By Stephen John 

Scene 1 

No Fog or Filthy Air
7.30pm 2nd July 2021  
Bowler Crab is about to perform its second Friday show of the summer run. The clock strikes. I stand before an empty auditorium. For the first time in our theatre company’s eight-year history, nobody is there. Sure, we’ve cancelled before in the past because of storms – the audience changed their tickets to a more clement night. Not this time. The sun shines down but not a single booking, not a single walk up. It’s an odd moment that speaks volumes for the times. I begin to fear for the future of theatre. This is not a desperate plea for punters to come to our latest show. Bowler Crab (BC) are well established and an empty night isn’t too big a hit for us. The worry is that, if this company founded in 2013 is struggling for an audience, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for others. UK Theatre is in difficulty. The moment was a warning sign for me. Our culture needs theatre. It needs art and I fear for a future where creative enterprises no longer exist because they’ve been abandoned by their usual consumers. 

Stephen John in Why Will?
CREDIT: Peter Mould

Scene 2 

Is the Hurlyburly Done?
The production Why Will is based on a cancelled show that was to have celebrated the 600th anniversary of Rye’s Mermaid Inn last year. Performing outdoors at our venue, the 16th century Half House Farm in Three Oaks near Hastings, this one-man show takes a walk through the 20 productions I have directed and acted in under the Bowler Crab banner. It presents speeches from our past works whilst postulating the importance of the Bard and raising the question “Why just perform Shakespeare?” The piece is shaped with other short questions from fans and subscribers. After our opening weekend we had fantastic reviews from our audiences about the show; words such as “passionate” “insightful” “thrilling” and “unmissable” reassured me that opening our doors for the first time in almost two years was the right move. It has been such a pleasure performing, and I hope it will encourage others to get out and about safely to theatres and venues around Sussex. 

The number of my fellow thespians and directors who have given up the ghost and simply shut down their companies is shockingly high

Scene 3

Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair.
As Artistic Director of BC, the goal had been to blast through all 36 plays in Shakespeare’s First Folio – effectively the mission statement of the company. Last year put the brakes on this speedy journey across the canon. 2020 was
going to be our biggest year, with more performances and more productions booked and planned than ever before. I remember it well, on 10th March I was playing Macbeth to an entire year group of around 300 students, and it wasn’t until after the afternoon performance that I turned my attention to the news. The next day the first email came in – a potential performer dropping out of the auditions that Saturday. Within 24 hours I’d had 20 more drop-outs and ten calls cancelling venues or bookings.
I abandoned the audition day, I refunded 20 private hires for the coming months, I scrubbed 10 venues and 25 dates where performances of Antony & Cleopatra, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth were to take place. I had no idea then that the company would end up literally freezing all production for over a year. By mid-April 2020, I had followed the government’s suggestion for creatives and started as a key worker with a funeral director. Bowler Crab needed minimal effort to check emails. No sales meetings were required, no rehearsals possible, no productions or bookings could go ahead. I was away from the stage for an entire 12 months working full time and overtime on reception and in the mortuary. Although it became possible to perform last summer, the risks were too great for us to surface for a show. 

CREDIT: Peter Mould

Scene 4

When Shall We Meet Again?
This isn’t a rant. The pandemic was global. There are terrible things happening in the world. I was proud to help as a key worker but I am glad to return to theatre. Why Will? has another 15 shows to go but we’ve seen an 85% reduction in sales so far. Safety is paramount and I would never begrudge people for being cautious, waiting for the restrictions to ease; but it’s also important that people know how much theatre in Sussex needs their support. I fear for other theatre companies, not just my own; the number of my fellow thespians and directors who have given up the ghost and simply shut down their companies is shockingly high. Theatre in Sussex needs all the help it can get and so, whilst I encourage people to come to Half House Farm, I also encourage everyone to go out to as many shows as they can. Without the support of playgoers, the theatre scene will shrink; the pandemic has taken so much, let’s not let it swallow a cornerstone of our culture.

The remaining ‘Why Will’ performances can be seen at Half House Farm from 22nd July to 7th August Thursdays-Saturdays 7.30pm start, Sundays 3pm start. Tickets available online at bowler-crab.com or by calling: 07801 893115 with many on sale at the door one hour prior to performance.


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