Hybrid performances bring Abbey Theatre shows to live audiences and online viewers

PUBLISHED: 20:18 19 October 2020 | UPDATED: 21:17 19 October 2020

The Abbey Theatre auditorium adapted for a COVID-19 safe audience. Picture: Nick Clarke

The Abbey Theatre auditorium adapted for a COVID-19 safe audience. Picture: Nick Clarke

Abbey Theatre

As theatres plot a way to welcome back live audiences safely with social distancing measures in place, the Herts Advertiser takes a look behind the scenes of how creatives at one St Albans venue have adapted its productions to today’s coronavirus world.

The Abbey Theatre auditorium adapted for socially distanced audiences with plenty of spaces between groups. Picture: Nick ClarkeThe Abbey Theatre auditorium adapted for socially distanced audiences with plenty of spaces between groups. Picture: Nick Clarke

Not everyone is ready to venture back into a theatre auditorium just yet.

That’s not a problem for the Abbey Theatre.

The St Albans venue has the answer that should satisfy most potential audience members – hybrid performances.

The Company of Ten has just completed a very successful run of the new format, with simultaneous in-theatre and live-stream audiences.

Roger Bartlett as Rick in the Company of Ten's production of Building The Wall at the Abbey Theatre in St Albans. Picture: Anne FrizellRoger Bartlett as Rick in the Company of Ten's production of Building The Wall at the Abbey Theatre in St Albans. Picture: Anne Frizell

As COVID-19 delays the opening of theatres fully without social distancing measures, the Abbey Theatre has created a new option.

Audience members can book to see their current shows either in the main theatre or from the comfort of their own home.

This innovative format proved extremely popular for the theatre’s first play of the autumn season, Building The Wall.

Karen Thomas, production executive for the resident Company of Ten, said: “We knew our first play, Building The Wall, was a risk.

Bar orders being taken at the revamped Abbey Theatre. Picture: Nick ClarkeBar orders being taken at the revamped Abbey Theatre. Picture: Nick Clarke

“It’s an important and very relevant piece of theatre and we were delighted when playwright Robert Schenkkan agreed to allow us to offer a simultaneous live-streaming opportunity alongside our in-theatre performances.

“His controversial and thought-provoking contemporary drama might not appeal to everyone, but as audience numbers were limited by COVID, we decided it was a risk worth taking.”

And it has certainly paid off for the long-established local company.

Originally scheduled for the Abbey Theatre Studio in April, this play transferred to the main stage to allow for socially distanced audiences and to offer better sightlines for live streaming.

The Abbey Theatre foyer in St Albans with COVID-19 safety measures in place. Picture: Nick ClarkeThe Abbey Theatre foyer in St Albans with COVID-19 safety measures in place. Picture: Nick Clarke

Rehearsals for this two-hander included just the actors – Sarah Priddy and Roger Bartlett – and director at first, with other members of the team joining gradually and always maintaining social distance.

Director Tina Swain said: “Not only was the play very pertinent to the moment, as we watch the US Presidential election unfold on the news, it was also an ideal project from a social distancing point.

“The two characters are a prisoner awaiting sentencing for an horrific crime and a history professor to whom he’s granted his only interview.

“Clearly these two people would be wary of close proximity.

Building the Wall was the first production back at the Abbey Theatre with a live audience. The play could also be watched online as a stream. Picture: Anne FrizellBuilding the Wall was the first production back at the Abbey Theatre with a live audience. The play could also be watched online as a stream. Picture: Anne Frizell

“I discussed with Sarah and Roger how we would deal with the occasional moments of confrontation and we worked collaboratively to ensure everyone felt comfortable.”

The theatre at Westminster Lodge at the bottom of Holywell Hill has invested in major COVID secure measures to reopen safely.

Local company Evolution Environmental has been contracted to carry out “fogging” in public areas every month.

The product is an environmentally-friendly antimicrobial liquid which is applied by spraying, wiping or misting and lasts for 30 days.

Building the Wall was the first production back at the Abbey Theatre with a live audience. The play could also be watched online as a stream. Picture: Anne FrizellBuilding the Wall was the first production back at the Abbey Theatre with a live audience. The play could also be watched online as a stream. Picture: Anne Frizell

It is colourless, odourless and completely safe, leaving no sticky residue, as it bonds to all surfaces including upholstery and other soft furnishings.

In addition to this high level of protection, the daily cleaning regime has been significantly increased and a one-way system introduced for the audience.

Gill Stratford, front of house executive for the theatre, has spent the past few months devising and refining procedures, with assistance from a small team of volunteers.

“We have hand sanitiser units at all points of entry, a clearly marked one-way system and an increased number of front of house staff to assist audience members from the moment they enter the theatre.

“Customers place their bar orders and are shown to their seats where they are served with their drinks.

“We’ve had so many compliments from people who are thrilled to return to see a live performance.”

Once in the auditorium, customers will enjoy the confidence of being seated at least two metres from other groups.

Alternate rows are blocked from sale, and there are two seats between each booking.

In addition to directing Building The Wall, Tina Swain is the full-time theatre manager.

Tina said: “We took a decision early in the planning stage that our priority was to make sure customers felt completely confident to come back to our venue.

“It was a sacrifice to reduce seating from 230 to only 53, but we have felt absolutely vindicated in this decision because of the very positive feedback from our audience members, telling us how safe and well-looked after they felt during their time with us.

“And being able to offer simultaneous live-streaming has enabled us to reach many more people than we could accommodate comfortably in the theatre.

“We’ve even had people logging on from as far afield as Germany, America and Australia!”

Tina added: “I never imagined I’d be so delighted to sell out 53 seats in-house and the same number of log-ins to live-stream audiences with potentially entire households watching.”

Reaction from audience members watching the live stream has been universally appreciative.

“We’ve had very favourable comments about the fact that we’re offering more than a static wide-screen camera angle.

“We have three operators each night, so we can provide close-ups and the video director can cut between shots.

“It’s a much more interactive experience than people might expect, and there’s a particular thrill in knowing that you’re watching the same performance the in-theatre audience is seeing.”

Looking ahead, the Company of Ten and Abbey Theatre have more hybrid productions scheduled.

In November, they are presenting Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking and in December, the perfect family treat, The Secret Garden.

Current plans are to have socially distanced and live-stream audiences, but if the regulations change, the theatre is able to move swiftly to exchange in-theatre bookings for their live-stream option.

“At the moment, it’s all about being able to respond to government restrictions while continuing to provide top-quality entertainment,” said Tina.

“We’re very fortunate to have people who have moved virtual ‘mountains’ to achieve these fantastic hybrid performances.”

Relatively Speaking is due to play on Friday, November 6 and Saturday, November 7 at 7.30pm and on Sunday, November 8 at 2.30pm.

There are then planned performances from Tuesday, November 10 to Saturday, November 14 at 7.30pm each night.

The Company of Ten’s production of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, adapted for the stage by Neil Duffield, is scheduled to run from Saturday, December 12 to Wednesday, December 30 with both in-theatre and live-stream options available,

You can keep updated with the Abbey Theatre’s plans or book tickets for forthcoming productions at www.abbeytheatre.org.uk


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