How the Lawrence Batley Theatre led the way for theatre in 2020

‘Pivoting’ is surely one of the words of the year for businesses who have had to respond quickly to ever-changing restrictions, and no sector has had to pivot more than theatre. And one of the fastest to respond is Huddersfield’s own Lawrence Batley Theatre. 

“I remember it like it was yesterday!” says Lawrence Batley Theatre Artistic Director Henry Filloux-Bennett, remembering the first lockdown announcement in March. The theatre very quickly launched LBTV: one of the first regional theatres to move online with a huge amount of activity, from online workshops to storytime and audio plays. “There was a commitment by everyone at senior management level that we couldn’t stop doing what we were supposed to do. Last year had really shown what the benefits of being a smaller organisation can be; with the bigger organisations, it takes time to meet up with all teams and make decisions. There are  6 of us in the senior management team, so we all just got in a room and said, let’s do it”.

One of the biggest online hits on LBTV has been The Understudy, an audio play voiced by Stephen Fry and written by none other than Henry Filloux-Bennett. The pandemic has presented a fortuitous opportunity for regional theatre – London theatres, with their huge capacities, have opened up (prior to tier 3 and 4 restrictions) to allow for smaller, regionally-produced shows to trial socially distanced performances.. The Understudy is one of these shows, and transferred to the West End’s Palace Theatre in London from 7-8 December, usually home to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. “It’s one of the most iconic theatres in the world,” says Henry. “That was an extraordinary experience. These smaller productions are the only sorts of shows that can happen at the moment: if you’re Harry Potter, you need to have 80-90% audience capacity which is obviously not possible at the moment.” 

That’s not to say in-person performance hasn’t been possible in Huddersfield. Being able to react to changes in restrictions meant the Lawrence Batley Theatre had to be constantly ahead of the curve, looking at the next opportunities to safely share theatre as lockdown eased. Over the summer, with dates to allow outdoor performances still uncertain and only allowed to return in August, the Lawrence Batley Theatre transformed into an outdoor bar in time for the 4th July, the first day that bars were allowed to reopen. ”We were made by the community,” says Henry. “We are here for the community and we’ve never lost sight of that. When we had to shut our doors, we all instinctively knew we couldn’t just shut. We have a community responsibility to be open when we can be open”. And open they did, as one of Huddersfield’s biggest outdoor bars.

On the first day in August when outdoor performances were allowed, the Lawrence Batley Theatre had a programme of cabaret and outdoor Shakespeare ready to go, eventually moving their programme indoors (with social distancing of course) in Autumn. Once again, however, tier 3 restrictions have forced the theatre building to close. The Lawrence Batley Theatre is far from closed however, being more than bricks and mortar: this year’s Christmas production showed another example of brilliant foresight and pivoting with the theatre’s online illustrated audio play of A Christmas Carol, which was available throughout December, starring Giles Brandreth and over 40 members of the Huddersfield community. Fancy some family gaming? You can buy the theatre’s Charlotte Holmes adventure storybox, or while we know finances are tight, there’s a wealth of regular content on LBTV available for free.

So what can we hope for from our innovating, ever-evolving and inspiring local theatre in 2021? Kicking off the New Year will be an entirely free programme on LBTV every day in January, ranging from mental health and wellbeing to storytime and movement sessions.  In March, following on from ‘What A Carve Up’, which was presented online in November, a new online play will be launched.

Regardless of whether or not it’s the hopeful February date that the Lawrence Batley Theatre has pencilled for reopening its doors, you can be sure the plans are ready to go at a moment’s notice for the doors to open as soon as it’s safe to do so at the perpetually-pivoting Lawrence Batley Theatre.

LBTV is available now at https://www.thelbt.org/lbtv/. 

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