Stratford-upon-Avon indie theatre company Tread the Boards have fought against the odds to put on covid-compliant live arts
John-Robert Partridge, artistic director of Stratford independent theatre company, Tread the Boards, shares the ups and downs from a tumultuous year.
2020: The season that never was
The beginning of 2020 started out positively with rehearsals for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Macbeth due to open in April. When the pandemic struck we were forced to close and had to explore alternative ways of paying our overheads; local government funding, ‘Go Fund Me’ pages and putting on zoom online acting classes. In the summer we toured an outdoor production of The Wind in the Willows which was a big success, was well attended and financially sustained us until Christmas.
Could Cinderella save Christmas?
From September to November we needed to plan for a seasonal production to help raise funds to keep us going until April when hopefully we can reopen again after a long 12 months of closure.
We were due to perform Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in December had we have been in The Attic Theatre, but due to the amount of cast and technical requirements it just wouldn’t be possible to perform it in an outdoor setting, so we quickly decided on Cinderella.
When we first broached the idea of an outdoor pantomime a lot of people within the industry were sceptical that such an event would work. The script was written by Ben Humphrey, former artistic director of Worcester Repertory Theatre and an experienced panto dame. The script was full of topical jokes and magic to delight everyone and was the perfect length.
Assembling a team for any show is never easy but Catherine [John’s wife, theatre co-founder and executive producer] and I were determined to use creatives who were local and had been adversely effected by the closing of the arts industry. However with the collapse of the theatre industry performers have had to take jobs in other sectors and actually turned us down as they were worried about their financial security should the panto be cancelled.
The first person we got on board was our musical director Elliott Wallis – well known to local audiences. Then Matilda Bott in the title role; Pete Meredith is our in-house dame for pantomime and he was partnered with Robert Moore performing his first dame role as the other ugly sister. Completing the cast was myself as Buttons, Charis McRoberts as Fairy Godmother, and finally Joe Deverell-Smith as the Prince.
One of the trickiest elements of the production was sourcing a stage, but Birmingham company Stage Bus, had created The Stage Box, a former shipping container that had been converted to a stage, with fully working lighting rig, and sound, etc – and that suited us perfectly.
Cinders is ready, but where could she go?
Several venues had expressed interest but with the worry of cancellation and tougher measures from the government, many were reluctant to book. After much hair-pulling and many phone calls we were lucky enough to have Wethele Manor near Leamington, Stratford Racecourse, Tiddington Home Guard Club, Binton Social Club and Ettington Park Hotel all offering to accommodate us.
With all the particulars sorted we jumped into our rehearsals. At the beginning of this process our MD and Prince Charming were in different parts of the country so our initial read through and sing through was done on zoom. It was an incredibly productive rehearsal and we all came away hopeful of getting the show on. This quiet excitement quickly turned to worry as the government announced a two-week lockdown leading into December. At this announcement all parties from venues to staging became worried about the possible cancellation of the project before we had set foot in a rehearsal room.
On hearing Warwickshire would be heading into Tier 3 our initial fear was that we might not be able to go ahead but after conversations with our local MP and councillors we were given the green light to continue – although with restrictions in place.
The final preparations
A few days before we opened we set off to a lorry park where the Stage Bus was located to begin our tech and dress rehearsal.
Watching the looks on the lorry drivers’ faces as they were treated to the Ugly Sisters performing I’m a Believer will always be a fond memory!
We all needed gloves, hot water bottles and copious amounts of hot tea to help us cope with the chills of performing outdoors.
Then the big day came, Saturday 12th December our opening day – a day four weeks previously we weren’t sure we would ever come to. We had three shows that day – a nice early 11am performance to ease us in. We were anxious, excited, thrilled and scared all at the same time. The Stage Bus arrived and the cast and team of Wethele Manor looked on as the bus unfolded to reveal the amazing stage held within. The audience started to arrive and it suddenly dawned on us that we had managed to get a pantomime on stage.
We ran at Wethele from 12th-20th December and all in all it was relatively issue free. Audiences loved the show. Wethele alone sold 1,000 tickets to people over the course of the run.
Our first worry was midway through the run when there was a call from local officials after they had received a complaint about our performanes taking place, but thankfully we were once again given the green light to continue – much to the relief of the cast and crew.
Wethele became a second home for us all. When the day came for our final performance we were sad to leave.
Disaster strikes – will the ball be cancelled?
Another day, another crisis. The catering company that is meant to provide refreshments at our next venue, Stratford Racecourse, cancels as London is being moved into Tier 4. Worse still the company providing our Portaloo pulls out too, and as we are legally obliged to have toilet facilities, Catherine frantically tries to find a replacement. We begin to think about finding yet another new venue.
We went to bed hoping that that the morning would bring good news.
It is not to be and are abruptly informed that as our event was considered a ‘social gathering’ and that if we continue the police will shut us down and issue a £10,000 fine. This of course went against everything we had been told previously.
I suffer with anxiety and that went into overdrive with everything that was happening. I couldn’t believe that all our hard work was about to be undone. However we get confirmation that drive-in pantomimes had the go-ahead.
We now had two options: cancel the show or turn the pantomime into a drive-in experience. Obviously we go for the second option.
We secured a Portaloo from a local farmer, and then set about informing our audience of the change of plans.
So at 5.30pm our toilet arrived and at 6.30pm we went on to our very first drive in pantomime. We were all so nervous not knowing what would happen and how the show would be received. We needn’t have worried. The drive in event was a huge success with honking of horns and flashing lights were used to communicate the audiences enjoyment of the show. Even when I asked the audience which direction Cinderella went I was greeted by 20 cars all using their indicators to show me which way she went! It was an amazing experience and listening to the audience at the curtain call with cheers and beeps (I won’t lie) made several of the cast feel very emotional. What a 24 hours we had had – from thinking we had lost everything to be greeted by such a positive and warm response was euphoric.
We left the racecourse in high-spirits excited to return on Christmas Eve.
Water, water everywhere: local heroes to the rescue
What followed next you could not even make up. I woke around 7am to glorious sunshine and was excited to make it down to the racecourse. I arrived first at 8.50am ahead of the cast call at 9.30am and I could not believe my eyes! The entire performance area was submerged. Luckily the stage is on hydraulic legs so was safe from the water, but nothing else could be seen. As the cast arrived the enormity of the situation hit home. The audience area was submerged, even the toilet. Apparently this is the worst flooding in ten years.
Our first show was at 11am and it is now 9am and audience arrive at 10.30am. Luckily the district council came to the rescue and allowed us to relocate to the park and ride on the outskirts of the town. Unbelievably we made it to the new venue by 10am with props, costume and the stage. Brilliant we can set up! Not quite!
The park and ride car park has height restricting barriers too low for the stage van – they would need to be opened... an agonising ten minute wait followed. Then we realised the ladders to the stage are still submerged at the racecourse that, a quick underwater rescure mission sees them rescued.
Finally, after a brief power failure, the show eventually started at 11.20am, a mere 20 minutes late. It was totally unbelievable. And the audience couldn’t have been nicer or more appreciative.
We wanted to be elated but after the emotional roller coaster that we had gone on in all honesty we all wanted to go home and warm up and enjoy our Christmas Day.
No more drama please
We are hoping for a far less eventful run at the Home Guard Club in Tiddington. Ticket sales had suddenly exploded and the show became the talk of town on social media.
The cast enjoyed kicking a football around in between shows and visiting the local Spar for coffee. Rumours started to circulate than Boris Johnson was due to make an announcement regarding the Tier system. We hoped we would not be affected and continued praying that we could make it through until the end of the tour on Sunday 3rd January. On the morning of the 30th we performed the first of three shows; then at 3pm just as we were about to go on stage the dreaded news came: Warwickshire would be moving into Tier 4, which would come into effect at midnight on the 30th.
The final blow
It is difficult to put into words what a blow this news was. We overcame so much – floods, lockdowns, changes to guidelines, power outages, casting and venue issues – and to get so close to doing the entire run and have it taken away was a bitter pill to swallow. That is not to say I don’t agree or that I think it is wrong, I just wish more notice had been given.
We had 12 shows left and 400 tickets totalling nearly £5,000 – which I know might not sound a lot in the grand scheme of things but to a small independent theatre such as ours £5,000 would have meant paying the rent until April.
Faced with this situation the cast and crew had an urgent meeting and we all agreed to perform a special 4th show that day at 8pm. Catherine again was back on the phones calling, texting and emailing every single ticket holder and offering them the chance to see the show at 8pm if they could. We ended up with 30 people attending this final surprise performance.
Once the last visitors had left we said our tearful goodbyes and lit some fireworks to mark the end of Cinderella and to bring the new year in one day early.
On returning home to Catherine and my baby daughter Alexandra she informed me that we had performed for 2,500 people over the course of December. We were inundated with pictures, videos and thank you messages from all those who had watched the show and thanked us for bringing some joy and normality to their lives. I have never been prouder of Tread the Boards Theatre Company and what we have achieved after a terrible year, my only regret is that we could not finish what we started.
What’s next for 2021
We are looking at 2021 with a certain air of trepedation. We had hoped to once again open in April with a Shakespeare production but looking at how long lockdown is going on for I cannot see this happening. We are looking at taking the entire season outside for 2021.
One thing we are hopeful for is that our drive in panto was such a success that we are looking to continue such events at Easter (if we can) and into the summer. We are also making initial plans for an outdoor pantomime at Christmas.
The show will go on(line)
Now you can see Tread the Boards’ production of Cinderella from the comfort of your living room – it’s online for £10 per household until 31st January. Visit www.theattictheatre.co.uk/cinderella.