Throughout this pandemic, I’ve been curious about the impact that it’s having on the theatre industry. I recently spoke with Guy Woolf, an actor, director, and composer, to learn more about his latest work. He currently serves as Creative Director of the new theatre company, represent. Kicking off the inaugural season is Money by Isla van Tricht, a digital co-production with Southwark Playhouse that runs from April 26 – May 15.
Tell us about UK theatres and where they are with reopening.
It’s interesting. I’d say we’re at the tail end of digital work, because people are now looking to get back. I think there’s a real sense of trepidation, because we did reopen theatres just before the third lockdown. I think it was around Christmas, and then the show was cancelled again. People are still weary about the potential of shows being closed.
There’s also a real, quiet optimism. Our country is actually doing well in rolling out the vaccine, which is nice that they are seemingly getting one thing right. For the theatre landscape, when people don’t have money and they can’t get on a plane, they go to the theatre… Historically during the first financial crash in the 2000s, people went to the theatre because they wanted life experiences. Everybody felt the pinch this year and we’ve been starved of live performance.
How are you launching your inaugural season with represent.?
For us, we’re opening a virtual show. The timing feels good. We’re easing audiences back into the live performance space, but it’s still digital and safe since you’re at home. For a lot of theatres that are reopening, I think, good for them. Still feels quite early and not fully safe. We’re doing a live production on Zoom rather than streaming an old production so that we could bridge that gap between digital performance and live in-person shows.
What’s been your favorite part of working in the arts?
It’s got to be this theatre company that we started! About eight years ago, I started formalizing this idea of a company for actors from lower socio-economic backgrounds. I don’t know so much about the U.S., but I’m sure it’s the same. The gaps here between the people that have money and who don’t, and the people who are represented in the arts and the people who aren’t [are] awful. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media, & Sport released shocking statistics a couple of years ago about how few Olivier Award winners didn’t go to private school, for instance.
A highlight for me was starting to discuss how we could stop that from happening and how we could make the industry more accessible for people who couldn’t afford drama school. Much of the work is unpaid, like things at fringe level. We decided on the format of a repertory company and that they had to be paid, otherwise that’s creating another problem if you aren’t paying your actors.
The absolute highlight of my career was getting the funding for the program from the amazing Texel Foundation. In one meeting, they offered support and said, “We’ll support you for the foreseeable future.” We had funding offers [from others] of one year for seeing how it goes. We turned those down because we knew we needed longevity of funding and buy-in longer-term. We’d make mistakes and need to learn from our mistakes. [Since] then it’s just escalated and here we are.
Your launch is quite timely because the pandemic is expanding these socio-economic difficulties people face.
Yes, it was bad before the pandemic. It’s even worse now. My trade union, Equity, has lost members because people believe that this career is not sustainable for them now. A huge number of freelancers were not supported by government grants. They weren’t eligible for the furlough schemes.
Also, companies are going to be much more risk averse. We had a real problem prior to COVID, with getting venues to believe that what we were doing was actually doable. Genuinely, I had meetings with people who were like, “I don’t think your cast will be able to cope and handle this.”
I thought it was so disparaging of good people. It is such nonsense and in many ways people of lower socio-economic status are more resilient than anybody. These actors are here and they want to do it!
Now we’ll see a huge spate of old musical revivals. No disrespect, I love Ian McKellen, but playing Hamlet is a safe bet. Venues and companies will not take risks now while we still hope for audiences to come in. For those actors who aren’t well known and didn’t go to Eton, Cambridge, or Oxford, good luck because it’s going to be tough. Represent. is needed now more than ever.
Tell us about Money and the ideas behind it.
Money is our inaugural show. It’s a digital, interactive show for audiences. I had a meeting with an arts leader who told me about how they were offered a big donation from a disreputable source. They assembled all their board to discuss whether to accept this donation. It was over a million pounds. They voted not to take it.
When he told me this, I thought that was fascinating! I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall. We did a research and development week on this idea. How could it work for an audience? We developed six characters and we then commissioned Isla van Tricht to write a draft explicitly for Zoom.
It’s about a charity board receiving money from the Anders Corporation, who are involved in the manufacturing of palm oil. That is related to deforestation and massive ecological damage in Indonesia and parts of Africa. It’s an awful process. The charity board must decide if they will take the money.
I don’t know if you’ve come across the Handforth Parish Counsel meeting here, but it went viral. They were all screaming at each other and kicking each other out of the meeting. We were interested in Zoom as a platform and unique stage. Both of our Zoom backgrounds right now are not exciting, but sometimes on Zoom you get a window into someone else’s life. You’re on stage in a sense, even if you’re in your own home.
What are you expecting with the audience?
The audience plays the board. We hope they see a genuinely true, real-life meeting. They have an active role in the production, which comes in two forms. One, they go into different breakout rooms to explore different stories. It’s a bit like a Punchdrunk show, where audiences wear masks and follow whichever actors they like around the space. There’s an element of choice.
Also, the audience gets to vote at the end on whether to accept or reject the money. That means there are a bunch of different endings. In fact, there are 27 different narrative versions that the audience can see. We hope we’ve set up this world to the audience and they feel invested in the ethical dilemma at the heart of it, that they know they have a decisive stake in the way the narrative goes. At the end, there is just a little bit of magic.
After this long year, what’s a big lesson you learned that you want to take forward?
Resilience! I think also control. I’ve been saying the serenity prayer a lot recently. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I really use that a lot. We couldn’t control what was happening with the pandemic. There was an extraordinary amount of grief and on my personal part after. We were a week into rehearsals for our first season. You heard the backstory [going back eight years]. The first week of rehearsals and the cast were amazing. These are unbelievably talented actors you’d never have heard of because they haven’t been given the opportunity to shine. We were sent home because of COVID.
It took months where we were trying to control things until we had to accept we couldn’t control the situation. That’s the thing I’ll take forward. It was a delayed grief. Around Christmas it hit me that this is not just a pandemic of COVID, but disappointment as well. People missed weddings, holidays, work, and jobs. It was so much grief we couldn’t even process it. As a company and an individual, I had to accept what I can’t control. I have to be strong, change the things I can, and know when I can’t.
Thank you for giving us an overview of your new theatre company, represent.