Someone who has worked hard to keep theatre living and breathing is local writer, producer, performer and theatre-maker, John Knowles. Fiona McGarry spoke to him about what’s in store for 2021 in the world of live theatre.

According to John Knowles: “No one is announcing any headline names or dates. As far as we know, the big festivals will move to later in the year. The Brighton festival will probably be in May and we think the Edinburgh festival will go on in the autumn.” As for European festivals, the future looks bleak. “We’re in a dilemma – a whole world of pain because of Brexit and the Government not doing a good job of securing free work permits for people in the arts.”

Some artistic directors, like Kwame Kwei Armah at the Young Vic in London, have advocated online performances, saying that virtual theatre will be “in the DNA, and the subconscious of, an emerging generation of theatre-makers”. John believes virtual theatre has a place, but it’s not the same as a live show: “I understand why they’re doing it, but it’s not theatre – it’s not what I do. I like to see people and smell the audience.”

Maxine Dubois in Mary Celeste and the Beast of the Bowery
PICTURE: Peter Mould

His community-based company, Fetch Theatre, has faced the same problems as others during lockdown. His most recent show at the Stables (Mary Celeste and the Beast of the Bowery) was cancelled when Hastings went into Tier 4. Then he was due to stage a new horror play on the Golden Hinde galleon in London, which has now been postponed. 

Successive lockdowns have been particularly demoralising. He says: “After lockdown you get the energy to bounce back and rally people round. You say to the cast: ’We’re definitely going to do it!’, you get ready for the show, you do the rehearsals – I was a week away from putting on a play in December – and then, of course, it all crashes.” 

The uncertainty is not just about when theatres will be allowed to open and what they can do with reduced capacity, but also what state the performing arts will be in. Many artists have quit permanently, and some theatre companies have given up too. According to John, “It’s just about surviving – we’re ’holding’, like planes waiting to land, gradually running out of fuel. We have to land soon – we can’t carry on living on air.”

One reason for holding on is that people are longing to watch new productions.  John believes that the Covid pandemic has taught us is a new appreciation of live arts. “Most people didn’t even realise they took live performance for granted – it was just ‘there’ if you wanted it. I think when we do come back, people will be ravenous for it.” On the bright side, this could mean that if Hastings has sufficient vision, it could open up its town centre to new venues and more outdoor arts spaces.

During the first lockdown John’s output was prolific; he entertained us with comic monologues and the hilarious Zoom play, The Ghost in the Machine (catch it on Isolation Station Hastings). He also explored themes of abandonment and isolation in the atmospheric Star City about the space programme in the former USSR. It’s composed of eight haunting monologues, including one from a Cosmonaut engineer stranded on space station Mir when the Soviet Union collapsed. He spent 311 days isolated in space – another badly-paid ‘hero’.

Also written and recorded in Lockdown#1 is the radio play: Sifting Sugar for Ants. Set in Poland in 1981 during the Martial Law imposed by General Jaruzelski, it’s a moving, child’s eye view of living in extraordinary times – with clear parallels to 2020.

John says: “[In the first Lockdown] I tried to get people busy – to create things that kept people buzzing and exploring ideas, but you can’t keep on all the time. You need to give to yourself as well, and this time I’m doing more of that.” His latest writing project is a musical – he’s finding it really interesting to write songs.

His predictions for the summer? “There will be a time when nobody wants to talk about Covid – when we come out, people will just need to play. I think fantasy’s going to come back for a while – like after the Great Depression, people wanted music and laughter and Hollywood movies – so don’t expect lots of Covid plays.”

Listen to Sifting Sugar for Ants online at theneverplayed.wixsite.com/sifting-sugar and Star City at star-city.co.uk


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