One of the industries hardest hit by coronavirus is the arts. Since March, shows, plays and concerts up and down the country have had to move to online viewing or close altogether. Many people in the industry have shown amazing resilience and flexibility, but no one can deny that this has been an extremely difficult time.
Usually Guildford, Woking, Godalming, Redhill and Leatherhead all host their own professional pantomimes, with many amateur productions in the mix as well. In 2020, however, Surrey has just one live family pantomime – Beauty and the Beast in Godalming.
I caught up with Nick Wyschna from the Guildford Fringe Theatre Company, producer of Beauty and the Beast.
How has coronavirus impacted you and your work?
NW: It has affected us massively. Not least because we are only selling 33% of the total capacity for the venue, so as you can imagine that has a big financial implication.
It has made us ultra-aware of our surroundings. Health and safety is always of upmost importance but this is a brand new level of cleanliness and awareness.
On the artistic side of things, we have had to strip the show from 2 hours including an interval to 1 hour 15 min with no interval. We are just making every effort to decrease the amount of time our audiences are nearby other household bubbles.
There is nothing normal about this year but we are doing our very best to make it feel normal when the audiences sit down. The show is magical, inclusive and hilarious so all the changes may be there but we will certainly still whisk our audience off to pantoland where they can forget all their troubles!
What made you decide to go ahead with a live pantomime this year when so many other theatre companies have chosen not to?
NW: Stupidity?? No, well, not just that! I produce theatre, that’s what I do for a living. Not only for a living but theatre is my life. If I am allowed to try, I will.
I don’t blame others for cancelling though as it is a scary old time and you do sometimes feel like you are constantly putting out fires. But to be in the rehearsal room with talented performers is just exhilarating and makes it all worthwhile.
Whatever happens, we have tried our very best and will continue to do so.
What changes have you had to make to rehearsal and performance arrangements to keep cast, crew and audience COVID-safe?
NW: Our cast, crew and creatives have made a show bubble meaning other than rehearsals and the show we are doing nothing else, apart from the essentials of course. All the audience are socially distanced, in their household bubbles. We have a one-way system in place front of house. The room and seating is cleaned between every show. We have not cast a children’s ensemble this year to limit numbers backstage and we have reduced the show length to minimise set changes where people have to get super close, unnecessarily. Whatever we have been advised is best practice, we have done it.
Do you think there will be a long-term impact of coronavirus restrictions on the performing arts?
NW: Absolutely. I can only speak for myself but we have all been through the same year. In July alone we cancelled 150 shows and events. You can’t make up for the losses of this year within months, or even years. Some small-scale theatre companies will not have made it through this. And don’t forget without small companies and Fringes there is nowhere to try out new work. Without new work it won’t be long until we run out of shows and are just stuck with the old ones that run for years, that’s not very exciting for a creative industry.
We are assessing what we can afford to do next year ourselves. We need to do shows to get the ticket sales to make up for the losses of this year but there is only so much risk we can take right now. It is a scary and sad time for theatre.
Many thanks to Nick Wyschna for sharing his views with Hillbers. We wish him and the Beauty and the Beast cast and crew all the very best for this year’s extraordinary panto!
Beauty and the Beast, Godalming Borough Hall, 19-31 December 2020. To book your tickets, visit: godalmingpanto.com