The inside story on how Sheffield's Crucible Theatre is reopening for plays after months of closure: 'The light has not gone out'
The rooms of the Crucible are alive with actors rehearsing for the first time in seven months – a development Sheffield Theatres’ chief executive, Dan Bates, sounds relieved to report as the venue launches its post-lockdown season.
“It's been a long, hard journey to get the theatre in a stronger place to be able to reopen,” he says, agreeing that Sheffield Theatres – which is keeping its other stages, The Lyceum and the Studio, shut until spring 2021 – could have waited to put on plays again, but the company was determined to return.
"We really felt we needed to do something for the city. Our audiences have been very patient and loyal but are desperate to come back. We just felt like we should try.”
The new, stripped-down programme, called The Together Season and described by artistic director Robert Hastie as ‘a celebration of theatre in all its glorious forms’, reflects Sheffield Theatres’ intentions as well as its straitened circumstances. The pandemic has more than halved the company’s annual turnover, from £14.5 million to £6.5 million, and its permanent team has been reduced from 120 staff to 93.
"People are either working on a four-day week now, or a half-time week,” says Dan. “Everybody took some kind of pay cut.”
But, even after experiencing the shock of having to shut down for months, the Crucible can offer a season that lives up to its reputation as one of the UK’s great producing theatres. The first show will be the world premiere of Here’s What She Said to Me, written by Oladipo Agboluaje and directed by Mojisola Elufowoju, while Maxine Peake and Imelda Staunton star in a double bill from Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues in November, a transfer from London's Bridge Theatre. There is even a ‘pop-up panto’ fronted by veteran Sheffield pantomime dame Damian Williams, replacing the usual Lyceum spectacular.
Designer Ben Stones, who devised the staging for past Crucible shows Standing At The Sky’s Edge, Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, has come up with a single set that can work in different configurations for everything in The Together Season.
"Hats off to my fantastic team at Sheffield Theatres, they're really up for this - creative problem solving, we call it,” says Dan. “For instance, how do you fit a wig on an actor now, or a costume? Every day something comes up and we try to find a solution. Or not do it.”
The Crucible normally seats just under 1,000 people, but its socially-distanced capacity has been capped at 230.
"It's a big difference,” Dan admits. “It's just under a fifth of the capacity. The seating is all organised in groups of four, three, two and one. You can't sit next to a complete stranger. If you're a family of six you would have to sit in a four and a two."
Electronic tickets, temperature checks and the wearing of masks are all part of the experience now, although the dilemma of how to serve food and interval drinks has yet to be solved. The company ‘learned a lot’, Dan says, from holding national pilot events with audiences at the Crucible in July and August during the World Snooker Championship – however, these were pulled by the Government after one morning session and later reinstated almost as quickly.
“The cancellation of the test events after one on the Friday was a big blow, and then reopening again... we had less than 24 hours' notice,” says Dan. “We were prepared, but it was quite a big ask to gear up again."
‘Baby steps’ is his key phrase currently, he says. “Let's get the theatre open, let's get some shows on and some audiences in, and add some of the nice things that are part of the visit, but not necessarily immediately. We also have to acknowledge what's going on in the city now and the large number of new Covid-19 cases.”
Sheffield Theatres used the furlough scheme, and received a £675,000 emergency grant from Arts Council England in July. The outcome of a further bid to the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund, asking for over £1 million, is pending. More shows are being planned by Sheffield Theatres for spring, providing another lockdown does not slow down the process.
“Sheffield has been extremely supportive with some of the rent releases, rates rebates and Covid support they have put in,” says Dan, who highlights the generosity of audience members too.
“We've had to return a lot of tickets since March – thousands of tickets now. Some of them wanted refunds – I absolutely understand that – but some have re-donated the cost of their tickets back to us. There have been some substantial donations as well. We're really grateful and it's given us a lot of hope. The support has been quite overwhelming.”
While Dan doesn’t ‘envy anyone working in government at the moment’, he expresses disappointment at the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s controversial comments that the state would only protect ‘viable jobs’, and that out-of-work actors can find ‘new opportunity’ – widely interpreted as a suggestion that people in the arts sector should retrain for another career.
“Our industry is incredibly viable – we have a £14.5 million turnover, and shows from Sheffield were running in London with more in the pipeline, and on tour as well,” Dan says.
"People train very hard to work in the theatre. I've been fortunate to have worked most of my time in the theatre, but freelancers have been overlooked in this period – people who go from job to job have really struggled to get work.”
Dan is keenly aware of the troubles other theatre companies have faced. The Nuffield Southampton and Southport theatres both entered into administration earlier this year because of the impact of Covid-19.
“It would be a huge loss to the city, and to the region, if Sheffield Theatres had to close. But I really hope the city would support us and not let that happen,” he says.
“If we're successful with the Culture Recovery Fund, we'll be fine, because we've taken action ourselves. We've taken a firm approach to make sure we could survive.”
He stresses the importance of good communication.
"I never wanted to see any signs on our buildings that talked about the foreseeable future – ‘closed for the foreseeable future’. If we could open, we would. The light has not gone out.”
The Together Season is introduced with a ‘Curtain Up Quiz’ at the Crucible for members on October 10. Here’s What She Said To Me runs from October 30 to November 14, and Talking Heads from November 9 to 11. See https://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk for more listings and to book tickets.