In the year before the pandemic Royal & Derngate welcomed 337,000 visitors to events on its stages. Then coronavirus forced the doors shut. As recovery begins – doors will open again on May 17 – Sammy Jones spoke with Chief Executive Jo Gordon about a year most horrid and the path ahead.

Royal & Derngate chief executive Jo Gordon

When venues were forced to shut up shop last year, little could they have imagined that they would be silenced for so long. 

Theatres usually buzz with anticipation, ripples of laughter echo the room, there is the collective gasp when an audience shares in a moment of surprise, and the impromptu chatter of its youngest audiences.

Suddenly, there was nothing.

“When we closed in March, the first sign that we posted on our closed doors said ‘see you after the interval.’ We were expecting that to be about May. Little did we realise that we’d be here a year on, just planning our reopening now. It’s been a very long interval!” Jo said.

Jo was part of the team responsible for launching Milton Keynes Theatre back in 1999, and went on to enjoy a career as a successful marketing professional in the theatre world before arriving at Royal & Derngate 12 years ago (“I still can’t believe it’s been that long”).

She was smitten from the start.

“It had such a brilliant mix of shows – some of the biggest musicals on the touring circuit and also some lovely intimate dramas, some one-off unique pieces of theatre, great visiting dance companies – it brought together all the things I loved,” she remembered.

“It also had such a wonderful reputation across the arts industry with more than 100 years of making extraordinary theatre. And there’s something particularly special about the Royal auditorium – it’s hard to go into that space and not fall in love with it.”

But there is much more to Royal & Derngate than ‘just’ the curtain up: “The most important thing is its relationship with its communities. We’ve been reminded of that so much during the pandemic – so many people access R&D in so many ways; whether it’s because they belong to the youth theatre, maybe they’re a local artist and they attend workshops here, perhaps they volunteer here, hold a meeting in our foyer, have been part of one of our education programmes in a school, or have just done something as simple as seen a show.

“People feel connected to our building and organisation and it’s a real privilege.”

The effect of the pandemic on staff throughout the arts world has been catastrophic, and the R&D is no exception.

“It has been really challenging,” Jo admits, “The Job Retention Scheme has been a lifeline for us, and at one stage 95% of our staff team was on furlough. Some have been on furlough for nearly a year and that does take its toll. We’ve tried to keep everyone connected and supported but we are so aware that the pressures have been immense. We’ve also been aware of our wider freelance community. Many haven’t had such positive support via government channels and so are having to support their income outside the industry.

“We just hope they find a route back as it’d be devastating to lose so many skilled and talented individuals.”

The R&D was bringing in £28m of income to the economy before covid hit. Returning to that success will be no small feat – but they are determined..

“We’ll get there,” promises Jo, “We won’t deliver the same amount of impact this year, but we will be welcoming people back. And while we’ll have smaller numbers to start with, particularly due to the expected social distancing, we have some big names coming to the theatre.

“We are confident people will feel safe in our spaces – we’ve done a huge amount of work and learning to make sure that everything has been thought about. Once people start to come back, feel safe and have a brilliant time back together again, we think we’ll gradually start to build back those audiences.”

When the venue gets back to the business of bringing sensational shows to its stages in mid-May, Jo admits things will be quite unlike anything we’ve known previously: “I think, to start with while social distancing is in place, things will feel quite different,” Jo admits, “We will have staggered arrival times, print at home, or digital tickets replacing paper ones, masks must be worn, and we’ll be encouraging pre-ordering at bars. 

“But having said that, these are all things that we’re getting very used to in our new lives so hopefully they’ll prove reassuring rather than a barrier to people coming. Artists and staff are getting used to regular testing, working in bubbles, socially distanced backstage areas and one way systems.”

Jo remains convinced that public confidence is key – and that theatre-lovers want to return to the theatre safely, and quickly.

“The public have been so supportive all throughout the pandemic. We cant thank them enough.

“From their donations, to keeping hold of their tickets rather than asking for refunds, to their support on social media and lobbying for how important their local theatre is to their town. They can help us by continuing to do all those things and also rejoining us when they feel comfortable to do so.”

And across the industry, work is continuing to ensure that a visit to the theatre really is a safe one: “The focus is on hygiene, on ventilation, on safe distancing, on technical developments to help with no-touch tickets and bar purchases…we are learning all the time.”

The importance of theatre is all too often underestimated. Put simply, theatre matters.  And after the difficulties of the past year, it is perhaps even more vital.

“Theatre has such a huge impact on so many – from providing sheer entertainment, to helping us make sense of the world through shared and inspiring stories – it brings us joy, improves our health and wellbeing, comforts and uplifts us. 

“It brings us together – that sense of shared experience is so important and one that we’ve been missing,” Jo says, “It is also a place where brilliant artists learn their craft, and develop their own skills. So much of the TV that we’ve been dependent on through the pandemic is made by those brilliant minds that have started their careers in theatre, many in regional theatres like ours. We don’t underestimate the important role that theatre will play as we emerge from the pandemic,” she says, passionately.

And thankfully, that time is nigh.

“We’re all just so excited at the thought of being able to be back together again in a theatre space, safely. Those opening nights are really going to be something quite special…”

For more information on the venue and upcoming performances visit royalandderngate.co.uk

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