Finding a purpose in lockdown

Norwich Theatre Royal chief executive Stephen Crocker. Photo: Dave Guttridge/The Photographic

Norwich Theatre Royal chief executive Stephen Crocker. Photo: Dave Guttridge/The Photographic - Credit: Archant

Stephen Crocker, chief executive of Norwich Theatre Royal shares his views on this time of isolation.

As I write this, it is now 33 days, 13 hours and 20 minutes since we closed the doors of our beloved Theatre Royal, Playhouse and Stage Two to the public – not that I am counting! It is difficult to describe how upsetting this was for our whole team. One of the things that best exemplifies why we do what we do is that buzz in the 90 minutes before a show when the audiences are arriving, eagerly anticipating that curtain coming up. Having to curtail that at 6.17pm on 16th March and send hundreds of Les Miserables fans home will remain one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I also do not under-estimate the disappointment and frustration for around 60,000 audience members who we are currently contacting because it has meant the shows they have booked for are now rescheduled or cancelled. However, as much as I love my job and will go to any lengths to see our three venues thrive, all of that pales into insignificance compared to needing to pull together right now in a national effort to fight Coronavirus.

Immediately after closing our doors, a palpable feeling of loss washed over all our teams – loss of audiences, loss of hustle and bustle and an over-riding loss of purpose. ‘How can you be a theatre without theatres?’ is the question we have been grappling with for the past 33 days, 13 hours and 30 minutes. In the week we closed we were expecting around 420 staff members, freelance artists and volunteers to have worked in our buildings. This week, as we’ve now stood down all of our volunteers and furloughed 90% of our staff to give us the best chance of weathering the financial storm this has caused us, 25 people plus myself are now holding the fort, away from our buildings and from our homes.

At the very forefront of my mind over this past 33 days, 13 hours and 40 minutes has been my incredible team who are the lifeblood of our venues and are as much a part of the experience we give to audiences as the shows on the stages. Whilst furloughing came quickly and was a shockwave for many who rely on routine and that sense of identity that doing a role brings, it is a lifeline for us as an employer, a business and a charity. For our staff who are furloughed, we are working to provide them new purpose through volunteering and training and re-energise them through rest ready for when we reopen. For those of us carrying on, we have been trying hard to re-define our purpose.

Shortly after I arrived in Norwich almost three-and-a-half years ago, someone described Theatre Royal and Playhouse as being like ‘warm blankets’ and this has kept coming back to my mind over recent weeks. For hundreds of thousands of people, the familiarity, the warmth of welcome and the variety of entertainment across our venues are a comfort when they need them, whether that is coming to see a show every week, being devoted to getting the best seats for all of the top comedians, the annual family trip to the pantomime, Friday night drinks in the Playhouse Bar or taking part in workshops and classes. It is therefore clear what our overriding purpose is 33 days, 13 hours and 50 minutes into this shutdown: to be there stronger than ever before at the end of this as we are all going to need a return to familiarity and a ‘warm blanket’.