Louise Chantal, co-director of the Oxford Playhouse, looks back over a traumatic – but encouraging – year for theatre

It’s very hard to describe the last year, which is why so many people in theatre have been reminiscing about what we were doing on the 16 March 2020 – who we were with, what shows we were working on, where we were when we heard ‘the news’.

As soon as Boris Johnson told the nation to stay away from pubs and theatres and said, ‘responsible theatre owners would make up their own minds about opening’, I rang the producer of that week’s show, The Woman in Black, the cast of which were already warming up onstage.

Read story: On anniversary of shutdown, our theatres are fighting for survival

He kindly said the decision was ours, and I reluctantly went down to the auditorium to tell the actors they would not go on that evening. Ten minutes later an email came through from our industry association UK Theatre, advising all theatres to close.

We had done the right thing.

What followed that emotional Monday night has been the most extraordinary year. Time stopped, yet I feel like I’ve counted every minute. We’ve been closed, yet we’ve never worked so hard or so long. We even turned into a temporary lecture hall for Oxford University.

The Playhouse team, intermittently furloughed and each covering several people’s jobs, immediately transferred all our participation and artist development programmes online (leading the march to digital nationally) and have worked with over 4500 young people and community group members to ‘stay creative’ during lockdown. We kept telling stories and supporting artists all through this crazy year.

We embraced the new, commissioning world premiere digital works – including our co-production of The Picture of Dorian Gray, starring Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley, which goes live today.

Louise Chantal Oxford Playhouse.22/12/2020.Picture by Ed Nix.

Louise Chantal Oxford Playhouse.22/12/2020.Picture by Ed Nix.

We have despaired, rallied, been buoyed by humbling and inspiring support from so many, opened and shut again. Several shows have been cancelled and rescheduled three or four times. I wrote in an email from last April that ‘we might be closed till September’, having no clue about the severity of the crisis and how it would affect the Playhouse.

We closed with 138 regular and irregular staff on payroll. We now have 27. We’ve been awarded nearly £750,000 in Cultural Relief Funding – grants usually make up 11 per cent of our turnover, this year it was per cent. The corollary of that is that sales usually make up over 70 per cent of our budget – this year it was two per cent.

The fact fundraising made up for so much of that lost income, contributing well over £300,000 already to keep the Playhouse solvent, is a testament to the love felt for the theatre, and the generosity of our audience members.

We will never be able to thank you enough.

Why does this matter during a pandemic in which everyone is physically, emotionally and financially suffering?

Theatres in Britain are worth £1.3bn per annum in ticket sales alone and generate over £1bn in VAT revenue for HMRC.

Over 34 million people attend a show each year – more than the Premier League – 176,000 of them came to the Oxford Playhouse in our last year of operation.

We’re a viable, successful sector of the national and local economy.

People – well, theatre producers – rarely mourn money though.

The Playhouse is a family and a vital part of our community.

Read more: Oxford theatres welcome biggest ever relief package

We miss our friends. I think of the scores of youngsters in our 17-25 Young Company, who were in their last week of a year’s preparation for their showcase production when we closed, and our long-standing amateur partners – Oxford Theatre Guild, Oxford Operatics and Opera Oxford – whose yearly extravaganzas at the Playhouse bring together hundreds of local people, from every possible background, to put on a show.

Louise Chantal Oxford Playhouse.22/12/2020.Picture by Ed Nix.

Louise Chantal Oxford Playhouse.22/12/2020.Picture by Ed Nix.

And that’s the real point, isn’t it? The arts in general and theatre in particular bring people together for a collective, joyful experience.

We can’t wait to open our doors again in May (maybe) and be together again.

We’ve missed you.