'To Liberty, and not to banishment' - making theatre in summer 2021
Co-Founder & Producer Sarah Gobran looks back on the challenges overcome in staging two open air productions this summer...
In February 2020, as I crawled across a church floor with a blood smeared face, into a little box, and popped my head through a banquet platter, I could never have envisaged that that would be the last time, we would produce a full show (Macbeth) for 16 months or how every one of the things that I have listed above would have had to be re-thought if were we producing that same show now.
A pot of shared blood would now no longer be possible, gloves would have had to be worn (or hands sanitised) before opening the trap door, no-one would have been waiting in the wings to help me with the upcoming quick change, the floor no doubt would have had to be sanitised before more crawling could be actionable, and the diners around the table a covid-safe distance from my head and each other – or masked!
Aside from the absolute joy and relief of being able to perform in the same space as OTHER PEOPLE whilst having OTHER PEOPLE watching in the same space too, following months and months of being sat in a tiny room, alone with a green screen, a few props and a bucket of gin (fake, I promise you), there was suddenly so much to think about in producing this summer season.
So where to start?
Well, we knew that keeping people safe had to be paramount. As we slowly and cautiously emerged from our homes in April, the thought of keeping 12 people safe in a room was daunting. Seating was carefully measured with everyone placed in a circle two metres apart from each other. A laptop was set up so that if any of the 6 more creatives and stage managers needed to visit the rehearsal room they could do it virtually.
Face masks were mandatory whenever moving around the building and if ever the action on the stage was under 2m away from you.
Lateral flow tests were executed twice weekly, flasks for hot drinks distributed to avoid shared use of the kitchen, and hand gel made available at every door, desk or department.
The other formidable prospect was to ensure these safety protocols for 10 weeks.
Then came the questions of “How do we produce a show, if people can’t stand closer than a metre to each other, can’t share or exchange props and can’t touch other?”
Thanks to the brilliant creativity and utter willingness of the directors, choreographers, designers, stage managers and actors, it’s amazing what you can achieve when you put your mind to it.
Characters who poured tea or brandy for each other suddenly became only half polite by pouring the drink and then pointing for the other character to pick it up, rather than handing it over.
A letter that had to be passed from one actor to another and then a third (after discovery that sleight of hand and dummy letters was really NOT going to work) became possible thanks to the wearing of period gloves.
In As You Like It – as Le Beau was commanded to “bear him away”, Charles the Wrestler suddenly had to develop a character trait of indignant pride so as to have the strength to get his injured self up and bear himself way to avoid an actor having to lend a hand. Equally, the wrestling match was fought with sticks not hands – each stick needing to be easily identifiable so that they couldn’t accidentally pick the others’ up.
At GSC we always have some element of actors doubling, or in this case quadrupling, roles but without the ability to help each other quick change costumes (we only have one ASM), whole sections of stage action had to be created to fill time, whilst the actors had to hone the slickest of changes. 8 actors and almost 20 characters is no mean feat in normal times!
A wheelbarrow became the mother of invention to save Touchstone having to carry Celia into the woods, and a palm facing palm, without ever touching became a lover’s embrace. A pair of marigold gloves meant that clothes could be safely pulled off a washing line and thrown at another actor and hand sanitiser at the bottom of the ladder to the platform meant we could all get up and down whilst looking after each other.
Who knows how effective all of these measures were and how many will be kept on a long term basis. At the moment, as shows are constantly closing all around us, it seems impossible to consider that actors will ever make contact with each other on stage again, without the entire company living in a bubble and never interacting outside of it. I sincerely hope that is not the case, but I am truly grateful that we found ways of keeping going and getting through every single day of our summer season without Covid playing its part.
Who could ever have thought that the liberty of just doing your job could mean so very much?
A special thank you to everyone involved in the show, not just all the people mentioned above in the actual making of the show, but our Front of House team, full time staff, volunteers, trustees and audiences who make GSC not just possible but the most worthwhile thing we could be doing.
Photography by Matt Pereira
(Macbeth 2020, She Stoops to Conquer & As You Like It 2021)