"You can go to the pub, but you can't watch a socially-distanced play" - Sunderland theatre company devastated by cancellation

Organisers of a series of socially-distanced Shakespeare plays in Sunderland have had to put their plans on hold as the culture sector struggles amidst coronavirus restrictions.

Thursday, 9th July 2020, 12:30 pm

Theatre Space North East, a CIC based in Sunniside, stage plays in city parks each year and had been hoping to perform Richard III, Merry Wives of Windsor and A Midsummer’s Night Dream this summer.

However, ever-changing Government guidelines over performances, which has hit the arts world hard, means they’e had to put the plays on hold.

Because their Plays in the Parks series takes place outdoors, the company had been told they could go ahead with shows in July and August and had worked with local authorities to devise a plan for socially distant picnic plots, positioned around the performance spaces available to book in advance for free.

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A previous production of The Tempest performed by Theatre Space North East in Barnes Park

However, the company received the news from council officials this week that the plays could no longer go ahead on the dates planned due to a sudden change in government guidelines.

Theatre Space had struck a deal with the American Play On Shakespeare festival, which would have seen two modern verse translations of Richard III performed in Roker Park and Merry Wives of Windsor in Barnes Park, for the first time on British shores.

Younger Shakespeare fans and those new to the Bard’s work would also be treated to a specially-adapted 30 minute ‘mad’ version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – created especially for children and their families in Mowbray Park.

For Artistic Director of Theatre Space North East CIC Corinne Kilvington, organising the return of the season under such tough circumstances has been a huge challenge: “We’re really excited to still be bringing these outdoor shows to Sunderland after what has been a really difficult year and despite this set back, we’re still hoping to return, provided the DCMS outline a clear roadmap and define dates for the industry to reopen,” she explained. “As a company we have worked really hard to keep everybody safe, both at the event and in rehearsals.

Corinne Kilvington of Theatre Space North East at their base in Sunniside

“The performers will be a safe distance from you all, we’ll have hand sanitiser readily available and we’ve carefully designed each performance zone to ensure everyone is perfectly spaced apart.

“When it comes to our performers we’ve completely redesigned our rehearsal space and processes to ensure our cast are safe and most importantly, feel safe too. We wouldn’t be putting on these shows if our cast and crew didn’t feel 100% confident in the measures we’ve put in place.”

The company are understandably frustrated by the last-minute change in direction from the government. Corinne added: “It’s really disappointing that the roadmap out of lockdown is so vague for theatre. And more than anything, it is waiting that's killing us as a company. We've made the investment in PPE and meticulously redesigned our events to keep them safe and fully in line, if not beyond COVID 19 recommendations.

“We need to know when we can get to work. Until then its just heartbreak after heartbreak, wonderful performers, technical staff and creative teams just waiting to be able to do what they love again. Safely.”

Theatre Space North East rehearsing for Macbeth in Roker Park for a previous production

Councillor John Kelly, Cabinet Member for Vibrant City, said: “We have supported the popular Plays in the Park for the last decade and have been working with Theatre Space North East in the hope that they could go ahead in a socially distanced and safe way this summer.

“We are continuing to monitor and review the guidelines provided by Government and we are working with Theatre Space North East in the hope that Plays in the Park can take place at some point in the summer when the guidance allows this.”

The collaboration with Play On Shakespeare, based in Oregon has been nearly 12 months in the making and despite the pandemic throwing a spanner in the works, both teams either side of the pond are eager to get going.

Lue Douthit from the festival said: “Play On Shakespeare is thrilled that the intrepid Theatre Space North East is moving ahead with plans to safely present live theatre this summer. And we are honoured that they will be presenting the premiers of two Shakespeare translations by Migdalia Cruz and Dipika Guha.”

When the company are able to return (ideally close to the original dates advertised or soon afterwards), all of the performances will continue to be free to attend, but patrons are encouraged to donate towards the cost of the event, with contactless and cashless donations available after each performance.

The company suggests around £10 per person which goes directly to the performers, creative teams and event staff involved in making the season a reality, investing in the struggling UK cultural sector and helping to secure its future.

Tickets must be pre-booked at www.arctix.co.uk as soon as the permission is granted to go ‘on sale’ with the free plots, with dates to be announced on the company’s social media @TheatreSpaceNE.

The production company also request attendees consider wearing face coverings throughout the event and ask those who are symptomatic or in recent contact with a symptomatic person to not attend.

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