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Q&A with Liz Stevenson – Artistic Director of Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

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Liz Stevenson, Artistic Director of Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, has shared her time to discuss the current situation and the impact it is having on her and the theatre.

Liz has been Artistic Director of Theatre by the Lake since 2019. Prior to this she was the Artistic Director of Junction 8 Theatre, and was the Associate Director on the 2018/2019 UK and Ireland tour of the National Theatre’s production of Macbeth. In 2015 she won the JMK Young Director Award. Barbarians at the Young Vic was nominated for a 2016 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. Her productions for Theatre by the Lake include How My Light is Spent, Handbagged and The Secret Garden.

How long have you been Artistic Director of Theatre by the Lake, and what is your favourite aspect of working there?

I moved from Manchester to Cumbria to take on the role in July last year. To be working in this beautiful part of the world, and to be making theatre in that fabulous venue really is a dream come true! 

The best thing about working at Theatre by the Lake is making the shows in the building. Making the art is the most fun bit! From early discussions with the team about the plays you are considering programming, through to seeing them burst to life on our stages, being enjoyed by the audiences you make them for – that journey is just wonderful, and it’s a real privilege to be at the heart of it. Our staff, volunteers, audiences, supporters and Friends all invested in my first season of work, and I felt very much supported and inspired by them in my first year as Artistic Director. Of course it was devastating to have had the shows cancelled after they’d been designed and cast, just a week away from rehearsal. But I know that we’ll go on that thrilling journey of making theatre again, and that our TBTL community will be behind us when we do. 

What inspired you to become an Artistic Director and what is your ongoing motivation?

I knew I wanted to be rooted in one place, and to go on a journey with this theatre and its audiences. I’ve always felt that theatre buildings can be powerful places, and have the potential to be beacons of creativity and hope in their local communities. I was excited to invest all my energy and creativity into one theatre, rather than travelling around the country making relationships and having special experiences but having to move on just as quickly as you’d arrived. 

Being an Artistic Director is broader than just directing the shows on stage – you are involved in all areas of the operation, and I love that variety and challenge, and bringing all of those elements together. 

What were you doing when the announcements were made for the theatre to close?

That week is all a bit of a blur really. The day before we were instructed to close, the public had been advised by the government not to go to the theatre, and so that was the first significant announcement which made us realise the seriousness of the situation, and that we’d have to respond quickly and decisively. After that, everything happened very fast. 

On the day the announcement was made I’d just come back from Ludlow to see the final rehearsal of new play One Side Lies the Sea, our co-production with rural touring company Pentabus. They were meant to open with us in our studio the following week before going on a tour of village halls and community spaces across the country. A day or two earlier we’d just finished the design process for all six of our summer rep season shows, so our production manager was at the workshop finalising plans. Malory Towers, our family musical with Wise Children was being prepared on our main stage, ready for the actors to join for technical rehearsals. The NT Connections Festival was due to begin, which in addition to our own young company, would have seen 5 other young groups from schools and youth theatres from Cumbria, Lancashire and the Isle of Man perform on our stages after months of hard work. So I think it’s fair to say the announcement came at a very busy time for the theatre.

What immediate effect did that have on your work? 

Malory Towers had to be postponed, and all the other shows including our summer rep season, our community productions and visiting work until September had to be cancelled. This was of course a very upsetting decision for us to have to make, but we couldn’t commit to the costs of making these productions without being able to o generate income from ticket sales for the foreseeable future. Our priority had to be to safeguard the future of the theatre.

What impact is there on Theatre by the Lake, and what will be the challenges after this is over?

The theatre has been through challenges over the years. It’s survived through foot and mouth, flooding and the financial crisis. It has suffered as a result of these events, but has always found a way to bounce back. The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis like no other though, and these certainly are unprecedented times. The initial shock was having to close the theatre to the public as quickly as possible, and subsequently having to cancel our summer season. We have furloughed 90% of our workforce under the government’s Job Retention Scheme, and we are now operating with a reduced management team who are focussing on the immediate operational priorities of the organisation and future planning, and trying to stay in touch with our audiences and supporters whilst we are out of the building.

One of the greatest challenges is the amount of uncertainty. We don’t yet know when we might be able to re-open, and therefore it is difficult to plan ahead. The recent indication that social distancing measures can be expected to last until at least the end of the year, is significant, as it means we will need to factor this in to our planning and projections. We need to consider what affect this will have on audiences, as well as the process of making a production from casting, to rehearsal through to performance. 

What have you been up to since the announcement?

I have taken this time to learn as much as I can, to listen to others and plan. What do we want Theatre by the Lake to be in the future? One thing we do know is that we will be different, because the world will be different, and we’ll need to respond to this new world.  TBTL will have a role to play in the healing of our communities. People will always want the arts and culture, to tell stories, to come together and reflect. So our focus at this time is on ensuring we are here for our communities on the other side of this.

In the meantime, I’ve been planning creative activities and opportunities that people can participate in at home, and we’re soon to be announcing several online activities. It’s important to us that we stay in touch with our community and audiences, so we’ve been keeping everyone updated via social media and our website. We’ve had some lovely responses to our #TBTLTreasures series, where actors who have performed with us over recent years have created some fantastic videos – devising their own pieces in response to their time at Theatre by the Lake, reading short stories or poems, and singing or playing music.

Do you plan on being part of or creating any online content whilst the theatres are closed?

Alongside our #TBTLTreasures videos, and the activities we’re announcing in the coming weeks, we’re really excited to be partnering with Paines Plough on ‘Come to Where I Am’ (a spin-off of their project ‘Come to Where I’m From’ – see https://painesplough.com/project/come-where-im), to co-commission four new short plays from Cumbrian writers about the places they call home and their relationship to home at this time. 

We put out a call out to find local writers and were overwhelmed by the response; I’ve been so inspired by the variety of people who responded, and the creativity, honesty and support they have shown.  We have selected four writers to be commissioned, who will eventually film themselves reading their scripts, and these videos will go out via our channels and also be available on Paines Plough’s app. They’ll be performed in person when our building opens again.

To support the fact that over 7 million people in the UK are digitally isolated during this period of crisis, Paines Plough are also going to be offering a service to targeted groups for them to experience live performances of the plays over the phone. This will enable isolated audience groups to have access short on-demand culture, and hear plays about the places in which they are isolated. We’re working in collaboration with some well-known actors to provide this caller service of your plays including David Bradley, Lisa Hammond, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Sally Dynevor.

What do you think about the theatre industry putting out live streams and pre-recordings of shows?

By its very nature, theatre brings people together in one space to share a live experience and reflect on what it means to be human. Our theatre spaces at TBTL are wonderfully intimate, you feel close to the actors on stage, and experience the buzz of being in a full auditorium. I miss this, and whilst we can’t have it right now, these online recordings of shows give us a much needed fix! It’s been brilliant to see the positive responses to these shows online, from our friends at Pentabus who have had their shows reviewed again long after the shows were performed, right through to the National Theatre’s weekly sharing of their NT Live performances which air on a Thursday evening at 7pm but can be viewed throughout the week. We’ve been keeping our audiences updated with what’s out there via our social media and monthly enewsletter. 

If you’ve seen theatre shows streamed online recently could you recommend one to our readers?

I’m excited to see Fun Home, which the Victory Gardens theatre in Chicago will be streaming from 13th-24th May. I remember not being able to get tickets to see Fun Home at the Young Vic in 2018, but now I have the chance! 

What advice can you give to students or recent graduates about to or entering into the arts industry at this time?

These are unprecedented times, and I’m sure it must be demoralising for students graduating this summer to be entering into the industry right now, with so much uncertainty and disruption. The theatre industry is full of creative, resilient and innovative thinkers, and our passion for our sector will come through. We don’t yet understand the full impact on our industry, but I have no doubt that there will be some positive changes that are made as a result of it. So hang in there – your skills and your learning is never in vain, and think about how you can use this time to learn and grown as artist, whilst being kind to yourself and not putting yourself under too much pressure. Under normal circumstances it can feel like there’s never enough time to read enough plays, or watch enough shows, or take part in workshops at theatres. So it might be beneficial to do some of that at home now, before things start changing again.

If you singled out one of the performances you directed, which would it be and why?

Barbarians at the Young Vic was a very special one for me. I’d been awarded the opportunity to direct the production having won the JMK Young Director Award in 2015, and through that process I’d grown to really love that fireball of a play. Barrie Keeffe, who sadly passed away last year, was a wonderfully generous man and a real inspiration to me throughout the process. I learned so much from the brilliant team of artists and producers around me, and the three actors were just extraordinary. The production was described by one reviewer as a ‘furious, punk Godot’ which has to be one of my favourite descriptions of my work! It was then nominated for an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre, which was a whirlwind of an experience and meant that we could continue to enjoy it all for a bit longer! The JMK Trust provides young directors with awards, guidance and development opportunities across the UK, and I am forever grateful for this unique opportunity – it’s driven me to want to support others in their career journeys and provide opportunities where I can.

Anything else you would like to add?

I’d just like to say thank you again to our audiences and local community; this is an incredibly hard time for everyone, but we’ve been overwhelmed by the support and love that’s come our way over the last few weeks. Many audience members have donated back their tickets, others have made further online donations, and even more have got in touch via social media or email with words of encouragement and cheer. It’s made such a difference to us all at TBTL and made us all the more determined to ensure we continue to be there on the other side of this.

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