Richard Darbourne

Producer, Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG Productions)

16th March is a day we’ll never forget at ATG Productions. In terms of any shut-down then at that point we thought we might be able to see the week out and if it came we weren’t thinking months at that point. More like weeks. At the time though, I remember feeling a sense of ‘you don’t know anything except the day you’re in’.

On the day, we knew there was a speech coming around 5:15pm. The whole industry; actors, crews, producers and venue owners all heard the same news in real time as it was said theatres, ’should’ close immediately. In the follow up questions a journalist said something along the lines of “are you telling them to shut?” and the response was that they obviously have the powers to do that but they suspect theatres will make their own decisions. When those words were said I caught the eye of Exec Producer Adam Speers and we all just collectively drew breath. We knew there and then that there was nothing definitive but we had to make a decision. 

It was around half past five – so we had to get moving. The only thing we could say definitively was “the performance tonight is off”. Not tomorrow night, the next night (or the next few months) but just “tonight”.

We had four shows running in London, two had already closed in the US and another on tour. We were all very deeply connected to the people in all of them but we couldn’t all be in all places so the three Producers in our team and our General Manager  had to split up and go alone to the ones we could. I went to Pretty Woman at the Piccadilly where the cast and crew had been gathered. I was struck by the calm grace with which the company took the news. All the cast just gathered together on stage in a very un-socially distanced group hug and just said “We’ll be OK. We’ll get through this” and that was it. There was a lot of love around. They just took the statement and off they went.

I then went round to the Front of House where the audience were starting to come in. The box office learned the news and had started to turn patrons away at the door. One lady just said “Oh no that’s a shame – is the bar still open?” As it happened it was so a lot of people just went up to the bar!

The four of us arrived back at the office and rejoined the team. Some of our co-producers were around and there was a small gathering of other people who didn’t know where to go so they all came to our office and we ordered pizza and had a few beers. Thinking about it, there were people there who we later learned had Covid at the time. That was the last time we physically saw all of our team of eleven in person. ATG’s CEO emailed saying we were all going to work from home from that moment on so having just closed the shows, we had to clear out of the office. It felt weighty and dare I say it: ‘unprecedented’.

As a community of practitioners we are much better at action than inaction. That’s what’s hard about this particular scenario: we’re having to go against all our natural instincts which are telling us to go out there and just make it work. Anyone who thrives in the [Theatre] industry does so because they are a positive problem-solver. If we have one common thing amongst us it’s that.

In terms of going forward, I think about our audiences and how we can welcome them back. It sounds obvious but it’s about them and not us. Audiences need to feel they have been looked after and valued and that they have had a really really good time. If you get that right – not just with the content but the experience as a whole – then it’s healthy. That needs to be at the heart of how we embrace the ‘new normal’.

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