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Unicorn Theatre, Justin Audibert: ‘Dealing with the legacy of this moment will last for a long time, and for a lot of people.’

Artistic director Justin Audibert is in a cheerful mood, despite being slightly frazzled safeguarding The Unicorn Theatre’s future.

“Before we announced the digital streams of Anasi The Spider Re-spun we had 637 YouTube subscribers and we now have about 2,000 subscribers. Now, that is a small but significant milestone,” he says.

The Unicorn has partnered with the Guardian to present a free digital series for 3-8 year olds, inspired by its acclaimed 2019 production Anansi the Spider

Nearly 10,000 people have watched the first episode that streamed last weekend.

Anasi the Spider, The Unicorn 2019 Photo credit: Craig Sugden

Anasi the Spider, The Unicorn 2019 Photo credit: Craig Sugden

We are talking on the phone and I ask him what his hopes are for this new venture. “Look, what we would really be hoping for is that we can serve Unicorn audiences that have been coming to us and are currently not able to and use this unique moment, so that when we reopen more people visit us and want find out more about us.”

Audibert, who directed the original production, based on a spider from West African and Caribbean folklore says that the Unicorn’s first totally digital theatre experience was designed to be a “treat” for young audiences confined by the lockdown. “I hope that this has captured all the fun of the theatrical production.”

Theatre for young audiences creates a special bond between performers and audiences – a bond that a great deal of other theatre might learn something from.

Audibert fell in love with theatre at the age of 5 after seeing the Sooty and Sweep show at the Kenneth More theatre in Ilford. “I am 99% convinced that I am a theatre director because I saw Sooty and Sweep; I got to go up on that stage and everything-  it meant so much to me,” he says earnestly. “The idea that there is a generation of young people who will miss out on their first experience of theatre because of Covid-19 is devastating,” he says.

The Unicorn serves an audience aged zero to 21-years-old. “Usually, most of our audience is from London, with about half school audiences, half family audiences. This is the kind of engagement that most theatres in the UK would dream of,” he says.

Justin Audibert, photo credit: Craig Sugden

Justin Audibert, photo credit: Craig Sugden

“One of the things that I love most about the Unicorn is the democracy of the space and the building. Truly. I value the unique demographic of our audiences. We made Anasi Re-spun on smartphones, using the actors’ homes as filming locations and with extensive Zoom rehearsals. It wasn’t what I’m used to, but it worked out fine.”

Audibert recently signed an open letter to the Culture Secretary alongside 59 other ethnically diverse artistic directors calling on the government to ensure that progress made on diversity in recent years is not hampered by the coronavirus crisis. How did it come about? “When decision makers are discussing the future of the industry, they absolutely must include BAME leaders in those discussions,” he explains.

“When the cultural task force was announced, it did not look like the sector that I love and belong to – it was not truly representative. Our industry is a real success story – and that success comes from diversity, in all of its forms – the more different stories told on our stages – the more they will appeal to different people; we are trying to make this better – I know that the letter has had an impact.”

He stops and draws breath.

“So, at least there is now something out there now in the public domain: the conversation is happening, it is evolving, and it is wonderful that most people want to be allies.”

The Unicorn, London

The Unicorn, London

The Unicorn Theatre building near London Bridge is closed to the public indefinitely but its mission to engage, inspire and entertain young people remains more urgent than ever. Children’s theatre so often fires the imagination, equips young people with the transferable skills and creativity necessary to face the world, and perhaps change it too.

I ask him where we go from here. “We may be easing lockdown and re-opening society, but we have got to think of it as an enormous piece of work for all of us,” he explains.

Audibert remains clear-eyed about the challenges ahead. “There is a significant piece of social healing that is required. One hopes that the government understands and appreciates that it won’t be over swiftly and that dealing with the legacy of this moment in our history will last for a long time, and for a lot of people.”

And, finally, before he heads back to work, what are his hopes beyond this digital production of Anasi The Spider Re-Spun? “When we dreamed this project up we were keen for audiences to gather together in a shared time,for a shared experience. Of course, I know that this is not the same as being in a theatre. But it exists in a different space and we all must adapt. I guess on a personal level I feel like we are going to live in a world where there is a lot of pandemic fear,” he says, as pragmatic as he has been all chat.

“It would be wonderful if at the end of All This, we have a sound and inclusive digital offer that can be shared alongside our regular programme of live performance.”

Episodes of Anansi the Spider Re-spun, entitled Brother Anansi and Brother Snake, stream on Saturdays at 11am and are available to watch until Sat 4 July – via YouTube.com/UnicornTheatre and The Guardian website