Running from July 2021 – July 2022, ‘Back Together’ will mark Artistic Director Matthew Warchus’ seventh season and will feature uplifting and thought-provoking shows in a hybrid digital and live programme ensuring theatre can be accessible to everyone.
We spoke to Kate Varah, Executive Director of The Old Vic, to find out more about the exciting reopening plans, the hugely successful In Camera digital series and the amazing ticket initiatives, including a new multi-buy offer, that will allow you to enjoy as much theatre as possible while saving money. You can read a transcript of the interview at the end of this article.
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Transcript of our interview with Kate Varah:
Hira: Well, Kate, what a year it’s been! I’d love to use this opportunity today to talk to you about how The Old Vic has adapted to closing the theatre and having to take work online. How does it feel to be the Executive Director at this time and what were the challenges and successes?
Kate: Gosh, well, so The Old Vic was one of the first to close back in March and we had a sold-out run of Endgame on our stage and we had 4000 Miles with Timothée Chalamet and Eileen Atkins in the rehearsal room ready to go, so we really were, you know, on a stride that felt really exciting. We had two shows opening in New York. I’d just come back from Girl From The North Country opening on Broadway and we had Lungs going to BAM, so everything was going on and then suddenly we all had to stop and it was right that we did, and it was responsible, but it was a huge organisational shift and everybody adapted amazingly, so our staff were incredibly resilient and resourceful and immediately just pivoted to working from home like everyone did but, when your workplace is so fundamental to the output of your organisation, I think it takes a different kind of strength to be able to figure out how to make that work while you can’t be in the space and be together and everybody did it just brilliantly. So, Matthew Warchus, our Artistic Director, led from the front and came up with this amazing concept for In Camera, which was live streaming from the empty auditorium – shows in real time and that captured the public’s imagination and ours. It allowed us to employ freelancers during the closure period, it kept our tech team busy and engaged and it brought in some fundraising for us, which was essential because we’re a not-for-profit independent theatre that doesn’t get regular funding so when the music stopped we had zero income overnight and yet the same overheads to meet. So we needed to find a way to generate income during closure as well as provide gainful employment for those that were part of our community. So I think In Camera did that and it was a really kind-of bonding and exciting thing for the theatre to be working on and then behind the scenes, the rest of us were trying to figure out how to how to make it work operationally and how to keep going and it’s not been straightforward but I think the thing that has completely struck me throughout the whole period is the collective spirit of both the organisation and the industry to just keep going and to keep making the case for why theatre matters and theatre is important and I definitely feel like the economic case for theatre has been made now, well, and the government understands that, which is brilliant and I think the next step, which we’re all working hard on, is to make sure that everyone understands the mental health and well-being benefits of theatre which is absolutely crucial. So, when we all can come back together hopefully there’ll be a kind of proving of that because people will feel incredibly uplifted and joyful to be back in the space as a group.
Hira: I think it was amazing the work that you guys have been doing with In Camera and that actually leads really nicely onto my next question. Do you feel that the fact that London theatre had to go digital has enabled you at The Old Vic to reach new audiences or audiences globally and what future impact do you think that will have?
Kate: Yeah, it’s a really good question and one that we’re absolutely tussling with at the moment. I mean firstly, yes, absolutely having to move all our work online definitely opened up a reach for The Old Vic and for others, that we didn’t have before and it was so energising to be able to share work during a period of lockdown with 72 countries, which we did for Christmas Carol and we worked with schools locally, but nationally as well, during Christmas Carol and then we expanded that again with The Lorax to work with schools globally to get the livestream to them as well and the brilliant thing about Christmas Carol was we also managed to work with two and a half thousand care homes across the country to get livestreamed work to them at Christmas, so all of those things were kind of new adventures and new opportunities to develop our audience which were absolutely focused on, you know, a big thing that that Matthew Warchus and the whole team at The Old Vic are really keen to do is to open up access to theatre, so everything we’ve been doing during the pandemic has enabled us to do that in a very odd way that despite the fact that our doors are closed, we’ve actually been able to open up access – probably more than we ever had in a sense because of the digital audience. How we continue that going forward is a really interesting provocation. We’re looking at how we might evolve and adapt our In Camera series to ensure that it’s part of our seasons going forward, but one of the the big things that is the kind of head scratch about it is that you need to make sure that you can capture the audience’s imagination with work online, whilst you’ve got physical productions on offer. Making sure that you can do both with ease and move between the two it is the challenge, so I think we’re still figuring out quite how to to do that at The Old Vic and excited by the challenge of how to put digital and technology at the very heart of the organisation and at the very heart of its success going forward. I definitely wouldn’t want to lose that that global audience that we’ve we’ve woken up, I suppose, to the joys of what we do. Equally, you know, the basic fact is that the joy of theatre is about coming together in person and if you can’t do that then that’s such a loss and such a travesty for those that are kind of into it, not everybody is, but for those that are it’s been a real loss, so I think there is a joy in being able to figure out how to merge the kind of physical experience and the alchemy you get when a thousand people are in the same auditorium laughing at the same time, crying at the same time, how you continue to work with that but also make sure that you don’t lose the chance to talk to a global audience. During the summer period for those that aren’t able to come to the theatre for whatever reason we wanted to continue the digital offer so we’ve started our whole reopening in July with an In Camera, which is going to be directed by Jeremy Herrin, of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, starring Danny Mays and David Thewlis, and they’ll be on stage delivering an In Camera to a global audience but we’ll allow in a very small studio audience to witness that experience and then we’ll lead into Baghdad Cafe with Emma Rice and that’s going to have an In Camera element as well, so what we’re trying to do throughout the summer period is make sure that nobody loses out that we really continue this mix of digital and live as we go into the autumn period and that’s a really exciting development for us, an opportunity to speak to both audiences at the same time.
Hira: I for one am super excited to see lots of theatre continue to put on all these amazing shows online because I know from my friends and family that there are a few people who might not have been so into theatres before this happened but through all of this, kind of, broadcast media online that we’ve been really kind of fortunate to have during this time, more and more people have been saying to me ‘oh, Hira, you’re so lucky to work in the industry. We enjoyed this show online’, and I would never have thought about that and I think that’s amazing because it’s opening doors for people who may not have otherwise thought that theatre was for them and so yeah, with all the amazing work that you’ve done and all the challenges you faced you were still continuing to make theatre accessible for people so I think it’s brilliant. Leading on to my next question, Kate, can you tell us a little bit about what’s next for The Old Vic, I understand that your new season plans will include two premieres created by women and you’ll also be continuing to offer accessible ticket prices?
Kate: Yes, it’s brilliant so we’re about to go live with our reopening season which that feels thrilling and certainly not something that we’ve taken we’re taking for granted after the year that we’ve all had so it’s with kind of additional dollop of joy that we announce the Back Together season which is Matthew’s seventh season as Artistic Director and there’s such a kind of an array of joyful uplifting work in the season, hopefully things to inspire people to come back in and get involved. As you rightly said, we’ve got two world premieres. One is Baghdad Cafe, which is being created by Emma Rice who is one of our companies in residence, her company Wise Children is the company in residence The Old Vic, and she’s going to return to direct this really joyful adaptation of the 1987 film Baghdad Cafe so that’s brilliant and that’s going to be playing end of July and throughout August, so something really fun for audiences to engage in over the summer months. And in September we’re going through into another world premiere with Bess Wohl, an American playwright, and she’s written a play called Camp Siegfried, which is going to be directed by Old Vic Baylis director, Katie Rudd, so those two things are really exciting and then we’re going straight into Christmas Carol again, which I know everyone’s going to be super excited to see after a year of not being able to access it in person, although what a joy to have it as an In Camera, and as you mentioned you know we’ll be modelling it like previous seasons so the ticket pricing will be exactly the same there’s real range and a bid to keep tickets affordable like we did before with our relationship with PwC so we’ve got our £10 preview tickets. But the new thing that we’re introducing is something called Old Vic Local, which is to try and encourage local people to come into the theatre more and it’s a free membership but it gives them access to discounts on tickets and café and other memberships so hopefully that will energize a kind of local audience to march through our doors when we reopen and a multi-buy offer, so if you buy for more than one show then there’ll be a discount of £5. So little things like that, that we’ll be bringing in, just to try and really encourage people to come back in and get their first taste back of theatre in 18 months.
Hira: I think we all know that our theatre fans are so eager to get into the theatres right now but all these small incentives I’m sure are gonna make such a huge difference and again making it accessible for everyone. Right, my last question. Kate, can you tell us a little bit about the education and outreach work you’ve been managing to continue over the last year and how will this continue alongside the new season that you have coming up?
Kate: Yeah, absolutely. One of the really joyful things that we were able to do was to immediately pivot all of our education, community and emerging talent work online. We just set up this education hub on our website, which basically is a collation of all of the workshops and content and activities that we’ve been doing in person, so that was brilliant because our education and community team weren’t furloughed for a day, they kept going and they managed to deliver online to different schools. So, that has been a really sustaining part of our our year of absence and I think it says a lot about the dual identity of The Old Vic, we are an artistic powerhouse with a strong social mission and those two things sit really closely together, so the work onstage always interacts with and feeds and speaks to the work that we do in the community and with the schools that we work with. So, being able to continue with that as a constant thread throughout the year was really important to Matthew, and to all of us, so the teams are back in schools as of this month so that’s been a really exciting step change but we’ll continue to work online with the education hub because, in the same way that we managed to reach new audiences globally with the main stage work, we were of course able to activate more relationships and reach more children and communities through the education hub because that’s now got global reach. So it’s really really exciting and that we were able to do that. I think i’d also add into that that there was a piece of work that we managed to do throughout the pandemic called Your Old Vic, which was really important to all of us and it sort of sat between the two we had the education work and then we had the In Camera work, which was paid for live streaming. And Your Old Vic sat in the middle, which was a free to access offer for anybody who loved theatre, who wanted to get a range of content directly to them and it might be a podcast, it might be an Instagram chat, it might be a series of monologues and it was really really accessible and we could use it across all the different stakeholders and relationships that we had and one of the brilliant things that we’ve been able to do is continue working with our Your Old Vic channel as we reopen so we’ve got two brilliant things that will be part of our reopening season. A monologue series called Queers, which you might remember we had back in 2017, which was curated by Mark Gattis and that’s going to be brought up again during Pride month on BBC iPlayer but we’ve commissioned two brand new monologues to support that, which we’ll be sharing on our YouTube channel called Your Old Vic. And the other is a piece to mark refugee week, which is going to be curated by Noma Dumezweni, again available through Your Old Vic YouTube channel and that’s three new monologues to talk about the theme of being a refugee and it’s going to be called Home. So, those are the things that we’re still producing and that really picked up a lot of traction a lot of resonance with our audiences during lockdown that we want to really continue and make sure that get a prominent voice within the new season.
Hira: Brilliant, Kate. Thank you so much I’m so grateful for you to take this time for with us today to tell me about everything that’s coming up and I’m sure our audiences are going to be thrilled that you’re carrying on with the In Camera series and also with all of the education kind of contributions that you’ve been making as well so thank you!