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BWW Interview: Chris Stafford Talks Reopening The Curve Theatre

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Before the second lockdown in England came into place, we chatted to Curve’s Chief Executive, Chris Stafford, about the venue's reopening and their community work

BWW Interview: Chris Stafford Talks Reopening The Curve Theatre
Chris Stafford

Just a few weeks ago, the Curve Theatre in Leicester announced three new shows (The Color Purple in concert, Sunset Boulevard in concert and Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual), community events and a new bespoke auditorium in their COVID-19-secure venue that was ready to open.

Sadly, within a matter of days, a second lockdown was announced in England, pressing pause on the Curve's plans. But now they're back with reopening plans and rescheduled socially distanced performances.

Before the latest restrictions came into place, we chatted to Curve's Chief Executive, Chris Stafford about the reopening, the impact of receiving cultural recovery funding and how audiences can keep supporting theatres.

How has COVID-19 affected Curve Theatre?

COVID-19 has affected the Curve just like all other theatres up and down the country. When lockdown first happened, we lost all of our earned income overnight. This amounted to over 80% of the turnover of the business, so the financial impact hit us straight away.

On top of that was the cancelling and postponing programmes of work, which in some cases, we spent years creating. We had shows that were on tour that we had to cancel, our co-production of Sister Act that was on day two of rehearsals when we were forced to close, and we also had shows that were just about to go into production.

We were hit with the sheer volume of postponements and cancellations as well as the impact on our participants and our community programmes. We run a really extensive weekly programme of workshops, community activities, youth theatres, and all of them were cancelled. So, on many levels, the theatre was absolutely devastated by it.

Obviously, we're not home dry at all now, but with the grants from the cultural recovery fund, there is real optimism about the future. We're now in a position where we can safely reopen our theatre in a socially distanced way.

How does it feel to be opening the doors again?

It is really, really joyous and exciting to be in a position where we're now able to do what we do best - making work and engaging our audiences and communities, so we're really thrilled.

What's incredible is seeing all the positivity from our audiences about Curve opening again and being in everyone's hearts. Knowing that we're going to be employing hundreds of freelancers, many of whom have been unable to work since the pandemic kicked off and knowing that our team is going to come back to work.

Furlough has been incredibly hard for anyone who's on it. Knowing that our colleagues are going to be coming back to work to their jobs is incredibly exciting. The idea that we're going to be open this year, three or four months ago, we didn't think that would be possible.

What safety measures can people expect when they visit the Curve?

Like every theatre that is planning on reopening or has reopened, safety is front and centre of all planning; we already have a rigorous safety program in place.

There'll be temperature checks, and there'll be health declarations. In the theatre, we'll have social distanced seating and an at-seat service for hospitality, so there will be no queuing at our bar or cafe.

There'll also be one way systems. We've managed to hire temporary toilets to increase our toilet provision. There'll also be paperless ticketing. We're doing everything we can to offer our audiences complete reassurance that it's safe to come back to our theatre.

One of the other things that we're doing is, if anyone is feeling unwell, we are saying do not come. If you've got any symptoms, however mild they may be, don't come. But we recognise that people don't want to feel they've lost money, so our refund policy has been overhauled to reflect that. If people are feeling unwell or maybe in a position where they're being asked to self-isolate, they can get a refund or an exchange straight away to ensure that they do not come and see the shows.

A triple-revolve was donated to the venue by Sir Cameron Mackintosh. How did it feel to receive something that would allow you to transform your space for socially distanced performances?

Cameron has been a really brilliant friend to our theatre for a number of years. When we were forced to close, it was actually Phantom of the Opera that was playing on our stage, so it was a Cameron Mackintosh produced show that was the last show that was performed at the Curve.

Cameron's been incredibly supportive of our theatre during this closure. When we were talking and cooking up ideas about what would we do if we can open, rather brilliantly his suggestion was, "Well, I've got a revolve, do you want to use it?"

Having that donation to the theatre has really enabled us to be able to use our stage in a way that we've not been able to do before. We have a really unique theatre; our 330-seat studio and our 970-seat theatre are separated by iron walls that can be lifted to create one huge epic space. So, over the years, we have always been trying to find ways to use that space artistically, and we never thought a pandemic would be the time to do it.

But when we were thinking about how we could do social distancing, obviously merging that space into one really unique epic arena provides us with the opportunity not only to ensure really healthy social distancing is in place, where seating bubbles are created throughout the auditorium but also artistically, we're able to try new things.

When Cameron very kindly offered us this revolve, everything slotted into place. Not only can we offer audiences seating safely, but also we can get a capacity in that means, whilst it's not sustainable in the future - it really isn't, socially distanced seating can only work for a limited period of time - but what we can do is get a level of capacity that means the shows will hopefully break even.

To have Cameron's support has just been incredible; both he and the team have been real supporters of our theatre over the years, but especially during the pandemic, they've been absolutely fantastic. We're really, really grateful to all their support.

A group of local creatives and theatre-makers across a variety of disciplines will take up residency at Curve in the new year. Can you tell us anything more about the Curve Resident Creatives?

One of our projects that was just about to unfold as COVID-19 kicked off was our Curve Creatives programme. It's a major strand of our artist development programme of working with local artists and helping them develop their practice. It offers them financial investments and resources that the Curve has to offer like space and mentoring, backstage resources and more.

We were in the middle of our interviews for this creatives programme when the pandemic happened, and of course, what we didn't want to do is press "go" on a programme in March when we didn't know feasibly when we were able to do it.

Having received some of the cultural recovery fund, we're now able to relaunch that. We're hoping later on this year or in early January, we'll be able to announce our new Curve creatives. They will be local artists who will be supported by the Curve in ways that meets their individual company needs or their needs as an artist. We will work closely with them over the next few years, and we're really excited about that.

It's been really important to Nikolai Foster [Curve's Artistic Director], myself and the whole team at Curve during this pandemic is that when we open our doors, our commitment to our local communities, our commitment to artists and our commitment to young people does not change. It should only get stronger post the pandemic. Having our organisation open with all of that activity just feels really fitting.

How can people support theatres like yours during such difficult times?

I think first and foremost, book tickets if you can. Most theatres, even if they're not doing social distance performances and may not be doing anything in the next few months. Most theatres have had to postpone shows, and those shows are still on sale for the next year or two. So booking tickets and supporting your local theatres is incredibly important.

If people can join membership schemes, that is also really helpful. And of course, if people can donate, that is really, really invaluable.

However, we recognise that membership schemes, buying tickets and donating may not be possible for everyone. This is the most challenging time this country will have ever faced from an economic point of view, but what I would say is, if you can't support in those ways, support the lobbying efforts.

Things like retweeting, sharing on social media and spreading the positivity of theatre's reopening one day and supporting theatre campaigns and messages, go a long, long way. Especially as we are still very much in this environment where we're not on the road to recovery yet, we're still in the middle of a pandemic. We're going to need our communities and our audiences to be right behind us to get through this very, very long road to recovery.

What have you missed the most about theatre?

I could talk for probably hours on end about what I've missed most.

I've missed seeing audiences and artists come together. A building like Curve is incredible. We have this most fantastic resource, but it's nothing without people. I've missed: artists; hearing the sound of creativity; going into a tech; leaving the theatre at eight o'clock at night and standing at the back of the auditorium watching an audience watching the show; and, of course, the team.

I work with an incredible team of people. I'm incredibly fortunate. I've missed working with them on a day-to-day basis. So, there's a lot that I've missed, but the heart of it is the people.

Why should people book tickets to see shows at The Curve?

These are incredible pieces of work made by incredible artists, both on stage and off stage. The most outstanding teams have so beautifully created each show, so audiences are guaranteed an incredible experience. Everything will be safe, and you can be sure that nobody is ever put at risk.

During these times, please support your local theatres and support the Curve. This has been a devastating time for our theatre, and we really want to see our audiences come back and support these incredible artists and us doing what they do best.

Sunset Boulevard in concert will run at the Curve between 18 Dec - 9 Jan. The Color Purple in concert has been rescheduled to 1 - 13 Mar 2021. Dates for Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual remain unchanged (25 Jan - 6 Feb). All three productions will be fully costumed and performed in the round, with social distancing in place.

Tickets are on sale now for all three productions on the Curve Theatre website.

Photo Credit: Ellie Kurttz


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