What does a venue do when no-one is allowed to perform there, by law, and even if they were able to perform, nobody is allowed into the space to watch?
For more than a year in lockdown, the performing arts industry has grappled with that question and Lighthouse was no exception.
As we readjust (at last!) to once again hosting performances in front of audiences, Lighthouse Head of Programming Tim Colegate sheds some light on how the organisation has gone about cancelling and postponing shows while simultaneously planning for that most welcome return of live shows and audiences to watch them.
Obviously, there was no template for this, so how do you programme a way out of a pandemic?
I have tried to keep one eye on the ‘now’ and one eye on the future. It is very easy to get caught up in the urgency of cancelling and postponing shows, especially when you have as many to deal with as we do at Lighthouse – we have cancelled or rescheduled more than 350 different productions over the past year.
However, throughout the various lockdowns, we made a conscious decision to focus on what we can do rather than what we cannot. Granted, it might have created less work for us had we simply shut our doors and waited for it all to blow over, but we never subscribed to that approach; we have a responsibility to our community to remain culturally engaging. So, we have expanded our creative engagement programme; we are thinking digitally; we have invested in new equipment; we have taken our work outside; and we haven’t forgotten the basic principles of programming when looking to the future. As Lighthouse reopens (hopefully for the last time), the programme will be packed full of the diverse, quality, visceral experiences that our audiences expect and deserve.
What have been the main challenges in revising, rescheduling, and extending the programme?
The ongoing uncertainty has been the biggest battle, for sure. While I stand by our approach, the frustrating thing about trying to make events happen amidst a pandemic is seeing our best-laid plans dashed time and time again by changing restrictions.
Despite that, we have produced our own original Christmas production, enhanced our artist development strand; offered an indoor programme when we could; and launched Lighthouse: OUTSIDE, our first-ever outdoor season in our amphitheatre which is returning this summer over ten weeks. All in all, not too shabby!
Looking to the future, the age-old programmer’s dilemma remains: we are always trying to maintain an equilibrium between financial robustness and artistic integrity.
How have promoters and artists faced those challenges?
We work with hundreds of producers, promoters, and artists to present our programme and maintaining our relationships with them is of the utmost importance. They have been through an ordeal as well and yet they have shown grace and understanding as we’ve worked together to navigate the latest developments. I’ve also noticed a real drive to continue creating work. I don’t believe people in our industry are the sort to be passive in the face of adversity and the creative practitioners that I’ve spoken to have been finding ways to keep creating. It has been truly admirable.
Going forward, what has changed in the way programming works?
As a busy receiving house, we are very good at being reactive. We consider existing shows for our programme every day and we are dab hands at welcoming visiting companies into our venue. Long may that continue, too.
Our programme features so much more than that though. Enduring the last year has given us an opportunity to assess what more we can do and surviving it has given us the confidence to push ahead with some bold decisions.
Lighthouse is not a producing venue, but we are producing our own pantomime for the first time in a long time this year and we’re focusing on how we can enable work to be created even if we don’t produce it ourselves. Thanks to support from the Culture Recovery Fund and the Weston Culture Fund, there will be much greater emphasis on our artist development and learning & participation schemes that will complement our regular received programme. There is no reason why we can’t present a sell-out West End musical by night and facilitate the creation of a newly devised circus piece during the day. As our audience develops and we look longer term, that circus piece might be found selling out our theatre in years to come, thereby allowing us to support the creation of a new piece of musical theatre in the Studio.
Of course, that’s a simplified cyclical model but it’s how I see the arts ecology developing. Being commercially successful and artistically progressive are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, I would say that they are more mutually inclusive than I ever thought before.
Lighthouse: OUTSIDE continues this weekend with performances on Friday and Saturday in the Amphitheatre to the side of the building. Indoors, there is a full Cinema programme and Screen On Stage, the new, next-level cinema experience in the Theatre. In the Sherling Studio, from Monday we welcome performance artist, theatre maker, writer, prodiucer Gemma Alldred for a week's residency as part of SANCTUARY, our innovative artist development scheme.