Like most arts organisations in the UK, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on the activities of Brighton Open Air Theatre (BOAT). However, the team at BOAT have shown remarkable resilience in implementing changes and learnings into their work throughout the past year, in order to safely welcome families back to their open air events. Will Mytum, General Manager at BOAT, tells us about the organisation’s experiences.
Shakespeare’s Globe On Tour, Credit Marc Brennan 2019
Brighton Open Air Theatre has existed in Dyke Road Park, Brighton since the summer of 2015. A labour of love from the outset, each year we have steadily grown and developed in regards to turnover, facilities, diversity of performance and audience numbers. Our offering of an outdoor theatre, centred in a beautiful park, is unique to Brighton and the wider East Sussex area, and we’ve therefore grown a loyal and hardy audience base over our first few years.
Lockdown came at a very frustrating time for us – we had just launched our full summer programme, 35,000 brochures had been printed and we’d sold over £20k’s worth of tickets. Our initial response was to put a halt on all marketing plans, as well as cancel our launch event and the first 6 weeks of our season, which was due to start on 1st May.
Our initial concern was to liaise with the companies we had to cancel on, as well as those in the rest of the season, to understand their plans and be transparent about our position. We were able to reschedule a few shows to later in the summer but most were postponed indefinitely. Many companies also cancelled of their own accord due to the uncertainty.
We also had a responsibility to our audience. We took the entire season off-sale, and refunded everyone who had bought a ticket for a cancelled show. Many were happy for us to keep the cost of their tickets as a donation, but the ticketing system we use did not allow this, so we set up a fundraising campaign called #keepBOATafloat.
Once we finally had a reopening date (after weeks of lobbying the government with the newly-formed Open-Air Theatre Coalition) we had an extensive risk assessment done, and developed Covid-safe protocols, including a bespoke seating system whereby each group was individually seated by an usher according to their group size, a one-way system, social-distancing on stage, masks throughout, etc.
As an open-air theatre, we were the only venue in Brighton that was able to open for more than a few weeks in 2020. We therefore ended up benefitting greatly, even with a reduced capacity. Our summer season usually ends in September, but last year we extended into October, and even had our very first Christmas season in December. We had our doubts as to whether people would be prepared to sit outside in the middle of winter, but it turns out that overwhelmingly they were, with almost every performance sold out. Being the only venue in town was certainly a huge bonus for us, and an unexpected twist of fate. We were honoured to be able to offer people the escapism they craved during such a difficult year, and it really highlighted the importance of a community-centred creative space.
BOAT Unlocked, Credit Mark Senior 2020
When it came to socially-distancing our audiences, we were slightly apprehensive over the family shows, as kids don’t tend to socially-distance too well! However, we were pleasantly surprised at how well-behaved everyone was. Family shows tend to attract larger groups than our adult shows, often all within the same bubble, so we were able to fit more people in, as the larger groups didn’t need to socially-distance within themselves. Families often also spread out with a picnic blanket which creates a natural area for them. The loss of audience interaction – such a key part of many family shows – was a shame, but we were incredibly impressed with the speed and creativity of the theatre companies who delivered a professional show adapted for Covid times.
Looking ahead to this year, we’re fortunate that we were able to have 4 months of programming last year to give us a head start on preparations. We’re maintaining our bespoke seating plan, with people seated according to bubble size, with a minimum of 1 metre between groups. The one-way systems and staggered bar queues are also returning, and we’ve increased the number of front of house staff to marshal everyone. We also send out detailed instructions to all ticket holders the day before they arrive for their chosen event, clearly explaining our Covid procedures.
The main thing we’ll take away from the whole experience is the reassurance that, whatever the circumstances, people (and particularly families) will always turn up if we’re offering the right thing. Artists will always adapt and deliver in any scenario. When times are tough, people seem even more determined to find some escapism, some entertainment, an experience they’ll remember. As long as we’re conscious of everyone’s safety, we can provide this for our local community, and that’s what theatre is really all about.