Staging a show during a pandemic

Helen Redcliffe is Storyhouse’s Associate Producer. As we gear up to open A Christmas Carol at Storyhouse, she tells us what it’s like to stage a show during a pandemic…

The show is everything 

The factors that we used to use to decide which show to do at Storyhouse no longer count – everything is different! We usually try to comment on contemporary issues, whether social or political, but at the moment people are exhausted – they want to escape! They don’t need a commentary on reality. They need to feel joy. 

Christmas Carol is about kindness and your place in the world, and how you can help others. It’s a classic of course, but it’s also about being the very best version of yourself. Its about kindness and redemption, self-reflection, and discovering joy and pleasure and friendshipThis is all starting to sounds very relevant, isn’t it!

Planning the stage 

Once we decide which story to tell, we then decide which stage to use and how the show will look and feel. Storyhouse’s theatre auditorium is unique: it can be in proscenium mode (a traditional stage directly in front of the audience with 800 seats) or in thrust mode (a more intimate stage with 500 seats, and the audience surrounding the stage).

A timelapse video of the Technical Team transforming the auditorium from proscenium to thrust.

Storyhouse’s artistic director Alex Clifton, who is writing and directing A Christmas Carol, wanted to stage it on the thrust stage – here’s why 

  • The interplay between the audience and the actors and action on stage is more intimate. (I should add that there will always be at least three metres between the actors and the audience) 
  • Actors can spread out more easily out on a thrust stage, which helps with social distancing. This also improves the acoustics, as the actors can space themselves without being in one straight line – there’s never any need to be too close together.
  • Finally and most importantly, we don’t want to spend a lot of money on sets, or props – we want to spend money on people and creating jobs, so we’d rather have more actors thalots of expensive sets that have no use after the production ends The stage will be filled with talented freelance performers who will tell the story around one expensive set piece, rather than five!  

Actors and creatives 

We (actors, their agents, and the theatre crew) all need to understand what the differences are now – for example working to much tighter time restrictions – all to manage the risk. We rehearsed the openair theatre this summer in just two weeks, when we would normally have at least double that time. The first week was rehearsed via Zoom, which is also the case for A Christmas Carol. Everyone working on the show needs to understand the impacts of perhaps needing to pause the run, or cancel show, or like the openair theatre in the summer – adding shows due to demand!

Change at the moment is inevitable and needs to embraced in a positive way.  

Choreography has also become more important than ever. Normally, when there are fight scenes or physical scenes in a theatre show, the actors involved must have a ‘fight call’ before each performance. This is where the actors re-rehearse the fight scene in the show to make sure it’s safe. Every single time, it has to be rehearsed and performed in exactly the same way – they (literally) cannot put a foot wrong, as this could harm another actor or themselves.

During the pandemic, a whole show has to be treated like this. We have to plan every movement to ensure social distancing. Alex’s style of directing means that he is (normally) happy if an actor reacts to a scene with some physical difference – for instance they hug another character, or do a little spontaneous dance of joy. Now, the whole show is strictly choreographedand everyone’s position needs to stay the same, performance after performance.  

Behind the scenes 

Backstage, things are also tremendously different – we need to choreograph behind the scenes too. Pre-Covid, we would have a team of dressers, people passing props, people doing hair and fixing wigs and retouching make up; they would all be running across corridors and passing one another multiple times during a show. Not anymore. To manage this, we start at the costume and set design level. For instance, where we once had corsets that actors would need help getting into, we now have zips that they can manage alone. 

Just like on stage, backstage every movement has to be the same for each performance – so no one runs into someone or touches something that hasn’t been sanitised. We can never have, for example, four actors, a dresser and a stage manager in a small space – and pre-Covid, this was very much a normal backstage scene. Multiple people cant touch the same prop and this has to be carefully managed. So for A Comedy of Errors in the park this summer there was a rope that was used in several scenes, by several actors. Normally we’d just have one and they would all use it, but this year we made several and they had one each.

This doesn’t mean fewer jobs backstage though, it just means that the working patterns are different this year – so there are fewer bodies circulating at one time. 

We’ve truly learned how vital theatre is 

The past few months have taught us all so much – mainly how to be kind and mindful of our surroundings. 

Things might be a bit different, but the show won’t feel like it. The experience is the sameWe’ll be gathered around the stage being told a story – like our ancestors were thousands of years ago around a fire. It’s a deep primal need. We’ll all escape reality together and laugh, forget who we are and what’s happening, if only for 80 minutes. 

When all this happened, I believed it was only theatre professionals who were mourning the loss of live performance, missing its impact and craving its effect – but it’s not. It’s the audience. They need theatre as much as we do. It will be wonderful and essential to all be back together. 

Words by Helen Redcliffe.

Helen has been part of the Storyhouse team since 2014 – just a year earlier she was in the audience at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre and said to herself ‘I need to work for this organisation!’ In summer 2020, she was the producer of Comedy of Errors at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre – one of only a handful of live theatre shows to take place in the country during lockdown.