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Since curtains closed in March 2020, Cardiff’s theatres have remained shut, greatly impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. This lockdown, I spoke with representatives from the iconic New Theatre and Wales Millennium Centre to find out about what’s in store on reopening, their current challenges, and how we can help.
To hear about the New Theatre, I sat down for a phone call with their marketing manager, Stephan Stockton.
I was glad to know that there have been no redundancies at the New Theatre. Council-run, some staff have been moved to other council services, whilst others have been furloughed on full pay. Of the usual eighty-four staff including sixty casual employees, only five remain, all working from home. The theatre, along with a large number of other arts organisations in Wales, received Cultural Recovery Funding.
A ‘receiving house’, the New Theatre does not create its own content, instead curating a variety of performances from drama, to ballet, to panto, to musicals. Their main challenge seems to be the cancellation of touring shows, with only half rescheduling. Big musicals have far more cast members, a band, and require lots of crew, making them incredibly expensive to run. Between the ever-changing lockdown restrictions varying around the UK and scheduling conflicts with other venues, these shows become financially and logistically challenging. As so many theatre-goers attend predominantly musicals, this is a major issue for the New Theatre who pride themselves on offering something for everyone.
Opened in 1906, the New Theatre has played an integral part in the community for over a century. This means that in addition to community projects, they have regulars. Stephan told me of a call he received a couple of years ago to refund the ticket of an elderly lady who had passed away, and upon looking at her booking history discovered that she had sat in the same seat every week for twenty years. This isn’t unusual for the New Theatre, who have a very regular weekly matinee audience in the hundreds, no matter what the show. It’s common here to book the same seat every week, and make close friends of those who sit around you. Due to COVID restrictions, a huge part of these customers’ lives has been non-existent for almost a year. The community feel doesn’t stop at the theatre-goers, with some staff missing the atmosphere so much that they have arranged to sit in the auditorium alone. Stephan commented that “when you walk in, you feel as though you’re being hugged”.
In discussing the value of live theatre, Stephan commented that it is “a unique experience”. There is an “interesting behavioural culture at the New Theatre”, in that all believe it is everyone’s responsibility, audience included, to ensure that everyone has a great time. Every performance is different each night through different acting choices for example, or audience response which cannot be replicated over live stream. For this reason, it is important to support it.
When asked what our readers can do to support the New Theatre, Stephan commented that “most important is to demonstrate they want to come to the theatre” by booking tickets. The New Theatre can be trusted with your money, and will continue to give refunds to every customer affected by cancellations or who is unable to make a rescheduled date, with their box office taking calls as normal. Plans are in place to make the theatre experience itself safe for audiences, too. You are, of course welcome to donate the cost of your ticket should you choose to or enquire about donating directly, as revenue raised this way goes toward essential upkeep of its listed building. To keep the community going, please share any memories you have of the building on Facebook and engage with their page.
Wales Millennium Centre
At the Wales Millennium Centre, I spoke with Interim Head of Communications Catrin Rogers.
On closing in mid-March 2020, Wales Millennium Centre lost millions of pounds overnight, the majority of which from ticket sales. Catrin commented that although the arts in the UK have been treated unfairly at times, Welsh theatres have been comparatively lucky, with an emergency Arts Council grant in October allowing them to save some jobs. Wales Millennium Centre has become a “voice for the arts”, having spoken out on behalf of the industry at large, with representatives often seen speaking to BBC Wales and in talks with the Welsh Government. They have now turned their political attention to assisting the many creative freelancers unable to find work and without access to Arts Council funding for financial relief.
Despite various logistical nightmares with the cancelling and postponing of huge touring productions, lockdown has by no means stopped the Wales Millennium Centre from doing what they do. Predominantly a charity, they remain committed to the local community, and it has helped to remain “resilient and agile”. In August, they were able to support Butetown Arts & Cultural Association, with whom they have a long-standing relationship, to hold a picnic as part of their community banquet programme, complete with music, dancing and food. Artwork has been displayed for free in their large windows. Their commitment to budding creatives has not ceased, with spaces last year being given free of charge to those needing somewhere to rehearse safety, and two dancers from the same household even using their car park. They acknowledge that it is important to support the sector in any way they can, so choose to offer their building as a huge resource for local communities.
They have not stopped offering opportunities for Cardiff’s youth to get involved, with a mentoring scheme, youth-led radio station and more still up and running. ‘Together Stronger’ – a partnership with Valleys Kids – continues to make content following COVID guidelines. Catrin commented that for many of the young people involved, this is their only outlet, and has a positive impact on their mental health. She added that their work ethic continues to be “astonishing”, and that “nothing stops them”.
When asked about the future of the arts, Catrin commented that the sector is resilient and although this pandemic has been devastating it has also allowed for the acceleration of change and hopefully a positive future. “The arts have always been resilient, and have gotten through hard times many, many, many times.” The Wales Millennium Centre is always extremely grateful for help. If you would like to donate you can do so directly, name a seat, or donate the cost of your ticket for a cancelled show. Keep an eye on their website and social media, and please show support by visiting again on reopening.