It’s been a challenging year for theatres, but that hasn’t stopped Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre from keeping busy. They will be ready to Rock’n’Roll again with The Snow Queen (running 17th-24th December), they’ve been working on the new building for NW2, as well as turning 20 in 2021. We caught up with Sue Lawther Brown to talk a bit more about it all…
Thank you for chatting to me today! Let’s start simple with a brief introduction: Tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the company…
I’m Sue Lawther Brown from the New Wolsey Theatre and I’m the Head of Communications. I started my role in April this year, which is quite extraordinary as we were closed!
You mentioned there that you only joined the New Wolsey team at the start of Lockdown, which is quite unusual! How have you found it, as that must come with some challenges?
I had a relationship with the New Wolsey for a couple of months before I started full time with them, as I did some temporary work earlier in the year. It’s been challenging getting to know everybody during lockdown, as some staff were furloughed and we weren’t physically in the same space – we were meeting over zoom. However, the staff at the New Wolsey are lovely people so it’s been really great getting to know them, albeit in very strange circumstances.
Understandably, it has been a difficult year for the arts and live events. However, what have you been doing behind the scenes to keep busy and ensure the theatre secure moving forward?
Yes, it has been a remarkable year. Looking back over the last few months, we have moved on from thinking about this being a short interval, to understanding this is going to be reality for far longer than anybody thought. We’ve had to make some painful business decisions about making some staff redundant but we were able to get funding from the Culture Recovery Fund from the Arts Council England and the DCMS, for which we’re very grateful.
We’ve been pedalling away like mad to keep building projects on track that had started before. We’ve had this wonderful building we’re calling NW2 built in front of the New Wolsey theatre, which is a new participation space. It’s where our Creative Communities team will be based; we’ll be working with the youth theatre and a whole range of different community groups in there. It’s really accessible as a building and we have a sophisticated new Changing Places room, which is a disabled toilet- it’s something we’re really proud to be offering the community.
At the same time, we’ve been refurbishing the front of house area of the theatre, which is all the public areas, and the seats and carpets in the auditorium. So we’ve actually been incredibly busy behind the scenes during lockdown, keeping all of that on track and, of course, getting to the point where we can actually announce that we are doing a panto for Christmas, which is The Snow Queen!
Perfect Segway to my next question! The Snow Queen kicks off soon, so can you just tell us a bit about how it’s going to work and what made you decide to go ahead with it?
Well, we were absolutely desperate to be doing something creative. A theatre is a pretty sad place when its auditorium is dark. We didn’t want to let Christmas go by without us being active and serving the community that has looked after us. The New Wolsey Theatre is really strong on making the theatre building and its work accessible to people from all parts of the community. So every show of The Snow Queen is audio described and captioned, we have a British sign language interpreted show, and we’re working on a special relaxed performance recording of the show too.
What’s also really exciting is that it is a proper live-stream. There are 13 shows, each of which will have actors on the stage and hopefully a small audience in the auditorium. If, for whatever reason, we’re not allowed to have an audience in the auditorium from the 17th of December, the show will still go on. Not only that, it’s a mixture of live action on the stage, and pre-recorded film and animation. We’re inviting the audience to send us their dancing videos, which we will include in the show. We also have a proper ‘live’ moment, where a prop will need to be collected from somebody watching the show from home and it will be rushed back to appear on stage in the second half. That’s high jeopardy really, there’s a lot that can go wrong!
That said, we’ve tried really hard to think about bringing some of the pantomime’s joyfulness, shenanigans, daftness to our audience again in a new format. In a way, the audience at home and in the auditorium are members of the cast in panto, so we’ve really thought about how to achieve that sense of engagement digitally.
Sounds great fun! How have you found the response so far – has it been quite positive?
The public have been overwhelmingly positive about this and really grateful that we’re trying to do something for the Christmas to lighten and lift everybody’s spirits. We haven’t got many seats available in the auditorium because we’ve had to socially distance them, so about a quarter of the seats in the auditorium are actually available for sale for each show. We’ve had a really good response and we are selling lots of tickets for the Live Stream shows as well, which is delightful.
You mentioned the auditorium, what are the Covid-19 safety measures you have in place to keep audiences and staff safe?
We have spent weeks working out how to follow the government guidance really closely. We have a member of staff who’s known as ‘Captain Covid’ and he’s making sure that we all know the latest guidance and that we’re all following it. It’ll be everything that you would expect – staff wearing masks, the audience will be asked to wear masks (unless exempt), hand sanitizing stations, a socially distanced entrance and exit, moving around the theatre through a one-way system, and we’re going to be taking temperatures as members of the public come to the door.
What do you personally think the future of the industry holds – for example, do you think it will have to keep adapting and involve those digital elements?
I think that, especially with the news of the vaccines, as soon as people can get back to live cultural experiences, they will rush back. I don’t think that people will forget what it’s like to be live in a theatre or at a live gig and that’s really positive but I think it might take some time. We might be a year away from that, or possibly longer, but we will get back to that.
One of the positive things to come out of this experience is the experimentation with the form of theatre and live streaming. What we have been able to show with The Snow Queen is that by live streaming something that’s on stage and doing that really well, you can actually widen your audience. I don’t think we’re going to just drop that once we’re back to having a four hundred people back in our auditorium.
Yeah, I have to agree. As for now, what would you say the community can do to keep supporting the arts?
I think the public can get behind the arts simply by booking tickets and trying the livestream experience because that might be how we present work for a little while to come. By booking tickets and giving it a go, they are really supporting us and they can talk to us and give us feedback about what that experience was like so that we can make it even better.
The New Wolsey theatre celebrates its 20th birthday in 2021, have you got any plans and can you tease as to what’s in store?
We had some amazing birthday plans lined up for the beginning of February, which was going to be attached to our panto run, but unfortunately we’ve had to pull those. What I can say is that we are going to be very much alive and kicking in our 20th birthday year and we are planning some celebratory moments. We’re going to be really creative about it, and have a year’s worth of celebrating 20 years of the New Wolsey.
That sounds good fun! Lastly, tell us why you love what you do, and what would you like to say to audiences and supporters of the New Wolsey?
I’m just so grateful that the people of Ipswich and beyond support the New Wolsey theatre and I would like to thank them for everything that they’ve done; all the messages on social media, all the nice comments that they make, and the donations made. I would just like to say a great big thank you!
Perfect, that’s a good ending! Thank you again for your time Sue.
The Snow Queen runs at the New Wolsey Theatre from 17th – 24th December, both in person and live streamed. For more information, or either ticket options visit wolseytheatre.co.uk/the-snow-queen.
The New Wolsey has also teamed up with The Smokehouse in support of Independent Venue Week, so keep an eye out for more gigs being announced soon over at wolseytheatre.co.uk/whats-on.