The magic will return
It has been a very strange few weeks here at The Watermill, artistic and executive director Paul Hart tells N2. After our press night for the new musical The Wicker Husband – a show that was seven years in the making, we were forced to close our doors. Two days later we halted rehearsals for our all-female production of Hamlet with the Watermill Ensemble and our Senior Youth Theatre production of Goodnight Mr Tom. That was 11weeks ago now...
SINCE then we have had to close our beautiful grounds, shut down the theatre and most of our staff have now been furloughed. As you can imagine it’s been a heart-wrenching experience, and for me, very personally so, living onsite and witnessing our expert team pack things up, our talented actors collect their belongings from our on-site accommodation and then quietly shutting the gate to the public. It is something I never thought we would have to do.
The harsh reality of knowing that it will take a long time before theatres return to full capacity is an unwelcome thought – and there is still great uncertainty about how that will happen. Hearing about Nuffield Southampton Theatres entering administration was a stark reminder of how precarious the cultural sector can be, a reminder of why we must all make every effort to ensure that we get through the challenge ahead. Ironically, The Watermill may be a victim of its own success in that we play to such high audience numbers throughout the year – roughly 85 per cent of our seating capacity – and we must do this to break even. We know it is going to take time to get back to anything close to this.
One positive of the current situation has been the chance to reflect on the extraordinary range of work that has been created since The Watermill’s inception and its first professional season in 1967. There is no theatre in the country quite like The Watermill – it is a sort of miracle of human endeavour. I cannot think of another theatre that has had so many transfers and tours from such humble beginnings. Anyone seeing our ramshackle rehearsal room (which I adore) or experiencing our intimate auditorium for the first time would be surprised to realise the range and variety of shows that have started their life at The Watermill: Sweeney Todd, Calamity Jane, Spend Spend Spend, Sunset Boulevard and in more recent times, The Wipers Times, Crazy For You, Jerusalem, Amélie, A Little Night Music to name a few. This, as well as the work of Propeller and the Watermill Ensemble, our resident Shakespeare company who had just transferred Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Wilton’s Music Hall in London before lockdown began.
On top of this, every year we tour shows to local venues, including village halls, schools and libraries as well as handing the theatre over twice a year to our Senior Youth Theatre and Young Company and often to community theatre groups. As the saying goes ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow’.
It has made me think about the vital role that the arts play in our lives at this time. At The Watermill we have gone to great lengths to move our work online and we are now offering free workshops and Q&A sessions each week as part of our At Home With The Watermill programme, which has had an amazing response. Despite current budget restrictions, I have been so impressed with the imagination of The Watermill staff and those creatives with whom we work who have found creative solutions in these uncertain times. Our passion for creating theatre has not wavered; we have just adapted and moved the goal posts a bit.
I am also incredibly proud of how the theatre continues to be a part of the local community. The lockdown period has brought out the best in people. At The Watermill, we have been looking at ways to provide support during this period of national crisis. We have managed to do some local deliveries, provide accommodation for paramedics working in the area and our wardrobe team have been making scrubs for the NHS. These are small gestures, but it is a sign of the spirit of those who work here that they are always looking for ways to help others.
This period of uncertainty has proved beyond all doubt that The Watermill is loved and valued by so many people locally. I am always amazed by the reach of the work we do and how many it touches. I have received notes of support from so many people over the past few weeks, all who wish us well. With continued support from staff and you, our extended Watermill family, I know we will get through this and bounce back as strongly and creatively as ever.
If you are able to make a donation to help us to survive and recover, please go online and see our ACT NOW to help us ACT tomorrow appeal. For further details see www.watermill.org.uk
In the meantime, we are completely committed to doing as much as we can online and within the community.
When the time comes for us to throw open our doors once again, we hope to welcome audiences and participants back to enjoy more magical nights of theatre at The Watermill.