As 2020 dawned, Dundee Rep’s artistic director Andrew Panton, and his fellow Chief Executive Liam Sinclair, were looking forward to what they hoped would be one of the Rep’s finest years since the company was founded in 1939. The company had recently completed a controversial and sometimes painful restructuring process that left its finances looking relatively secure; and the Catalan dancer/choreographer Joan Cleville, who arrived in April 2019, was beginning to make his presence felt as artistic director of the Rep’s resident Scottish Dance Theatre.
What’s more, the theatre was about to score a huge coup, in Scottish theatre terms, by appointing the award-winning team of Tashi Gore and Jess Thorpe – creators of the internationally acclaimed Junction 25 youth theatre at the Tramway – as their new Associate Directors for community engagement. The Rep was also in the middle of successful 80th anniversary season celebrating its home city. It had just staged a riotous Christmas show based on the Sunday Post’s famous Oor Wullie cartoon; and it was about to present the world premiere of Smile, Philip Differ’s powerful two-handed drama about the legendary Dundee United football manager Jim McLean.
All of that changed, though, on 16 March 2020, when the Covid pandemic forced the Rep, and every other Scottish theatre, to close its doors to live audiences; and 14 months on, they remain closed, with the Rep joining other Scottish venues in campaigning for the Scottish Government to change lockdown easing guidelines which would impose far stricter distancing rules on live entertainment venues than on pubs and restaurants, effectively making it impossible for them to reopen on an economically viable basis for the foreseeable future.
Despite all the difficulties of lockdown, though, the Rep took only a brief pause for breath, last year, before launching into its own distinctive response to pandemic times. “We made a decision not to start immediately putting material online,” says Andrew Panton, “partly because there was already a lot happening in that respect, with other companies. Instead, we wanted to see what our audiences and participants really wanted, during lockdown; and we quickly devised a programme called Where Are You Dundee?, which involved using our online presence to create little short pieces involving tasks or ideas in which people could participate, one way or another.
“Some great people became involved – both Alan Cumming and Ricky Ross, for example, helped us to set tasks; and amazingly, during last summer, Where Are You Dundee? attracted an audience of more than 120,000, 75 per cent of whom had never been to the Rep before. The task-based nature of it, and the way it would acquire its own momentum on social media as people shared their experience, was clearly reaching out to a whole new audience for the Rep’s work. It was involving vulnerable participants who were unlikely to make it to the theatre, and drawing people into a more conversational relationship with us; and all of that felt really exciting.”
Drawing on that experience, the Rep team moved on to create a programme of Christmas events called Shine On!, which involved a whole Advent Calendar of short online theatre and dance pieces, a magical installation in the theatre’s glass foyer, and Present, a series of events in which Dundee Rep Ensemble and Scottish Dance Theatre members took live performances – sometimes featuring Oor Wullie himself – to the doorsteps of people nominated by friends and family, across the city.
And it’s on the basis of all this lockdown experience that Dundee Rep is about to launch a new series of online events called This Is For You, Dundee, aimed at encouraging Dundonians to rediscover their own astonishing city, as it begins to open up again. Based on a general call-out to freelance artists across Scotland, This Is For You Dundee features six dance, music and theatre-based pieces involving 25 different artists, and will be available free online for 10 days from 14 May. Last month, the Rep also announced the launch of Rep Studios, a digital platform on which its work can be showcased in a range of ways; and to judge by the quality of the first Rep Studios production – a film version of Smile, recapturing the design and atmosphere of the original stage production – this strand of work could become a major part of the Rep’s operation in the future.
“I think the genie is out of the bottle, in terms of demand for screen versions of our work,” says Panton, “and we can’t and shouldn’t try to put it back again. We will always make great live theatre. But even when the live experience comes back again, people in future are going to want options; and that means Rep Studios is here to stay.
“So are theatres like the Rep now transforming into something different – something more like community hubs for creativity and the arts, with people interacting with our work in all sorts of different ways? Well, every theatre is different, and I certainly don’t want to understate the extent of the challenge we’ll face when we reopen again, after such a traumatic year.
“If things are moving in that direction, though, then Dundee Rep is certainly well placed to do it – it’s always been a cross-arts venue for theatre, dance, comedy and music, and it’s always had a huge programme of community involvement and outreach. We also have a great team who are ready to respond in the most creative way possible. So if change is happening, I think we’re about as well prepared for it as we can be; but that doesn’t mean that we know what’s going to happen, when we resume live operations – because in the end, like everyone else, we don’t.”
Tickets for This Is For You Dundee, and for upcoming Rep Studios productions, are available at https://dundeerep.co.uk
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