Theatre without walls: How Glasgow's Citz is continuing to engage with its audience

Its home may be a building site, but Glasgow's Citz has still found ways to stay relevant to the community it serves during lockdown, writes Joyce McMillan

Artist's impressions of the new-look Citizens' Theatre, designed by Bennetts Associates
Artist's impressions of the new-look Citizens' Theatre, designed by Bennetts Associates

When the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow closed its doors for a massive £20 million refurbishment, in the summer of 2018, the company seemed set fair for a two-year stay at the Tramway – where it would stage major productions during its exile from Gorbals Street – and a possible return to its transformed home in time for Christmas 2020.

As with many modern theatre redevelopments, the plan for the Citizens’ is to leave its much-loved and world-famous 1878 auditorium intact, while wrapping it round with a range of gleaming new foyer areas, a much larger cafe and bar, a new studio theatre, and a new dedicated space for the Citizens’ learning department; and perhaps predictably, the time-scale for the building work slipped a little, as the company produced spectacular Tramway shows including Edwin Morgan’s Cyrano de Bergerac in 2018, and Zinnie Harris’s version of The Duchess Of Malfi in 2019. No-one, though, could have predicted the events of 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced not only a complete shutdown of live theatre, but also a three-month pause in construction work, followed by a return under coronavirus regulations which tend to slow the rate of progress.

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“It been a very strange year,” says Citizens’ artistic director Dominic Hill, “and obviously, like everyone else in theatre, we’ve just had to plan, and then plan again. But considering all the pressures, the redevelopment is going pretty smoothly, and it’s reached quite an exciting stage now. For a while, as we stripped things back, all you could see was the original box shape of the 1878 auditorium, which was fascinating. But now, the steel framework of the new foyer and frontage is beginning to take shape; and we’re hoping the theatre will be handed back to us next spring, for a possible reopening in late summer 2022 – which might turn out to be good timing, in the sense that we could be completely clear of the pandemic by then.”

Meanwhile, though, many Citizens’ staff have been working hard on maintaining company’s close bonds with its audience, and with the community around the theatre. There have been two high-profile film projects, involving a screen version of Fibres – Frances Poet’s powerful play about the legacy of working with asbestos for working-class families across the west of Scotland – and a new film, set for release in May, will be based on the company’s intense one-hour version of Macbeth, The Macbeths, first staged in 2017.

Apart from those projects, though, most of the company’s lockdown activity has been focused on its learning department, which was led by director Guy Hollands until he left the Citizens’ a year ago, and has just appointed a new head of learning in Catrin Evans. A glance at the Take Part section of the Citizens’ website reveals an impressive range of learning activities, from the theatre’s WAC Ensemble for care-experienced young people – currently meeting mainly online – to Through My Window, a remarkable lockdown project focused on women suffering homelessness, isolation and poverty.

“When lockdown first hit,” says Citizens’ Community Artist Elly Goodman, whose past work has included groundbreaking projects in Barlinnie prison and with refugee communities in the Gorbals, “I think we realised immediately that while we could move some of our work online, we had to be sensitive to what that could mean for some people suffering from isolation. So right from the start, our community drama worker Carly McCaig and I have been going out and about, visiting people through their doors or windows – we just decided we weren’t going to let the pandemic stop us making contact with people who might be feeling digitally excluded, or just exhausted.

“The team developed small performances to take to people on their doorsteps, including a doorstep disco, and then our Community Collective – one of our biggest community groups – started what they call the Doorstep Challenge, where in the middle of a Zoom session, our community drama director Neil Packham jumps in the car, goes to the doorstep of one of the participants, and challenges them to create a small performance right there – really, a doorway offers a great many dramatic possibilities, as a performance space.” Citizens’ Learning also scored a rare coup recently when they were contacted by the actress and comedian Karen Dunbar, who asked if she could become involved with their work, and has been delivering hip-hop and rap workshop sessions for Community Collective members and some of the theatre’s young groups, with what Elly Goodman feels are stunning creative results.

Charlene Boyd and Keith Fleming in rehearsals for The Macbeths PIC: Ga-Ken Wan

“Since Guy Hollands left last year,” says Dominic Hill, “I’ve been filling in by working more closely with the learning department than usual, and it has confirmed everything I’ve always known about the vital importance of this work. It does tend to be low profile, but you don’t do it so that it can be seen. You do it because theatres just won’t survive, in the long term, without being closely linked to the communities around them, and really understanding their needs and interests and concerns.”

And Elly Goodman agrees. “The main thing this pandemic has brought home to me, more powerfully than ever, is just how much this job is about listening. You have to listen to your community, listen to people telling you their own stories in their own spaces. Usually, all the people who take part in our work have to come to us, but the pandemic has changed that. We’ve been listening to people in new ways, in a new setting; and even after the theatre reopens, I hope that will feed into and strengthen our work, in all kinds of exciting ways.”

Find out more about the Citizens’ Theatre’s Learning department on https://www.citz.co.uk/take-part, and about its rebuilding project at https://wearecitizens.citz.co.uk/we-are-redeveloping/

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