The show must go on.
When COVID-19 restrictions put a stop to audiences gathering to watch live performances in March 2020, Theatr Clywd in Mold, Flintshire, was forced to shut its doors for the foreseeable future.With more than 100 core employees – and an annual turnover of £7 million pre-pandemic, the theatre’s senior management team had to move quickly to enable some level of continuity for its community work and on-stage productions.
The theatre adapted by taking much of its work online with virtual workshops, while at the same time creating a new digital platform to enable its stage productions to be accessible to a remote audience. In essence, they needed to become a fully virtual theatre in a matter of weeks.
This new way of working resulted in an urgent need for the technical teams to upskill their IT capability in order to transition to online theatre shows and content, a challenge which they responded to with vigour.
Of course, it wasn’t just audiences who weren’t able to access the theatre’s spaces. The theatre’s workforce was also having to adapt to a new way of working to maintain Theatr Clwyd as a cornerstone of the community, over and above running virtual theatre shows.
For the desk-based teams, the challenge was an immediate need for effective IT solutions, which would allow the likes of theatre administrators, marketeers and managers to work from home. The biggest issue for the management team, in this respect, was juggling IT hardware to make sure equipment was shared efficiently to maximise usage.
For those working in more creative roles, the situation was more complex. Theatr Clwyd is responsible for delivering the region’s music education and the theatre’s musicians responded to lockdown quickly and effectively by putting their music classes online.
Alongside this, was the wider community creative engagement work across dance, visual arts and theatre workshops. In all, more than 1,000 people were receiving online creative sessions each week.
For young people, the ability to adapt was often seamless, while for other workshops attendees, such as dementia sufferers, the transition to online workshops and lessons was more complicated, and the Theatr Clwyd team had to work closely with third parties, such as carers, to help get people online.
The backstage team also had to adapt, which meant the likes of the wardrobe and costume department using their own sewing machines at home. This worked well, in the most part, although the need to access specialist equipment in the theatre for intricate work remains a difficulty.
For Liam Evans-Ford, executive director for Theatr Clwyd, this new way of working meant a 180 degree turn for his team in a sector long devoted to enriching lives by bringing people together.
“Our new way of working saw a widening in audiences through lockdown. Historically, our audience has always been within an 80 minute drive time, but by going online, we were reaching countries across the globe, and this can only be a good thing for Welsh arts and culture.
“The staff have benefitted too, particularly parents or those with other caring roles. The technology, offered by the likes of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, means that we can now be together as one, something we’ve never managed before, and yet something we’ll stick with going forward.”
Currently, as restrictions ease, Theatr Clwyd is operating a 3:2 flexible working policy, where staff in North Wales can choose to work three days from home and two days in the theatre, or vice versa. The test they are now facing is in the creation of the right framework and guidance to make sure working remotely operates successfully long-term.
“Very often, people working in the arts are guilty of not switching off because work is a labour of love. Remote working is going to offer them the chance of creating a better work-life balance, and if we get it right, that can only be a good thing.”