A glimpse behind the scenes at the nation's empty theatres

Early in March, photographer Helen Murray was driving across London, heading for the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond.

Monday, 17th August 2020, 1:14 pm
Updated Monday, 17th August 2020, 1:18 pm

Her car was packed as it often is with lights, cameras and a knot of extension cables, and the shoot to promote the opening of Bryony Lavery’s Last Easter was much like any other. Even as she was navigating the rush hour traffic while listening to a radio phone-in show featuring increasingly anxious callers panicked about the spread of coronavirus, it was, she says, not obvious how much the world was about to change.

However, just a few days later lockdown was announced, theatres closed, and those whose livelihoods depend on the arts gradually began to realise that normal service would not be resumed for months, and quite possibly not until next year at the earliest.

“I remember listening to the radio thinking, ‘This isn’t good’, but at the same time life was continuing as normal and I don’t think the enormity of what we were about to go through hit me,” says Helen, who has been working as a production photographer for eight years. “Then overnight everything stopped. Theatres went dark, all the jobs I had booked in were cancelled and of course the pay cheques also stopped.”

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Like many of those employed in creative industries, Helen is a freelancer and as it became clear that theatres, from the Globe to the National where she spent much of her days, were unlikely to reopen anytime soon she began wondering about her own future.

“Quite early on into lockdown I knew that I wanted to do something which responded to what was happening, but which was also a photographic story in its own right,” she says. “I began wondering what all these theatres would look like without the people who bring them to life. I messaged a couple of artistic directors I know to ask if they would mind letting me in to do a shoot and they couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about it.”

Our Empty Theatres, which can be viewed on Helen’s website, features 22 theatres and quotes from more than 100 members of the UK’s artistic community. The series took her from the West End to Liverpool, Manchester and the Leeds Playhouse, which hadn’t long reopened from its impressive makeover when the pandemic hit.

“Most of my work tends to be in London, but I thought it was important that I included the North as the closure of our cultural industries is something which affects all of us,” adds Helen.

“I hadn’t been to the Playhouse before, but it’s a great venue. It is the silence which gets you first. There’s no background noise, no chitter-chatter, no infectious laughs bellowing out of a rehearsal room, just complete silence. Theatres are normally so vibrant, so full of life and energy, but since March they have become ghost towns. Everything has been turned off; so there isn’t even a hum from a fridge in the staffroom.

“It’s funny, one of the workers who let me in said that he’d heard birds for the first time – that’s how quiet it was and everywhere I went it was impossible to avoid a sense of bleakness.”

As well as capturing the empty auditoriums, Helen turned her lens on the backstage spaces which are normally home to those unseen hands who create the wigs, costumes, props and sets.

“Going back into these spaces that I know so well was a really sobering experience,” adds Helen. “In the forefront of my mind throughout shooting was what are these buildings without all the glorious, wonderful, different kinds of people that inhabit them, from the army of freelancers to the permanent staff, to the ushers, box office, bookshop, stage door, cafe and bar staff, volunteers, community and audience members.

“I wanted to contact these people to ask them, ‘What do our empty theatres mean to you?’ As the theatre sector continues to face uncertainty, I hope the series serves as a reminder of why we must fight to fill these buildings with the people that make them thrive and not forget those who have been underrepresented in the past.

“My photos are a love letter to not just the theatres themselves but to the people, artists and communities who give these buildings life.”

While the photographic side of the project is now complete, Helen hopes the images will provoke a debate about the importance of theatres and what individual venues mean to those who both work in them and enjoy them.

Gloria Akpoke, a young company member at Manchester Royal Exchange, says: “To me, empty theatres are bodies without a heartbeat. Empty theatres are places where magic has been taken from our mundane world. It means a place that once shared laughter, sadness, love and every emotion through storytelling has now been silenced. An empty theatre is like creating a microphone and not letting anyone use it to sing. An empty theatre means we starve ourselves of stories that bring us comfort, magic, wisdom and unity. An empty theatre is everything it was never created to be.”

Despite the Government’s £1.5bn lifeline for the arts, a number of venues, including Sheffield Theatres and York Theatre Royal, have admitted that redundancies are inevitable and with the curtain looking as though it may well not go up on this year’s revenue-driving panto season, more bad news is inevitable.

Writer James Graham, whose hit play This House, was performed in front of a packed audience in Leeds in 2018, said: “These disquieting images of quiet theatres are vital in reminding us of what was the longest ever period of closure, creating the most serious existential threat, to one of the oldest human activities we have. What I feel most when I see these heart-stopping images isn’t sadness, strangely. What I feel overwhelmingly is hope. These spaces are waiting for us to return…”

Before she began working as a photographer, Helen, who is originally from Northern Ireland, was an actress and, having spent much of her life in the theatre, its return also can’t come soon enough.

“This project really made me realise how much I love my job. Theatres are special places run by special people and we must make sure that they come through these dark times.”

Our Empty Theatres is available online at www.helenmurrayphotos.com/galleries/ouremptytheatres. To contribute to the online conversation use the #OurEmptyTheatres on Twitter.

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