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RSC's artistic director Gregory Doran on navigating the Covid crisis, converting the theatre into a cinema and more

The artistic director spoke to WhatsOnStage about how the company is faring during the crisis

Gregory Doran
© RSC, photo by John Bellars

Just like so many venues and companies, the Royal Shakespeare Company has had a very very rough ride over the last four months – closing up its venues, cancelling its 2020 summer and winter seasons, its London Barbican shows and months of the West End production of Matilda.

For artistic director Gregory Doran, who has led the organisation since 2012, it means asking questions an artistic director never expected he had to answer: "We all came here to put on plays and it's really hard not to do that. We had a scheduling meeting a few weeks ago and it was extraordinary to be back doing that again".

"Luckily there are some fantastic people – strategists and politicians – that are around. Every day there seems to be some little moment to deal with – open-air performance, the job retention scheme – everybody's working their socks off to keep afloat and understand guidelines."

The Stratford-based organisation has had a better time than some – currently able to exist without making any employees redundant – and has kept the ensemble of its 2020 summer production of The Winter's Tale on company rates. As Doran puts it: "There are other organisations that are clearly in much much more vulnerable positions than we are, but it is very challenging. We have been very strategic, we acted fast and have been flexible. We've managed to keep the company of The Winter's Tale on, they're with us here. We're holding our breath – we're very grateful for the government's furlough scheme and the £1.57bn investment".

"If there was more detail about when social distancing will be finally dropped that would be key, but no one is in control of whether or not there's a second spike. You look at the USA at the moment, which is really suffering from another wave. It's very precarious and we had healthy reserves. We won't be able to last beyond January on those reserves and, of course, after that those reserves are gone."

"We haven't mentioned the R word but everyone is aware of that – it is such a precarious position and we've planned for multiple scenarios – reopening either side of Christmas. Venues need a date, they need to plan, they need to rehearse and they need to cast."

The theatre has just announced that it has moved its winter 2020 shows to the subsequent year – and Doran says having that in the bag feels like knowing there's a holiday on the horizon: "The War of the Roses had sold almost a third of tickets by the time it went on public sale, so we know there's a fantastic appetite for the series."

Doran has indicated that both a drive-in season of cinema performances and some outdoor shows will likely go ahead later this summer. The first announcement that outdoor shows were permitted led to a "Quixotic idealism – a group of our actors were polishing their audition speeches and ready to sail out into the gardens and perform on a tree-stump. But if you read the guidelines you see things like – you can't have a standing audience. There's a lot of red tape.

"We expect to remain digital for the rest of the month and then go outdoors. Partly to give back to the people of Stratford. The social ecology of the theatre is so acute in Stratford and we want to be able to provide something for our neighbours as soon as we can."

"We've now also recorded three quarters of the canon since I took over so we might even convert the venue into a cinema in the autumn. We're ready and alert and keeping our energy up."

Covid isn't the only key issue that's been occupying Doran's plans – the death of George Floyd and the vital campaigning that's been going on across the world has led to a deeper examination of diversity both on and off stages.

It is the latter aspect that Doran sees as the biggest challenge. "The crisis is also an opportunity...Shifting diversity on stage is easier than shifting a workforce. We have a loyal workforce that stays a long time, and therefore change is harder – but that's what the entire industry has to think about doing."

The company also had two big, blockbuster musicals to take care of – Matilda, which continues its indomitable run at the Cambridge Theatre, and The Boy in the Dress, based on the hit children's book by David Walliams. The show had been due to go into the Savoy Theatre in the autumn after the concert production of Sunday in the Park with George, but Covid has thrown plans up in the air. "We want to get Matilda back up and running first, that's the certainty. It was selling virtually as well in the spring of this year as it was when it first ran in the West End. So we want to make sure it continues to sell really well.

"When the environment is a bit more secure we hope to bring The Boy in the Dress into town – audiences loved it and it'd be a really shame for it not to go beyond Stratford.

"We have of course still got The Boy in the Dress CD which we haven't released yet, it was meant to help launch the West End run, but you really have to play each day as it comes.

For now, the director is able to inspect the company's gleaming new costume store, which is in the process of being opened. "We just hope we have the money, and the workforce, and the productions to validate the creation of this fantastic resource".

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