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Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris: “We have to seize whatever freedom we can find amid all of this confusion and terror.”

Tom Morris
Tom Morris

Tom Morris

“Sometimes I feel like I am married to this building,” Tom Morris says, laughing.

Behind him in shot is the beautiful, slightly darkened auditorium of the Bristol Old Vic: the oldest continuously working theatre in the English speaking world.

Morris gleams out of my screen over Zoom, bright in all senses. He is determined to ensure that the Bristol theatre, where he has been artistic director for more than a decade, survives these dark times.

“There are all sorts of possibilities. It is my job to do whatever I can to help extraordinary artists share their work with the public. Last week as part of a Bristol Ferment commission in the Courtyard space, we projected Saikat Ahamed’s epic poem onto the theatre wall. It seemed to catch the mood.”

Emma Rice’s musical Romantics Anonymous was originally set for an 11 week US tour, but, because of Covid-19 is being performed in Bristol Old Vic’s empty auditorium and streamed to theatres across the UK and internationally as part of an innovative ‘digital tour’.

It has been six months since any actor trod the boards of the theatre but finally the curtains are ready to go up: A sold out one-off socially distanced performance of Rice’s musical is scheduled for this Sunday.

“This week’s live streaming of Romantics Anonymous is a freestanding, astounding and pioneering event dreamed up by the wild imagations of our associate company Wise Children,” Morris says.

Romantics Anonymous

 “And for us, it’s a brilliant kick start to rebuilding our relationship with our audiences as we prepare an Autumn season which has to play to two audiences at once; some live in the theatre; others live at home, watching on line and getting as much as we can deliver of the thrill of being there.”

The performing arts has been one of the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic, with thousands of jobs already lost and unions warning of a “tsunami” to come. Morris, like many other regional theatre executives is awaiting the outcome of their recent submission to the cultural rescue fund courtesy of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

“Theatre buildings are pieces of technology that have evolved to do two very different things simultaneously: on the one hand, a theatre is apiece of kit that holds a sacred relationship which connects with ritual in the way Peter Brook and others have described; on the other, it is a piece of technology which puts walls around a performance space in order to gather box office income.   Theatres have always needed to have a foot in business reality and a heart of wild inspiration both at the same time.”

For most theatres, opening to reduced audiences only brings bigger financial problems. The government has indicated that a decision if or when to allow full audiences will not be taken before November.

Dress Rehearsal for Romantics Anonymous

“It has been such a long time coming through austerity and all provincial theatres have had to operate within the margins of viability for some time now.  But right now, I’m absolutely determined that we can find a way through the business side of things.”

“However hard it is, there is something exciting in working out how we can rebuild our creative economy,” says Morris.

“Part of our plan has been a slow rebuild, and that might be interrupted at any time and we may have to stop. But but as we set off on the journey, I am excited by the current radicalism on display from artists and audiences. The challenge is to rebuild something that maintains the business resilience we have learned through austerity with the vision for a fairer, more inclusive and more representative theatre articulated in the best bits of the Arts Council’s plan Let’s Create.”

I bring up Cameron Mackintosh who claimed that more government support should be made available for the large-scale west end theatres and that this would be more beneficial for the sector’s recovery rather than rescuing organisations that are struggling. Any comment?

“Ha Ha,” he replies, adding Mackintosh, could have submitted an application for a huge loan from the recent £1.5bn culture support package fund. “I really hope he did,” says Morris, smiling

“We all know about the terrible impact of missing the freelance workforce out of the Cultural Recovery Fund.  And I am still hopeful that something can be done to remedy that.  But in other respects, such as the provision of loans for commercial organisations alongside grants for others, structure of the fund is very clever.”

Which brings us to the role of large institutions in a Covid-19 era. What, I ask, would a reimagined funding system that prioritised communities instead of large institutions look like? “I think that the building vs people argument is nonsense – predictable nonsense,” he says.  “It’s absolutely clear that you need both.”

 “There just isn’t enough resource within the sector to create radical change by a redistribution of existing resources,” says Morris.

David Jubb, former artistic director of Battersea Art Centre touched on this in a series of blogs over lockdown  which are truly inspiring and would create a fantastic template for a regional theatre to try, ideally under Jubb’s leadership.  But  I do not think that they form the basis of a viable national policy which risks dismantling the infrastructure which has worked so hard and offered so much economically as well as socially over the last ten years.

“The best way to achieve some of those aims is to use the infrastructure and resources,” he says. “To learn from communities surrounding buildings, in a meaningful way. Especially if we want a talent pipeline and a sense of any substantial  progressions.”

Any final thoughts? 

He pauses.

 “Look.  As of now, we don’t even know whether we can stay half-open until Christmas” he says.

“Never mind whether we will be here in order to rebuild in the new year.  And the consequences of that uncertainty for our staff, our artists, and our audiences are really severe: just as they are for many many parts of the economy.”

He continues. “But as creative leader, however difficult it is, our job is clear:  We have to seize whatever freedom we can find amid all of this confusion and terror, and use it to imagine a better world.”

Romantics Anonymous runs online from Tues 22 – Sat 26 Sep



Interview Mayfest – MAYK – Director Kate Yedigaroff: “Do we doggedly keep on trying to deliver although we would have had to compromise extremely on quality scope, breadth and impact?”

Kate Yedigaroff

Mayfest is Bristol’s unique festival of contemporary theatre, dedicated to presenting a broad range of unusual, playful and ambitious work from leading theatre makers from Bristol, the UK and beyond

Kate Yedigaroff is co-director of Mayfest.
We are at the Watershed in Bristol – total brilliant cinema & digital creativity hub–  by the docks. Amazing.

Here is what we discussed…

Kate Yedigaroff

Kate Yedigaroff

Hi Kate, first thing is first: can we talk about THAT The Stage headline and the whole Mayfest Festival going bi-annual thing. 
We have made the decision to pause and we made it for lots of reasons. Of course, the thing that was picked up was that part of that reason was to do with the current funding landscape. We decided to pause because although we are an NPO this is only a part of the picture and we had had a bad year in terms of additional fundraising amongst other things. These decisions are hard – do we doggedly keep on trying to deliver although we would have had to compromise extremely on quality scope, breadth and impact?  Or do we take a breath and give time and space to strategic thinking and creating a really good festival for 2018 and beyond.  We’ve been going year on year for some years and there is a kind of breathlessness to that – it was getting to a point where we were being responsive all the time, rather than looking at where we actually are, contexts are shifting, the world is changing etc etc. Also our other producing work is growing and growing.

Would it be accurate to say that Mayfest may have become a of victim of its own success? 
It feels entirely appropriate that this festival goes bi-annual. Our intention is that this festival spreads right out across Bristol. So, another reason for delivering every other year is to build relationships that are going to take time, planting seeds for really exciting collaborations to grow and extending our national and international relationships too.

Talk to me about Bristol. I love Bristol. Do you? 
Bristol is an extraordinary place and I’ve found it impossible to leave. There is an ever shifting gang of artists making work, and a strong core. Strong networks and great audiences. Mayfest started at BOV in 2003 and at that point it was a programme of work in the studio that was deliberately being the alternative offer to a classical main house programme. It very quickly became clear that there was a huge community of artists and audiences that wanted to engage with it.

It seems like there is a lot of joined up thinking and collaborative team spirit, no?
There is a generosity here, and people’s peripheral vision is quite good but there is a lack of resource and at the moment there is not a lot of space to actually do stuff in. It’s tough for mid-career artists who are beginning to want and need to make work of scale and there isn’t enough hard cash and real opportunity to make those things happen.

What are the biggest challenges that you are hearing from the mouths of artists?

Lack of decent commissioning, co-production potential and proper supported development time, the scratch culture reigns supreme. Naturally people are frustrated as it’s getting harder to take risks on work that hasn’t been seen or artists that are ‘unknown’.  But if nobody’s going to take a punt how the hell are we going to move on from here.

You are co-director of Mayfest alongside Matthew Austin. What’s that relationship like? 
Matthew and I are very good friends and I suppose the ethos of the company is built on that – we are very different creatures but our tastes are mostly similar and we share a leaning to leftfield with a desire to not exclude. We are different spirits and we have different backgrounds. At work we pretty much share responsibility for everything but crudely speaking I’m more likely to be in a rehearsal room or having long meetings with artists about new ideas and he’ll be gathering speed with the important practical stuff that makes the work happen. It isn’t possible to think of doing this without him. We seem to make sense.

So, no festival this year. What have you got coming up?

Part of not doing a festival this year is a load of other projects that we are producing – in May we are premiering a show with a company called Firebird theatre. They are a company of disabled actors and they are making an autobiographical show that amongst other things celebrates 25 years of them making theatre. There are also the beginnings of a really exciting project with Stillhouse and LIFT. New works in development with Sleepdogs, The British Paraorchestra, Jo Bannon. And we are developing a programme of presented work outside Mayfest –  new ways of staying in touch with our audiences and experimenting with new things.

What is the Fringe culture like in Bristol?
The Wardrobe Theatre is a great project that’s becoming a big deal quite quickly. A lovely space with a really lively theatre. Brunswick Court, Residence and Interval – groups of independent artists who are co-working and experimenting with new ways of peer to peer support etc.

Who has been your mentor? Anyone you’d like to give a shout out to?
I feel quite lucky to have been well supported in Bristol – Dick Penny – CEO of Watershed – really backed me when I needed it –Tom Morris and Emma Stenning at the Old Vic too.

As we are all running to stand still and spinning plates, do you ever stop and take time to think about your own professional development?
I am more and more interested in finding new ways of creating unusual projects with greater and deeper public engagement. I’d like more time to explore this.  I find it quite easy to have a crisis of meaning – is this all enough?  There are so many people really being fucked over.  What can we do? Let’s not sit in an echo chamber etc etc. I wonder if there will become a way that my theatre producing can connect more overtly to these questions.
And I want to make sure that I keep trying to be a good mum. And that is constant learning. I have a son. I want to help him to be a happy man. Able to be vulnerable and silly and to find power in that too.