Keep Calm And Carry On (Performing)

Can community theatre survive COVID-19?

e8a8b137-ebea-43b7-8665-5fe07ccf23bbSUP co-chairs Alison Wells and Stephen Fenerty reflect on the last few months

We hope this blog finds you and your loved ones safe and well.

We’ve been co-chairs of SUP Theatre Company for three years now, and we love the group for many reasons – but mainly because of the people we get to meet, work and socialise with. We come together through a shared love of theatre, the arts and performing, to make new friends and have fun.

Pre-coronavirus and like most people, SUP’s year was pretty well planned. We had a great mix in our programme that included festivals, outdoor theatre, regular plays, murder mystery events and socials – all of which went immediately on hold, like most of the rest of the country, in late March.Cast_StephenBW

Someone said to us, ”Well, I guess that’s it for you guys, for a few months at least?” Far from it.

The challenge for us and the SUP Committee was how to keep our society ‘going’ when we couldn’t actually get together physically and do what we came together to do in the first place: engage in theatre as a collaborative activity.

How do you run an amateur theatre group when there are no theatres and no audiences, when actors can’t be in the same physical space?

Of course, this is a massive challenge facing theatre groups and venues up and down the country, in so many cases magnified, and some – sadly including our own Nuffield Southampton Theatres – have already stumbled and fallen. We have performed at NST Campus for over fifty years. The future is uncertain and we can expect a lot more of that. But, as they say, the show must go on, in some form or another. We must try to stay positive.

So that is what we have done. Like many others, from the National Theatre to stand-up comedians, we’ve taken it online. In fact, we’ve been thrilled to see the SUP community thriving online.

These days, we hold our monthly committee meetings using Zoom. Of course we do.

But we also planned lockdown social events via Zoom, hosting two well-attended quizzes that also involved friends and family, as well as online play-readings, scripts provided. The second play reading was open to the wider public if they wanted to join us. Yes, reading a play online as a shared experience does take a little getting used to, but once you get that flow and pace, it works extremely well. And it’s fun. It brings us together. And together, we are stronger.

As part of our community remit, we also used our lockdown quizzes as opportunities to raise funds for charities including the Alzheimer’s Society and Rowans Hospice.

On Facebook, for our members’ only group, we’ve run ‘Lockdown Challenges’ for members to provide short video clips or images that are, for example, associated with a famous scenes or dialogue from plays and movies. It’s creative, it’s a distraction, it’s fun.

Back in March, we were disappointed when we had to cancel our rehearsals and public performances for our new wartime anthology ‘For The Fallen: Home Front’ that presented voices from the Southampton Blitz, D-day and VE Day.

Instead, our fantastic cast members of all ages performed the poems, letters, sketches, monologues, first-hand accounts and songs from the safety of their own homes, recording their brilliant efforts on video, some using virtual backdrops and other effects. We’re all learning.

Volume 2. Page 70, Picture 6. World War II. 8th May 1945. Whitehall, London, England. VE Day crowds are in high spirits after Prime Minister Winston Churchill+s speech.

Many of these clips were part of Royal Victoria Country Park’s live stream for its VE Day celebrations. We were even interviewed about our “virtual VE Day performances” on BBC Radio Solent. Take a look at the video playlist on Facebook, some clips are a little over a minute, none more than three minutes – https://www.facebook.com/watch/SUPTheatre/841452699676177/

We’re continuing to try and think of new ways to engage with our members and reach an audience. Members can dip in and out as they like, and we’re delighted to see them when they do join in.

Our next challenge will be online auditions and casting for our next production, which will take place in a theatre – we just can’t be 100% sure where and when right now – and we’re also thinking about other online performances we can put together as a group. As our technical prowess grows, so do our ideas.

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It does take a bit of work, time and planning but trying to keep the group together and active as best we can, while the country emerges from the Covid-19 crisis, is a priority for the two of us and for the rest of the Committee. SUP has been around for over 55 years and we’re still going strong! In fact, we even welcomed two new members this week: Jan and Greg, it’s great to have you on board.

Why not join us?