to create radio plays and monologues. The new term recommenced this month.

In 2020 FolkEast had a Crowdfunder appeal aimed at weathering the COVID storm and securing FolkEast for 2021. It raised £32,605 and then the festival received a further £80, 072 from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund. The plan is to hold FolkEast 2021 on the weekend of xxx.

Hattie Bennett, from  Music in Felixstowe has her plans for 2021….  “To get further funds and carry on with streaming throughout the winter plus live concerts where possible.”

Meg Reid, xxx and her volunteer committee are now steaming ahead with plans for the Felixstowe Book Festival in June 2021. 

“We have booked our usual venue, The Orwell Hotel,  for 25-27th June but are assuming that we will still need to socially distance. We are working out the details, but we may have the bookshop and a takeaway food service in a marquee in the hotel garden. That means the main hall, The Elizabeth Suite, will be free to host the main speakers with a socially distanced audience of 80. After the huge success of the broadcast interviews in 2020, we are looking to film the authors, so people who cannot come to Felixstowe can watch for a reduced fee online. Perhaps the smaller hotel rooms could be used for workshops that were cancelled this year, or for intimate events such as afternoon tea with an author?  We have really seen the possibilities after what initially seemed a disaster turned into a great success.”

At the time of writing this article there were hopes regarding a vaccine, and everuyone invo;ved with the performing arts in Norfolk and Suffolk had fingers tightly crossed. A huge source of income to the area, as well as pleasure for audiences,, theatres, concerts and festivals employ thousands of people, not just those  ‘on stage’ but also the  many epopel who work begind the scenes and have seen their livlighoods disappear. Everything is tightly croseed for 2021 and beyond. 

(This article was first published in Suffolk Norfolk Life Magazine January 2021)