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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