It’s tough enough directing a big festive show but for Leeds Playhouse’s associate director Amy Leach she also needs to keep the cast and crew safe as they rehearse A Christmas Carol during a national lockdown.
They are working in their own bubble where they regularly sanitise their hands, have daily temperature checks and the rehearsal room is fogged clean every weekend. This revival of Deborah McAndrew’s version of the Dickens classic began life at Hull Truck Theatre before becoming a hit in the Playhouse’s pop up theatre they used when the main stages closed for a multi-million refurb.
And the need to perform safely has forced the creatives to offer their socially distanced audience a really different show when it opens on December 3 in the Quarry Theatre.
“Myself and Hayley Grindle, the designer, decided quite early on the design just wasn’t going to work and make it COVID safe,” notes Amy in a break from rehearsals. “That was for quite a number of reasons as there wasn’t enough playing space on stage to distance people properly,
“The entrance and exits onto the stage were too small to get people on and off safely, and there were a huge number of massive costume changes, which would just not be practical with everybody wearing PPE and stuff. We realised we needed to simplify the show massively to make it work.
“We’ve completely redesigned this so it got a whole new concept in how we are staging it. Before it was set on the dockyards in Hull, and then obviously in Leeds, but this time we decided to remove the dock element of it, and really embraced the theatricality of it.”
Those new bits of theatricality means that not only is there a very different opening and set, but this new approach to a work that is celebration of how even the worst of people can change also has a message of much needed hope in these dark times.
“Now we start with a group of Victorian theatre ghosts, and the idea is that they have been waiting for an audience to return for a really, really long time. Every night they put on their stage make up, get their crinoline cages on and they are waiting for an audience to return.
“Tonight is the night that the audience have returned, and there is a ghost light is burning on the stage, so it’s that idea of ghost lights keeping hope in our theatres alive. What that’s meant is we’ve been able to really make a much more open playing space.”
Leech and Grindle have worked together for years, including the original pop up version where they didn’t have all the technical bells and whistles a big show would usually deploy. This time Grindle has come up with an absolutely ingenious way to make sure the actors know they are performing safely.
“We’ve got a kind of central playing area you can access it from any direction,” says Leach. “Very cleverly Hayley has built in a pattern on the main bit of the stage, which is like a massive star shape, but within that star shape are two metres plotted out all over it. You know when you stand in certain areas of the stage that you are two metres distanced from each other
“We’ve also taken away pretty much anything happening backstage, so the actors are on stage all the time. They all have their own social distanced area, like a little dressing table area on stage, and we’re not having to worry about backstage.
“That’s been great in rehearsals as well because it means we’ve got these marks the floor. so that we know when we’re in that space that we’re always two metres distance from each other.”
Jack Lord plays Scrooge this time with Tess Parr, Dan Parr and Liadel Bryant returning from the pop up theatre ensemble to add some added onstage continuity as Leech rethinks the work. Leech even decided to recast Tiny Tim as a puppet so they don’t have to use child actors.
But working in these challenging circumstances must have had some impact on this rising star’s practice?
“I mean, who knows what the longer impact on my practise will be, because in a way it feels like a lot of what we’re doing is just rolling with the punches every day. New things are coming up all the time and you are like: ‘Oh my God. how do we solve that?’
“What’s interesting is the kind of instincts of how you would normally stage something, and that is particularly in relation to people touching and being together, you can’t do. It means you can’t solve things in the normal ways.
“It does make you think a bit harder about different ways of telling the story, and still achieving the same feeling. I think that’s always a really good thing to be kind of pushed to just think outside the box a little bit, and we are all really enjoying the creative challenge of it.
“So we will find a way to make this happen, and for it still to feel like any Christmas show you’d want to come and see normally.”
A Christmas Carol is in the Quarry Theatre, 3rd December 2020 – 9th January 2021.
Box office 0113 213 7700 or book online www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk