In conversation with Creation Theatre’s Lucy Askew

Lucy Askew, the Chief Executive and Creative Producer of Creation Theatre, Oxford had a zoom conversation with critic, Catherine Flutsch, on 2 July 2020.

Creation Theatre, Oxford’s only professional theatre company, is in something of a unique and fortunate position.  It has been able to work all the way through lockdown. I spoke to Lucy Askew, Chief Executive, to find out how Creation Theatre has been able to weather this most challenging of trials.

 How was the start of 2020?

Lockdown came during our season of Bleak House and our run of the Time Machine at the London Library. Initially, we found it difficult to sell tickets.  This was at the beginning of the year, long before lockdown. We were worried and our emergency strategic planning started to kick in.  Once word got out around the community about the shows, ticket sales rose to normal levels, and then the country went into lockdown.

We have since spoken to theatre companies across the country and we’ve found a similar pattern; a huge drop in ticket sales at the beginning of the year. We don’t know whether this is due to the first inkling of the coronavirus, a general nervousness due to Brexit or for some other reason but the beginning of the year was slow for theatre companies across the country.

Once lockdown was announced, we shut down Bleak House and the Time Machine.  We were lucky in that our planning mode had kicked in much earlier due to the early slow ticket sales, so we were already in that planning mindset.

Has Creation Theatre’s way of operating been an advantage during this crisis?

Yes definitely.  Some of the challenges that we always face running Creation Theatre have turned out to be wonderful training for dealing with coronavirus.

The obvious advantage/challenge is that we don’t have a physical building.  This means that aside from not having the constant pressure and cost that comes with maintaining a theatre building, we are always in scouting and planning mode – looking for new ways and new locations to present our work.

We’ve presented our work in parks, islands, shopping centres, book shops, university buildings and as game theatre (multiple locations throughout one show).  We’ve always had to use technology to enhance our performances – and many of our shows use technology, particularly the game theatre, which has pre-recorded segments shown on screens in different locations.

The challenge of always looking for new venues and new ways to present work has stood us in good stead – adapting our shows to work online seemed like a natural extension for us and we already had the expertise.

Another challenge that we always face is that the actors we use in our shows are hired on a freelance basis.  Like other theatre companies, our audiences will see largely the same group of actors in our shows, but unlike other companies, we hire actors for each individual show. This has meant that our actors are used to, and prepared for, periods of downtime and we have not to make heart breaking decisions about our actors.

You had a lucky break creating the show The Time Machine, didn’t you?

Yes, it was rather eerie.  We worked with The Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities on The Time Machine.  Long before coronavirus, they talked to us about the possibility of pandemics and how a pandemic might unfold.  By sheer coincidence, we did a lot of thought experiments on how we might operate during a pandemic as part of our preparation for the show.  As soon as we became aware of the coronavirus, we recognised that it was going to be serious because of our work with The Wellcome Centre. We were able to instantly go into emergency planning mode based on our understanding that a lockdown was going to be inevitable.

We read in the news that theatre is collapsing…what does this really mean?  How are actors without work surviving?

Many theatre actors are used to periods of downtime. It is not so much the fact that there has been little or no work during lockdown, it is more the reality that very few shows are being planned for the rest of 2020 or even 2021.  By this time of the year, many theatre actors would normally have their time scheduled for much of 2021.   The frightening thing for actors is that nobody is really scheduling anything at this stage, so many actors’ diaries are looking very blank.

The way actors are dealing with this is like a microcosm of society as a whole.  Actors who do not come from wealthy families are having to find alternative sources of income, for example, jobs in supermarkets, or as delivery drivers.  Actors from wealthy families are able to rely on family support during this time.

I want to give actors encouragement to know that that a period of time outside of acting will not be a disadvantage when it comes to casting our shows in the future.

How have you been able to present shows throughout lockdown?

We have presented a number of shows, via Zoom, during lockdown. We were able to adapt our show, The Time Machine to Zoom, which sold very well.  We were also able to revive our game theatre show, The Tempest, and adapt it to Zoom.  We’ve brought a children’s show, Up, Up, Up & Away (see Playstosee review here) to our audience, which was created by our actors, who set up a new theatre company, Super Stories with City Actors.  We’ve also just started our run of Alice: A Virtual Theme Park.  In addition, we have a Creation Under Canvas, which is a fundraising story festival and our drama club, School of Creativity, is doing well and has participants from all over the world.

What we have shown is that people are willing to pay for live Zoom theatre.  As you can imagine, we are thrilled that this is the case, and we want to thank our audience for being so willing to try new theatre formats.

What does the future look like for Creation Theatre?

Of course, we would love to get back to presenting our audiences with live theatre.  Our hope is that we may be able to present a Shakespeare play in the park in summer 2021. There are still a huge number of logistical challenges that we still need to address.  We have to plan as if a vaccine will not be widely available by summer 2021.  All sorts of difficult issues need to be dealt with. How do we protect our cast? How do we protect our audience? What if a cast member tests positive for coronavirus during the show run?  Do we need two casts?  Do we ask the audience to wear face masks during the show?  How do we provide safe toilet facilities?  There is a lot of planning to be done, but I’m hopeful for next year.

What about your Zoom shows?

While nothing can replace the excitement and immediacy of live theatre, our positive experiences with our Zoom shows means that we will continue to provide some sort of Zoom experiences, even if and when things go back to normal.  In fact, we have been inspired to start thinking about virtual reality and artificial intelligence.  We are at the centre of scientific expertise here in Oxford, so it is entirely appropriate that we plan to harness that expertise into new ways of creating theatre.

How has Creation Theatre responded to the Black Lives Matter movement?

George Floyd’s murder has shocked us to the core.  Black Lives Matter.  We are carrying out an audit of our practices and policies with new eyes and new input from our BAME actors, audience members and external consultants. While our audit is not yet finished, one thing that has immediately been highlighted is that we are not good at communicating our offerings to our actors and specifically to our BAME actors.  We need to tell our actors what we offer, whether that is colour appropriate nude tights, hairdressers that are competent with textured hair or makeup that covers a broad range of skin tones.  We have had these offerings in place but have failed to make it clear to all our actors that these things are available as a matter of course, not as a special provision. We have relied on our actors asking, which many have been understandably hesitant to do.  We need to do better, and we will.

How has Creation Theatre responded to the Trans rights movement?

Creation Theatre is inclusive, and we support trans rights.  It is vitally important to us that our young audience see themselves on stage. This means inclusive casting.  We have two principles when we cast.  First and foremost, we cast the very best person for the job.  Second, we cast the best person for the job whoever that maybe regardless of race, gender or disability.

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