Based in Pembrokeshire, the Torch Theatre is a vibrant centre for the arts, priding itself on extending a warm welcome to all visitors. As the major theatre producing venue of West Wales, the theatre is used to offering an excellent programme of distinctive, relevant and accessible arts activity to a loyal and growing audience of Pembrokeshire residents and seasonal tourists. We spoke to the team about their Covid-19 response strategies and how they have been coping in the face of a pandemic. The Torch's five-point Community Story covers:
- Life in Lock-down
- Adapting to New Approaches
- Considering our Comeback
- Navigating the New Normal
- Data-led Decision Making
Life in Lock-down
Like all arts venues, at the end of March we were told to close and have had to grapple with all the challenges of furloughing staff. We had no real marketing assistance until November and had seven or eight months with just a handful of managers working as best as they could to try and maintain operations and keep going, engaging our audiences.
Then there were applications for funding support to write, and trying to get the staff back into work. It’s been a challenge but we got there, and now we have had support from the Cultural Recovery fund and a number of others including the BFI. Securing these have let us finally plan our way forward, re-engage, and hopefully reopen again in 2021.
Adapting to New Approaches
We launched Torch Virtual Voices using Facebook Live during lockdown with live performances and updates from our choir MD, Angharad Sanders. Amazingly we’ve reached an audience of around 45,000 people across the last few months. We’ve also done live streaming of several performances, including Daniel Kitson and then our popular production ‘Grav’ - telling the story of Welsh Rugby player and icon, Ray Gravell.
The other thing we did was to tell other peoples’ stories. We found ourselves in a position to support creative associates and freelancers, as well as other theatres, by sharing the work that was being done across the sector, speaking with local theatre companies and using our platform to engage new audiences. It’s been about making sure everyone is included in our community and sharing the positive stories, not just those that are going on in Pembrokeshire but across the country and possibly across the world. For us, this really was a different way of working and a different way of thinking.
The situation has really strengthened our relationship with our friends in other theatres. We’ve all been tackling the same issues and, as a result, a culture of supporting and confiding in each other has grown. It’s been heart-warming to see so much resilience and so much mutual love for one another in these trying times.
A similar thing has happened between the theatre and our local community too. In March when we closed the building we gave away a lot of food and drinks to local Pembrokeshire charities which provide support to people in difficult circumstances. In addition our technical team spent hours chopping up wood to give to local communities to keep their fires going. We spent 3 or 4 days delivering it, alongside face protection that we had made during the initial lack of PPE in early lockdown. Between four 3D printers run by our technical team as well as some outsourcing we delivered over 1000 face masks.
Overall, the pandemic has really allowed us to step back and ask ourselves what we can really do for our community. What does our community need? And yes, we are limited in many ways, but we are capable of pulling an amazing operation like that together as a team. For a small theatre in this part of Wales that sense of bringing the community together has not only been brilliant, but critical really.
Considering our Comeback
Right now it’s all about planning. We’re trying to look at what we’ve got and what we’re trying to do.
Obviously, we’re focussing a lot on digital aspects and on making the building secure and inviting. In terms of how we operate, we’re hoping to move forward to a point where we can get the cinema open as soon as it is safe to do so. If we can do that then the theatre would ideally follow around April. We’re aiming to get productions back on stage but we’re also looking to see how we can engage with the community and run more community led projects.
We’ve begun looking more deeply into how to use our digital platforms, how to engage audiences, but also how to get a better understanding of how the population of Pembrokeshire sees us. We’re taking the time to understand our key bookers but also the ones who aren’t really engaging at all.
It has been a time of strategizing and planning and looking at how to fundamentally change the way we work. In fact, that chance to step back has been the biggest change. When you’re in the normal swing of things you’re full force and every department is working flat out. Now we’ve been given an opportunity to sit down and listen because everything normal has gone. Now is our time to talk to audiences and let them know we can hear them. We can engage in new conversations. We will work with local stakeholders, charities and organisations and just sit back and listen. We’ll be asking: What do you want from us? When we reopen what do you want to see? What have we not given you in terms of artistic offerings, or as a community hub? What would YOU like us to provide?
It’s a really exciting prospect to launch into 2021 and beyond with that attitude. A lot of our audience feedback has reflected that we are seen as a major part of the local community, which we pride ourselves on, but inevitably there will be some areas we will have missed, simply due to following traditional ways of working and thinking. It’s a real opportunity to sit back and listen.
Navigating the New Normal
It’s a very exciting time and we’re really looking forward to reopening our doors.
When we do, it’s really important that our audiences feel confident to return. We’ve put screens up in box office, signage for one-way systems, and reviewed our capacity based on the 2 meter distance rule, which has been the biggest challenge. We’re are also opening up the air flow in the building, installing hand sanitisers, looking at cleaning rotas and our food and drink offer in the café bar. A lot of reviewing and reflecting so that we can work with the Welsh Government guidelines and recommendations from the Local Council and Arts Council of Wales.
We’re also taking the opportunity to splash the odd lick of paint around and look at lighting and flooring in some areas, so that when we’re ready to open everything is looking brand spanking new.
It’s also important that we are looking at messaging around the relaunch in some detail, giving enough guidance so that people feel empowered to come into the building and know what to expect.
One thing we’ve learned in the run up to reopening is that we’ll always need to be able to adapt. We were looking to open in November around the big film launches like James Bond, but every time a release date gets set back we have to adapt alongside it. Of course we have also been effected by the January lockdown and the latest set of Welsh Government restrictions. It’s been challenging.
Data-led Decision Making
We’ve had to spend time getting to understand our audience using Audience Finder to analyse our ticketing data and results from a monitoring survey we undertook on our 19/20 audiences, collected from across the year. We also looked at the After the Interval survey we ran in the Spring, and obviously our box office data, to get a general feel of the consensus among people and see how it differed from the norm. We’re interested to know what people really want, what activity they want to see, what level of security or protection they feel is adequate to come back to the building.
Like many rural theatres, we have a more mature audience here, many of whom could be classed as vulnerable. Plus we have community groups like Dementia Choirs and disability movement groups – we’re very conscious of how we can integrate these groups into our spaces when the time is right, making sure they have a safe and secure environment to operate in and do what they love doing.
So, there are lots of conversations going on behind the scenes with focused sections of our community as well as general audience surveys. Without having this kind of feedback and audience data you are clutching at straws. We need to be confident we can deliver a plan of action to make everybody feel welcome again.
In terms of who we’ve engaged over the last year, the data is looking slightly younger than our usual demographic. Part of this is due to online engagement. Obviously, figures have gone down overall for all kinds of engagement - with no product and offer our website gets fewer visits. But our social media is hitting a younger audience for sure.
The biggest change is probably our geographical reach though, with our live sessions generating engagement from across the world. There have been viewers in Mexico, Scotland, Huddersfield joining us every week. Our live stream of Daniel Kitson saw people booking tickets from Australia and America (and a large group from Sheffield which was interesting).
So digital platforms have certainly widened our audiences. These new audiences are unlikely to come and visit the theatre but it has been a great exercise in getting the Torch brand out beyond this part of Pembrokeshire. At the end of the day, the data shows that we have a global audience in some way, which is brilliant for a small theatre in west Wales. It’s amazing.
A word of thanks
We couldn’t end this without saying a massive thank you to our patrons and supporters through these tough times. We all want to be back where we were. We are desperate to get our doors open and keep building on what we do and continuing to support our community. For those of you in the arts, we’re here to support you if you need us. It’s been great that so many of you have been part of this journey thus far.
If you have any questions or are ready to send over a story, please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org