The wettest summer in 100 years – few can forget the downpours of the summer of 2012.
But while for most of us this meant merely getting wet – a lot – the seemingly endless rain took Oxford’s home grown Creation Theatre Company literally to the brink of ruin.
“That summer was devastating for us,” said Lucy Askew, Creation’s chief executive. “You don’t realise how much you really care about your job until you think you’re going to lose it, and that was a truly dark time when it looked like 16 years were going to be just lost.”
The St Clements-based charity, which receives no regular funding and relies on ticket sales for its survival, suffered a double whammy of wet weather and a 50 per cent drop in tourism.
Its summer show, The Merchant of Venice, at the rooftop amphitheatre at the Said Business School, Frideswide Square, was its biggest production of 2012, but despite having an indoor wet weather back-up, takings were down drastically and the company revealed it would be unable to produce any more shows unless it raised £30,000 by the end of its Christmas show, Aladdin and the Magical Lamp, last January.
In a rallying cry worthy of Richard IV, Creation appointed the charity’s commercial director Lucy Askew to the position of chief executive, slashed its spending and cut its staffing down to a minimum to give itself a fighting chance.
And Geoffrey Bryant, chairman of Creation’s Board of trustees, made an urgent appeal to local businesses and supporters for help.
Ms Askew said: “Of course we didn’t want to close, but at the front of our minds were our audiences.
“We were looking at the very real prospect of closing, not putting on anymore wonderful shows and letting our audiences – the people who had supported us – down.
“It was just awful.”
Creation’s many fans responded immediately.
“People donated £5 notes, £10 notes and £50 notes,” said Ms Askew.
“Our business sponsors rallied and even the children who came in for workshops opened their wallets at the end of the session and gave us their fifty pence pocket money.”
A past production of Cleopatra
Julia Iball, 50 from Kirtlington, near Bicester, was one of hundreds of supporters who offered their time or money.
She said: “While I was a partner in an Oxford law firm we had sponsored Creation, so when I read about their difficulties I wanted to help. I wasn’t working at the time so I offered to go in and help in the office. Their staff was at a minimum and myself and other volunteers just rolled up our sleeves, sat at a computer, filled in forms and helped with calls to possible sponsors.
“During that time I saw letters from many people making donations and they all showed such kindness.
“But Creation gets inside you, it gets in your heart and people just wanted to do what they could to keep it.
Through the generosity of its supporters, not just £30,000 but £40,000 was raised, taking Creation back from the precipice.
“It was amazing and while our audiences have always been part of us, it’s now like they have a real ‘share’ in Creation,” said Ms Askew.
In 2013, Creation’s professional casts have gone on to stage three successful shows, including the one-man Jeykll and Hyde at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, which was seen by 3,000 people.
“A one-hour, one-man show in a bookshop might seem like a ‘hard-sell’, but Jeykll and Hyde was amazing in so many ways,” said Ms Askew.
“The venue for one was so atmospheric, so gothic and exciting.
“The show exceeded everyone’s expectations and we even had to extend the run for another week.”
A Midsummer Night's Dream featuring stilt walking and magic tricks in Headington Hill Park
Henry V at Oxford Castle Unlocked this summer also played to full houses and standing ovations and the company is now staging its most lavish winter show yet, with a musical adaptation of CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, featuring the evil White Witch, at the North Wall Arts Centre.
As part of its ongoing ‘survival planning’ Creation has also been working on ways to deal with its baddest ‘baddie’ – its nastiest nemesis – the rain.
Ms Askew said: “We started looking seriously at what we could do to plan for bad weather about four years ago, with indoor locations we could use as back-up plans if the weather was bad.
“But from this year we have also been producing shows with a shorter run such as the three-week Henry V, so that if bad weather does strike, we can reduce our financial risk.”
With 2014 now looking decidedly bright for Creation, Ms Askew said the company is looking to widen its horizons and has already started planning Macbeth at Lady Margaret Hall for the summer.
“This year was all about having survived and fighting back, while this coming year we are in a much stronger position,” she said.
“We’re looking to tackle some new challenges. But most of all we are looking forward to repaying our supporters with more fantastic shows and productions, which is a lovely feeling."
DRAMA CLUB MEMBERS JOIN NARNIA MAGIC.
FIFTY years since the death of one of Oxford’s most famous sons, CS Lewis, Creation’s winter production of one of his best known books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is apparently moving people to tears.
And it’s proving a big event for members of the company’s drama club, who take part in the production.
Lucy Enright, Freya Wattam, Megan Wilks and Orlando Riviere
Creation chief executive Lucy Askew said: “This production is a bit of a departure for us in that it is our first musical, but audiences can expect amazing costumes, fabulous songs, magic, puppetry and even an appearance by Father Christmas.
“It’s very emotional and intimate and even adults have told me they have cried when Father Christmas comes on.”
Featuring a new script and original score, the show, which runs until Saturday at Summertown’s North Wall Arts Centre, sees the Pevensie children embark on the journey of their lives, through a wardrobe to Narnia, where they encounter talking fauns, beavers and the magical lion Aslan.
Ms Askew added: “Having a children’s chorus from our drama club means added expense in chaperoning, costumes etc, but is so worth it.
“The children, many of whom I first met in my original role in the education department five years ago, are so professional and accomplished and we hope to use a children’s chorus more in the future.”
Using a children’s chorus is new for Creation this year and for most of the 12-strong chorus this is their first professional foray into acting.
Orlando Riviere, 12, lives in Oxford, attends Magdalen College School and joined Creation after attending a week-long summer workshop two years ago.
He said: “My mum suggested I go along to the drama workshop because it seemed like fun and it was brilliant. Appearing as part of the chorus is very exciting and I think that acting could be an option for me in the future."
Megan Wilks, 15, lives near Witney. She said: “This is my first professional show and although it is very challenging being part of Creation it also shows you what you can do. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is really Christmassy and waiting to go on for the first act is always nerve-wracking, but also very exciting.”
Lucy Enright, 14 and from Witney attends Wood Green School. She said: “I’ve been part of Creation for just over a year and the thing that makes it really special is the quality of the shows it produces. My first week-long workshop here produced a better play than some of those I have been in which have taken weeks to produce. Being part of Creation also boosts your confidence and all my family will be coming to watch which will make me feel a little nervous, but also pretty proud.”
Freya Wattam, 11, from Fyfield near Abingdon attends Matthew Arnold School. She said: “I think people coming to see this show will think it is awesome. There are great costumes and one part, in which there are gas masks, is even a bit scary.”