“I wanted it to feel like a cultural snapshot of our theatrical moment” – Bertie Carvel on the Lockdown Theatre Festival

As the industry remains in disarray in the fallout of COVID-19, audiences have bear witness to the fascinating and varying ways that the arts have responded and remained resilient, ensuring that even in the most difficult of times, the show continues to go on. To example but a few: we’ve seen theatre’s around the nation dig into their video archives to present shows online; this month The Old Vic presents a socially-distanced livestream of its hit play Lungs from it’s empty auditorium; and this weekend, we see a more traditional (but nonetheless unorthodox) response to the pandemic in the Lockdown Theatre Festival, broadcasting this weekend on BBC Radio 3 and 4.

The Lockdown Theatre Festival is the brainchild of actor Bertie Carvel, perhaps best known to stage audiences for his Olivier Award-winning turns as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical, and as Rupert Murdoch in James Graham’s Ink, and for his leading roles onscreen in Doctor Foster.

Carvel’s idea for the festival was simple: find plays closed prematurely by the coronavirus and bring them to the airwaves. We spoke to Carvel to find out about how the idea was born, the technicalities of putting the festival together, and the potential future of the arts.

Lockdown Theatre Festival was conceived in perhaps the most dismal of circumstances: an Equity Council crisis meeting: “It was 17th March — two days before lockdown was announced — and around thirty staff and Council members were doing our best to socially distance in a modestly sized room as we laid plans for the union to continue to operate under the impending restrictions.”

Carvel describes sitting “grim-faced” as the implications and new-reality for the industry became clear: “It was inevitable that theatres would have to close, and what’s more, that the casual work in bars and restaurants that sustains so many actors would also dry up overnight.”

Then came Carvel’s lightbulb moment. Carvel describes how he “remembered — inaccurately, it turns out — that during the Blitz the BBC had created the Radio Drama Company, bringing into its subterranean studio bunkers a lot of the acting talent that was going to waste, and I wondered whether something similar might be accomplished now.”

Indeed, the Radio Drama Company (affectionately known as ‘The Rep’) was founded at the beginning of the Second World War and is remembered for the original group of actors that, in the midst of crisis, soldiered on to entertain the nation. The spirit of the Lockdown Theatre Festival does feel similar in many ways. As Carvel says: “All this beautiful work was suddenly set for the scrap heap: how wonderful it would be to rescue some of it!”

In choosing the plays that would make up the inaugural festival, Carvel “wanted the festival to feel like a cultural snapshot of our theatrical moment.” Ultimately four plays were selected: a revival of Mike Bartlett’s 2010 play Love, Love, Love from the Lyric Hammersmith; the Royal Court’s premiere production of E.V. Crowe’s Shoe Lady; Josh Azouz’s seminal play The Mikvah Project, revived by the Orange Tree Theatre; and finally Winsome Pinnock’s new play Rockets and Blue Lights, which had its untimely world premiere at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in March.

Carvel worked closely with producer Jeremy Mortimer, the team at radio production company Reduced Listening and with commissioners at the BBC in the selection process: “We tried to choose a balanced programme that would reflect in miniature the rich diversity of practice in this country. I’m really proud and honoured that we’re able to present such an exciting and varied line-up. Anyone who works in production will tell you that the feeling of bringing other people’s work before an audience is every bit as intense as performance.”

Of course, radio drama has a rich history and framework, but the circumstances in putting together broadcast changes in the landscape of a pandemic. Carvel clarifies how “the team at Reduced Listening sent recording equipment to all the actors — sterilised, of course. That way, though they were linked up online, we were able to record in high quality: each actor was effectively in their own individual studio.” Carvel further noted how the team had “limited time to record given the urgency with which we wanted to bring the project to air.”

One luxury given to the broadcast team was that the actor’s performances were already “fully-baked,” giving the production crew a chance to work quickly: “There was just enough time for the actors and directors to recalibrate subtly for the microphone and then go for it. Then producer Steve Bond and sound editor Adam Woodhams stitched everything back together from the master recording and made adjustments according to notes from the directors and production team.”

The obvious question that springs to mind is to what extent the format of radio can capture the essence and immediacy of theatre? Carvel believes it’s possible: “Part of the pitch was that we would take the stage production wholesale and translate it to radio, as far as possible, in its integrity — including original music and sound design elements.”

Carvel also hails the versatility of both theatre and radio: “In selecting the plays, it was important to me that we should challenge ourselves and not simply select those which seemed an obvious fit for radio. It’s such a versatile medium, and like the theatre it relies heavily on the imagination of the audience, so there really are very few limitations.” I questioned Carvel whether there’s any plans to continue recording plays closed by the lockdown. His answer? “Watch this space.”

Finally, I asked Carvel whether he stays optimistic for the future of the industry. His answer is solemn but strong: “we must.” Over on Twitter, Carvel has handed the question over to the masses in the #LockdownTheatreSymposium. Through the hashtag, Carvel has began a conversation of theatre’s future, calling upon actors, creatives, technical teams and crucially, audiences, to share their views of an industry post-Covid. This discussion continues on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking, with a panel discussion on the future of theatre featuring Carvel, Amit Lahav, Eleanor Loyd, Inua Ellams, Selina Thompson, Tim Etchells and Roy Alexander Weise.

In Carvel’s words, the Lockdown Theatre Festival was started to “focus attention on the difficulties we face as a sector. Proud as I am of what we’ve achieved, I hope it will only increase listeners’ hunger to get back into an actual theatre. I hope the government will extend the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme and broaden its eligibility criteria as too many artists are falling through the cracks. It’s not enough to support organisations — though that’s vital too. It’s a bleak picture. But the sector contributes so much to our wellbeing — not only economic, but cultural and spiritual — that I think the case is a muscular one. So much stands to be lost…”

You can find more details about the Lockdown Theatre Festival here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000jvhz

Festival Lineup:

Shoe Lady by E.V. Crowe – Saturday 13th June at 3:00pm – BBC Radio 4

Rockets and Blue Lights by Winsome Pinnock – Saturday 13th June at 8:00pm – BBC Radio 3

The Mikvah Project by Josh Azouz – Sunday 14th June at 3:00pm – BBC Radio 4

Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett – Sunday 14th June at 7:30pm – BBC Radio 3

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