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Owen Calvert-Lyons – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Owen Calvert-Lyons is the newly-appointed CEO and Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, taking over the role in June 2020. We caught up with Owen, to see how things were going, and to talk about the upcoming production of A Christmas Carol.

Hello! Thank you for your time today. Let’s jump straight in and start with a brief introduction – maybe you can tell us a bit about yourself, the company, what’s coming up and who’s involved…

Okay, sure! This [A Christmas Carol] is my first production for Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds since becoming the Artistic Director back in June and this is our first production as a company since we closed in March. After eight months of closure, the team are chomping at the bit to make some theatre again.

In terms of the team involved, I brought in David Lewington to do the sound design and original music. David is a Bedford based composer, who we worked with over the summer to make walking stories, so he has done lots of work using the headphone journey. The audience for this production will be wearing headphones throughout, meaning they will have a really rich and detailed sound world to accompany everything they’re seeing, which will make the production more immersive and it will cut out all the ambient sound of 21st century Bury and replace it with a detailed Victorian soundtrack and environment.

I’ve done the adaptation myself, alongside Ian Jarvis – Ian is a television writer who wrote things like The Job Lot for ITV, and he and I have created this adaptation. We’ve brought the brilliant novel down to just 60 minutes, which is quite important given it’s an outdoor production and it could be quite cold in December! It’s important that it’s a relatively short production so our audiences don’t get too cold, and that has been a great task for he and I to keep the essential story there and keep all those bits people know and love, but reduce it down to just 60 Minutes.

You mentioned briefly that you only started your role as CEO and Artistic Director this year – I just wondered what was that experience like, as it must have been quite challenging to be faced with this unexpected situation, so how have you found it going forward?

Yeah, it’s been a very strange time. I think what we had all envisioned when I was appointed was quite different from what we’re now able to achieve. I started with most of the staff team being on furlough, and they still are; so there’s still a huge amount of our staff that I’ve never worked with. That’s another really exciting moment about this production, as it will give me a chance to work with lots more of the team, and bring them back from furlough.

I think it’s also been a really extraordinary time, because theatres need to be at the heart of the community. They need that love, passion and investment from the community. It’s not always easy to see that it’s there, because even if people are feeling it, they’re not necessarily demonstrating it all the time; but during this period, I see the outpouring of affection towards the theatre, and it has been amazing. Somebody was telling me a story recently, about how their eight-year-old daughter had decided to smash open her piggy bank early and give the money inside it to the theatre, as she so wanted it to survive. Its stories like that in the last few months that have just been amazing.

Understandably it’s been a tough year for the arts. How important are live events to you personally, and what have you been doing sort of behind the scenes to ensure that the theatre is secure moving forward?

I mean, live events is what we’re all about. While in this period, we’ve adapted and we’ve done things differently, and we’ve done some digital events. We did things like the “At Home With…” series, which is where we took the tried and tested format of well-known public figures talking about their life and their experiences. We would often do those in person, so we did it digitally via zoom. All the time we were trying to get as close as possible to the experience of the live event. We weren’t trying to replace it; we were just trying to get somewhere close to that really special feeling of shared experience.

For us, all the time the desire has been to as quickly as possible, get back to live performance. It has been a real challenge to get ‘A Christmas Carol’ on. We still don’t feel that we can safely open our auditorium, and we’re still in the process of making it Covid-19 secure; but the thought of not making anything live until March 2021 when we reopen just seems to be too far away. It also felt like our audience really needed and crave live experience, so behind the scenes we’ve been working really hard. A production like this would probably take a year of planning usually, and we’ve done it in about two months, and that’s due to the team working really hard, with extra hours of putting out all the stops and just saying, this is what we want to do. How do we make it possible?

We have mentioned some of it already, but you’ve got ‘A Christmas Carol’ coming up, so can you tell us a little bit about it – is it the story that as we know it, and how is it going to work with being outside…

In terms of the adaptation, it’s a very traditional telling of the story. All of the sections people know already are in there, and somebody referred to it recently as ‘like an old friend’ which is a great way of thinking about it. We’ve definitely stuck very closely to the original, with lots of the original languages in there so people feel like this is the story they know and love.

But in terms of the staging, it’s very far from traditional. We are building two stages in the Angel Hill car park, and we’re transforming that car park into a performance space every evening. The audience will be stood in the round, they’ll be masked, and they’ll be wearing headphones. They will have autonomy of being able to see the production from wherever they want, and everyone will have a slightly different experience because of that. Then it will be against the backdrop of the Angel Hotel, which is of course where Charles Dickens wrote Pickwick Papers, so you’ve got the most perfect Dickensian backdrop to this beautiful story.

That sounds great! How have you found the response so far, and how have ticket sales been?

The response has been fantastic. Every time I’ve spoken to anybody about it, they’ve been overwhelmingly supportive and it’s needed that. It’s needed the support of the town, because we’re not in our own space so we’ve needed the help of the West Suffolk council team, the Athenaeum, the Angel Hotel, the cathedral, and all those other partners nearby who have done something to help us to get this play on. Again, in terms of the public response, we’ve already sold 40% of our tickets and we fully expect to sell out before we open. Part of it is that there are a very limited number of tickets available, as there is only a capacity of 130, but it also just shows how much the public are hungry for an event like this at Christmas.

Yeah, definitely! Just to clarify, what are the Covid-19 safety measures that you’ve got in place there for the event?

A lot of it will be the things that audiences are now very familiar with. You’ll have to register with the track and trace system when you arrive via the NHS app, there will be hand sanitising stations on entry and exit. Everybody in the audience will have to wear a mask (unless exempt) , and every group will have to be at least 1 metre apart from another group throughout. We’re taking the Covid-19 security of it very seriously, we’ve got lots of risk assessments and control measures in place, and we’re very confident that we can we can run this event safely.

In addition to your own fundraising, you were fortunate enough to get a grant from the Culture Recovery Fund. How beneficial is such a grant and support like that?

The Culture Recovery Fund has been an absolute lifesaver. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of that combined with the furlough scheme. By the end of the program, the furlough scheme would have given us about a quarter of a million pounds, and the same figure from the cultural recovery fund; that’s half a million pounds of government subsidy, which is extraordinary. Without that, I don’t think we’d be able to be operating. I mean, we have lost over £800,000 of income over the year, so £500,000 goes a big way towards that, but it’s also needed that money from public support and other trusts and foundations to actually get us closer to covering that gap.

That is amazing! What do you personally think the future of the theatre industry holds?

I’m very optimistic about 2021. I think there are all sorts of theatres like ours who haven’t yet managed to reopen. I suspect that a lot of them are being like we are, and that they’ll be opening in March and April next year. I think everybody is holding out great hopes for the vaccination program, and if that is rolled out in the spring, we could be starting to see an impact by the early part of the summer. I think theatre will have taken lots of great learning from this period, and I think a lot of those digital elements will make their way into the live events. I don’t think some people’s fear of digital replacing live is well founded, I think what will happen is live events will come back and they will have a greater digital element as a result of it.

At the Theatre Royal, we’re already anticipating that all of our live productions next year will also be filmed and streamed. We’ll still be expecting most of our audience to experience it live, but it will also mean that maybe there’s a way that it runs longer than the three-weeks we normally run a show for. We’ve also discovered through things like ‘At Home With’ that we can reach audiences in America, Australia, and across Europe, and this will allow us to reach those audiences again; so I think there will be some real benefits to theatre that we will have undergone in this period.

I agree, and I think that’s a very good point. It’s amazing what the Internet can do really, isn’t it?

Absolutely! I think a lot of companies have taken time to spend some money on their own learning, their own skills, and their own infrastructure to be better at technology and to use it more imaginatively – so I think we might see some really cool productions come out by next year.

Yes, definitely. Until then, how can the community support the arts – is it the obvious of going to shows and donating, or are there other options you would suggest?

It’s the obvious one, but it’s also the most important one! I think the most important way an audience member can support their local theatre is to buy a ticket. That is fundamentally our core business, and it’s the thing that really drives theatres ability to continue to make theatre. Donations are important of course, and anybody able to do that and gift aid it, makes such a big difference. But I also think that some of the things that have buoyed us in this period are people just getting in touch and telling us how much they miss theatre or how important theatre is to them. That isn’t a financial transaction, but it’s been just as important to us throughout this period to just know that our audience is thinking of us and really cares that we’re closed and want us to get back open.

Yeah, definitely. Finally, tell us why you love what you do and what you’d like to say to the audiences and supporters…

Well, I love the experience of watching live theatre; I think it’s really special. It’s unlike anything else, the experience of being surrounded by other people and seeing great human emotions and experiences played out live; and through that, being able to in your imagination, and imagine yourself in those situations. I think that’s the real power of theatre; that’s why I do it, and that’s why we’re so desperate to get back to making theatre. With A Christmas Carol, that will be exactly the same. It’ll be that great experience of audiences standing together, experiencing that great joy of the human experience of Scrooge’s journey played out in front of them.

Catch ‘A Christmas Carol’ in front of The Angel Hotel, Bury St Edmunds from 11-24th December. Visit theatreroyal.org/-a-christmas-carol for more information and tickets.