Reflections on our Spark Season by Theatre by the Lake's Artistic Director, Liz Stevenson
Looking back to Spring 2020, I’d been in Cumbria less than a year and I’d just created my first season at TBTL. Suddenly, we had to cancel all future productions with no idea about what would come next. It was devastating to close the doors without knowing when they would open again. I wrote an open letter to our community:
“I want to assure you that we will, indeed, be back. We don’t know when, we don’t know how yet, but what we do know is that when we come back, the world will be different. Theatre by the Lake will be different.
“In this we find an opportunity. An opportunity to step off the tracks, to take a moment to pause and reflect. Without the overwhelming demands of the day to day, we can concentrate on thinking forwards, on making new friends, and dreaming up new programmes of work.”
Despite the theatre doors staying closed, behind the scenes we have stayed true to this sentiment.
Over the past year, with the support of Arts Council England, DCMS, and our loyal supporters, we have been busy preparing the building for re-opening, developing a new vision and plan, and delivering a new programme of work to re-engage our audiences. We launched an entirely digital programme, ‘Spark’ which was designed to spark new ideas, connections, collaborations and new ways of making work.
First off, we had The Climbers by Carmen Nasr, one of three rehearsed readings of new plays followed by Wings by Nina Berry and Tuning In by Adam Fenton. The actors and creatives took part in their homes over zoom, whilst the TBTL staff team presented live from the theatre building. It was the closest we had come to a live event in a long time, and it was a thrill to see the team pull together, throwing themselves into each experience and striving to make each one better than the last.
Assemble Here was created by theatre directors Fay Lomas and Taio Lawson, sound designer Mark Melville and five Cumbrian playwrights. Audiences received an audio play each day over the course of a week and were given instructions about what time of day and where to situate themselves to get the full experience.
Our Scratch Night Open Space, saw talented theatre-makers share and test work in front of a digital audience. From a musical rock-opera about libraries, to Cumbrian folk-tale audio experiences, we were blown away by the submissions. Finding, nurturing and celebrating Cumbrian talent is an important part of what we do, and our Cumbrian Creatives network, set up during lockdown, now has over 250 members.
We got to know our local creative young people, we delivered online theatre-making workshops with 14-18 year olds from across the county. Check out Found Fettle, an original audio journey across Cumbria, exploring spaces that have motivated and inspired the group over the past year.
As well as creating our own digital work, we shared the work of others that we admire. We partnered with Pentabus, the nation’s leading rural touring company and collaborated for the first time with Graeae and DaDa Fest on Tuning In, two inspirational companies who place Deaf and disabled creatives centre stage and challenge attitudes and preconceptions. We’ve also shared digital productions such as A Picture of Dorian Gray and invited kids and their grown-ups to enjoy audio tales, augmented reality storybook game experiences and performances thanks to Stuff and Nonsense and Funnelwick Limb.
Working with Cumbrian set and costume designer Louie Whitemore, we created a community exhibition Life After Lockdown and two installations in our theatre foyer to light up the space for passers-by on their way down to Derwentwater.
Over 70 freelance artists have been employed, almost 1500 tickets have been sold, we’ve live captioned and BSL interpreted digital events for the first time, and we’ve entertained people (old and new to Theatre by the Lake), gathering a wealth of learning along the way that will inform our future. A digital programme meant that countrywide audiences could connect with us from their living rooms, and we could bring exciting artists to everyone – regardless of drive time or distance. We are so incredibly grateful to all of the audiences, participants, artists and theatre-companies who have been a part of it. The DNA of Spark will be found in our programme for many years to come.
So, what’s next?
‘Going digital’ has opened up so many new possibilities for us that we’ll definitely be retaining some element of this in our future programme – but we’ll also be turning our curiosity and creativity to our beautiful surroundings and outdoor spaces. In August we’ll be partnering with ETT to deliver Trailer Story, an outdoor festival delivered from a wagon that will be parked on Crow Park. We’ll also be taking TBTL out and about, working with Barrow-born theatre maker Ruth Mary Johnson to deliver storytelling workshops for kids and families in libraries. Watch our website and social media channels for updates.
And finally, I’m delighted to be back in rehearsals for my first production as Artistic Director of Theatre by the Lake (I never imagined it would take this long to be back in my happy place, but I am all the more excited for it!). Home I’m Darling by Laura Wade is the perfect way to welcome back audiences to the theatre, and I’m thrilled that we’re co-producing with two brilliant northern theatres – Stephen Joseph Theatre and The Octagon, Bolton.
When we closed those doors last year, we had no idea what the future held. We are so grateful to everyone who has stuck with us through this time of reflection, research and reimagaining. Thank you. We cannot wait to see you again very soon. It will be different in many ways, but we are excited about going on the journey with you all.
Whether it’s online, out in our communities or inside our theatre building – we can’t wait to see you very soon!
As the country moves slowly through the government’s roadmap to recovery, arts venues nationwide have been busy behind the scenes. Planning, adapting, creating, and delivering; determinedly providing cultural opportunities and experiences for disparate audiences. Liz Stevenson, Artistic Director at Theatre by the Lake, speaks about what it’s been like working in a whole new way, and talks about what comes next for the venue.