One year of Covid: Theatre boss on serving community during pandemic

Queen's Theatre executive director Mathew Russell.

Queen's Theatre executive director Mathew Russell. - Credit: Queen's Theatre

"We're a charity that's at the heart of the community", Queen's Theatre executive director Mathew Russell says.

"We've got to adapt what we do to what we can do so we're still playing a part in people's lives."

The Hornchurch venue is part of an industry that has been hit as hard as any during the last 12 months.

It had been "firing on all cylinders" before the pandemic struck, according to Mathew, after winning London Theatre of the Year at the Stage Awards last January.

Prime minister Boris Johnson then advised people on March 16 not to visit theatres, before the first lockdown was introduced a week later.

Mathew told the Recorder that Queen's staff prepared contingency plans but that they had "no idea" of what was to come.

"Right from the beginning, we just had this motto of getting on with what we could get on and always being positive and thinking of it as an opportunity to do some different things."

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The theatre continued with a £1.35million building improvement project, QNew, while it was closed but has had to furlough a lot of its permanent staff for "significant periods" of the last year, Mathew confirmed.

In August, it ran summer schools and re-opened to the public in September.

As part of the autumn season, Queen's put on Misfits, a mix of live theatre and digital content which allowed people to decide whether they wanted to attend in person or watch online.

Lockdown two in November meant the live performances could not take place but Mathew said the theatre was well-prepared as a result of the show's format.

"It was always going to be filmed, it was being rehearsed and made in such a way that it would work as a streamed event. It was great - the numbers exceeded our expectations and there were such wonderful reactions."

The pandemic also meant no festive pantomime at the theatre for the first time since the 1950s.

Aladdin will now run next Christmas and Mathew described the decision to scrap panto in 2020 as a "real wrench".

Queen's instead put on Christmas Allsorts, a variety show, to fill the void but again was restricted in the number of performances due to the introduction of tier three restrictions in mid-December.

Mathew said: "The show really did demand a live audience and I think we were all, across the theatre industry, really surprised how quickly things changed.

"We were in tears watching the response of the audience and so even though we only did a few performances, there were people who were saying 'this is the only thing we've done this whole year'.

"It was sad that more people couldn't see it but still really worthwhile in terms of what it meant to those people who did."

Queen's has just hosted a run of Sharon ‘n’ Barry Do Romeo and Juliet on Zoom and the role of live streaming in the theatre's future is something theatre bosses are considering, Mathew said.

"Every theatre has a different audience and a different purpose. Streaming and digital theatre was already something we did a little bit of but we've learnt so much about it.

"There's nothing quite like the live experience and our audiences have told us they're really looking forward to that so that will still be the central part of what we do."

Despite the periods of enforced closure, he expects Queen's will be here for a long time to come as long as support from audience members, donors, Arts Council England and Havering Council is sustained.

The government roadmap has outlined that theatres can reopen no earlier than May 17 and with half capacity up to 1,000 people.

Mathew said that the pandemic has shown how vital culture is to society.

"I hope that we come out of the pandemic and continue to keep doing the brilliant things we were doing before but also to really learn from the spirit of the times and the things we've done differently.

"We want to re-open the theatre to the public as soon as we can, as much as a community hub as anything."

Asked what it will feel like the first time the auditorium sees a full house again, he added: "Every moment, whether it's the first time we did a dementia-friendly performance again last September or whether it's the final performance of Christmas Allsorts, they are really big moments and they have quite an emotional impact.

"What's wonderful is they have an emotional impact for everybody who works at the theatre.

"People are incredibly proud at what the theatre does and really moved by the way audiences and participants respond to that.

"There will be many more really emotional moments to come, I'm sure."

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