Covid-19: the long road to an arts recovery

Image: The Place Bedford

East Midlands Bylines is looking ahead to 2021 and how arts organisations have survived the Covid-19 pandemic and are looking ahead to the future. First up, we talked to Alex Levene, Associate Producer – Programming & Partnerships at The Place Theatre in Bedford.

The Place is a mixed arts venue that combines a variety of activities that in many towns and cities are spread between many venues. It normally includes ‘amateur and community work and work by schools plus a rolling programme of live music (UK and Irish folk), film (indie and arthouse), work by pro-theatre makers for children, contemporary and issues theatre, work for children or families and a little bit of genre-bending or art that pushes the boundary of what people expect in theatre’. What’s on can change dramatically from one week to the next.

We asked Alex Levene about the impact of Covid-19 on their activities in 2020 to begin with. He said it had led to a sea change in how they work; they closed in March, a week before the official lockdown, and spent the first few weeks contacting companies and postponing or cancelling shows and asking customers if they wanted to donate money, have a credit or refund, all the while putting staff on furlough, although most of their workers are freelancers, whose situation was precarious and not likely to be helped.

They were lucky to get some Arts Council funding to keep the freelance team together and remained in contact with their network and volunteers through weekly online coffee mornings. This helped their volunteers otherwise in isolation, and they used these to look at the future of the business, including making changes to the board, and increasing its diversity.

Over the summer they were able to do some outdoor live work.

Overall, Levene says, the biggest impacts were on finance, adding “It has made us 100 per cent dependent on funding which we have never been in our existence” (in the past two years he says it has only been a 30% dependency). This, he argues, raises difficult questions because there is demand for what they have been doing. So they have been soul searching and talking to others about the way forward. Mr Levene says this can be a good thing, but the bigger challenge is the decimation of the model of artists and small companies touring the country at venues like The Place, spending a month or two visiting 50 venues. It’s not certain, Levene says, whether this will resume, especially in September 2021: “We’re a receiving house, we deliver the package. Without shows we aren’t doing that”.

On the other hand, he says that the “existing model places burden on artists, so can we reconfigure this to work more deeply with fewer artists?”. This would mean “working outside the doors to take work to people, breaking down the stigma of what a theatre is, and what performances can be”.

Levene continues “we are trying to do two things: revive our community and amateur arts scene and take everyone along, get people out of waiting for indoor work”. This can mean digital work and also planning work that can happen outdoors in the rain. It is important, he stresses, to “keep the ground from which we grow young people and amateur arts, get those shoots growing. The other side is finding professional artists, companies, individuals, collectives and engaging with ways we can work with them”, which he says means helping them reach the audiences they need.

They are presently talking to funders about public engagement, finding out what artists have in the pipeline and creating conversations.

And there are positives. Levene says “People are responding to digital work, we are building an audience of interest rather than geographic reach”, although he adds that “our audience are keen to return as soon as they can, even if nervous”. They are also willing to take risks and go outdoors. But he also says “we were lucky to get the cultural recovery fund from the Arts Council, which has kept us going and goes until March”. However, here there is a concern as while they plan activities June to August the extension of the recovery fund will only run until June and they are still assessing whether it is worth applying for it or looking at other measures. The government’s assessment is that everything will be normal by June and this is what determined how funds were structured.

Otherwise, the contingency is more restructuring, looking at more furlough, pay and hour cuts or losing roles.

Here, audiences and supporters of arts and culture can help. He says “our website is filling up with digital and online activities”. Some of this is work designed to be digital and interactive, and some might be made for Zoom. There is experimentation and some work that is more traditional, audio only work and also film.

Several events are already going on, including the Living Record Festival of which they are a part, a digital arts festival featured in national media, which opened on 18 January and runs until 22February.

They are also hosting a game play festival. This normally runs in January but this year will run March to June. It is “a celebration of what happens when people play games: retro computer games, board games, etc,”, and will also include “participatory theatre experiences for families and teenagers”.

The Place also hopes to deliver outdoor arts and theatre over the summer, some of which will be amateur, moving around town. They are in talks with the council to see what can be done to attract people back into the city.

Arts and culture has suffered under Covid-19, but there is optimism that it will survive, if changed and adapted.

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