The following interview is taken from an interview with Editor of NARC Magazine, Claire Dupree, for an editorial piece in November 2020's edition of the magazine.
Rob Huggins (Gosforth Civic Theatre & Liberdade Community Development Trust CEO), and building manager Joseph Harrop explain how the multi-purpose venue are attempting to weather the storm, and continue to welcome live performance to their stage.
What activity has Gosforth Civic Theatre been engaged in so far since reopening after lockdown?
Rob: As time went by during lockdown I was really aware of the time that had passed since I had heard a live instrument, I hadn’t passed a busker in the street, or heard a single note From a guitar. This realisation drove our motivation in those first few weeks after lockdown, we just wanted to get some music heard, the plan initially was to pay some bands to rehearse in our studio with the doors open so passers by could hear, but quickly guidance changed which meant we could put on outdoor gigs to a very limited audience in our garden.
It was an awakening we were back, and it felt great. These first gigs after lockdown were the first that had happened at a venue in the city since mid March, the sun the bands, and the beer will be our overarching memory of a strangely quiet summer.
After beginning live performances in their garden on 17th July, regular Friday tea-time gigs featured the likes of Sailmaker, Janice Burns & Jon Doran, Becca James, Memphis Gerald, Shipcote and Friends, Rob Heron & Tom Cronin. Street food pop-ups began in August and on 12th September The Great Northern Piano Sessions V was the first gig to take place inside the venue – starring Steve Luck and Simeon Walker, quickly followed by the return of the GCT Folk and Jazz clubs.
What has been your general approach to events so far?
Rob: In a word safety. It is obviously our primary concern for anybody that comes to the venue for whatever reason, after that we wanted to provide a platform for local artists to reconnect with their audiences.
Joseph: Yeah, safety, basically, in a nut shell. What we’ve done is taken an approach of checking what the current guidance is and adding one extra mitigating factor in. So if guidance was a maximum table of six we’ve done tables of four, we’ve always been extra reserved to make sure both artists and audience feel safe and comfortable, to make sure we build that trust for people coming back to live events.
What is it that you’re doing differently to other venues?
Rob: We aren’t just a music venue: first and foremost we are a disability arts charity that was founded by an amazing group of people with learning disabilities. They have built this place for everyone to use and enjoy, so our priority, when we were able to, was to get them back in the building. We’ve managed to do that now by limiting numbers and working closely with Newcastle City Council and Public Health. All venues at the minute are facing real challenges, each having to make impossible decisions often based on survival more than anything else, we have tried to find a balance between being there for our audience and local artists and also ensuring we are able to survive the pandemic, it is a difficult path to tread.
Joseph: Because we’ve got a private outside space we could return very quickly to doing events under the restrictions that were in place as we came out of lockdown. Which meant we started that conversation with audiences about what would make them comfortable to return to events inside. It’s been lovely, because with doing that we’ve been able to take our audiences with us, and it’s all about that relationship of trust between us. So I think it’s not what we’ve done differently, it’s what opportunities we’ve had. The other thing is that, despite our appearance as a venue we have a small dedicated team. For some larger organisations, making decisions is a bit like turning an ocean liner, whereas we can be quite responsive, make things happen and respond very quickly to changing circumstances.
But it’s important to stress that it’s been a huge challenge and the restrictions imposed have made it very difficult from a financial point of view.
Can you expand on your experiences regarding the challenges you’ve faced when it comes to audience engagement?
Rob: We were very conscious that things could change at any moment, so programming too far in advance was not a viable option with the risk attached to cancelling gig after gig and the ramifications that may have on customer experience and venue reputation. We also decided early on after lockdown that we would make all of our initial events ‘pay what you feel’ this worked well and removed any anxiety audiences had about losing their money, audiences repaid this by generously donating at those early gigs. To help bring these events to a wider audience we are investing in some hardware which will enable us to stream events at a much higher quality than we have been able to up until this point.
Joseph: We’ve been up front and honest with our audiences and published, well in advance, our Covid-safe measures and with reduced audience it’s allowed us to engage directly with people. Just as it’s important that venues and artists need to be heard, audiences need to be too and we need to move forward together, so it’s like a three way relationship of trust in that respect.
What challenges do you see the industry in general facing over the coming winter months?
Rob: The challenges that we are all facing as venues are daunting, firstly: how do we run events that can break even, with ticket sales being a third of what they could be (without social distancing) and bar sales also reduced by two thirds because of this, it is hard not to lose money. The second challenge is safety, we are all committed to providing as safe a venue for our audience staff, and artists, this is becoming even more challenging with guidelines changing regularly, we are all facing reputation damage if we do not succeed in keeping everyone safe, this is very stressful at times. Lastly none of us knows what is going to happen, how can we plan or programme anything more than a few weeks ahead without taking serious risks that it just won’t be able to happen.
Joseph: A big thing is, the longer there are restrictions on the sector and the community for putting on live art and performance, the more potential artists or early career artists we’ll lose because they aren’t able to create and perform and start to make a living and they’ll end up entering different career paths. So it’s not just about weathering this winter but it’s about weathering the next generation and making sure they have the support to come through it.
And how about successes? Have there been positives to the new way of working?
Rob: I’m a big believer that there are always positives to be found in the hardest of times. We have been able to take a step back and take a breath, we usually run about 900 different events and activities at the theatre every year, that keeps us very busy and it has been great to be able to reflect on how we have been doing. we have also been very lucky to secure some funding to both secure us as a venue until next year but also to improve the building for when we are busy again. From an events point of view it feels like an amazing success just being open again (long may that continue).
Joseph: From an audience point of view there’s a real desire to be part of a performance. We’ve had audiences come to us, and they’ve challenged themselves with what they’ve seen, which they wouldn’t normally do. So there is a hope that there will be a long term legacy to that, be it more diverse audiences, diverse artists or a more eclectic arts scene. We’ve also been bowled over by the support for our pay as you feel policy on tickets since coming back. We wanted to make sure our programme was accessible for all in these tough times by removing a ticket price and that’s paid off, so much so that moving forward we’ll have at least one event per month that will be pay as you feel as permanent feature, alongside our standard ticketed programme, obviously while we carry on paying artists and engineers properly.
What other things aside from live shows have been keeping the venue sustained over the last few months?
Joseph: Due to a change in staff during lockdown we had the opportunity to take on a new chef, Dyonne Branch has come in with exceptional experience at excellent restaurants in Newcastle and Glasgow including Hotel du Vin, Malmaison and Gusto. She’s created a menu and offer that celebrates balanced meals, local suppliers and producers and fresh local produce, it’s really given us an extra dimension. However, it must be said the single house restriction makes it incredibly difficult to really capitalise on this.
Rob: We have been working hard delivering our theatre, dance and health and wellbeing sessions for our learning disabled company members, before we were able to deliver face to face we set up a remote service over Zoom, the logistics of this were difficult to say the least. However the actual answer to the question is; each other. It sounds cheesy but we are a great team that supports each other, and I mean everyone who works here, we have all had challenging days but we have stuck together.
How has the charitable element to GCT and the work Liberdade do influenced the decisions you’ve made?
Joseph: Gosforth Civic Theatre was created by Liberdade and our Company Members as place for people to come together, and we’ll always strive to try and fulfil that. When we couldn’t have our Liberdade groups back in the building safely and we had staff returning to work, it was our duty to undertake that original mission, which is why we started with our Friday evening live music slots in the garden before we’d looked at the café or anything else, because if we didn’t we’d be failing them.
Rob: Completely, because we are a charity means we have objects and a mission which guide us, our decisions are based on the fact that we have beneficiaries and we want to make positive social change within our community, I hope everyone that comes to GCT feels that.
Can you tell us what’s coming up in November?
Joseph: We’re continuing our regular music programme including our GCT Jazz Club and GCT Folk Club, with a focus on regionally based, early career artists as we’ve already been doing. So far in November we’ve got Alice Grace Quartet coming on Thursday 12th November as part of GCT Jazz Club and also folk duo Annie Ball & Katie Tertell on Friday 6th November. But there’ll be more music and more film as we expand our cinema programme, so people should keep an eye on our website and socials for announcements and on sales. I’d like to give a shout out to Bernard Wright, our front of house supervisor and fantastic musician, who has stepped up and been programming a lot of our gigs since lockdown, it shows the real strength of the team we have here.
We’re putting in infrastructure so that we can tie food offerings in to our programme with will focus on celebrating local suppliers and produce – with our first Pop Up Restaurant event celebrating Northumberland Game and Woodland Flavours on Thursday 5th November, where we are working with Charlotte’s Butchery of Gosforth.
And what’s on the horizon for the coming months?
Rob: We’ve got lots of things in the pipeline for Christmas, so we hope to be announcing a music, film and food line up for December, throughout November, plus a run of a winter family theatre show either side of Christmas that people can come and actually see, which we’re really excited about!