Lockdown leaves Falkirk amateur dramatics groups in limbo

COVID-19 effectively put an end to all live performances – as we once knew them – throughout the UK for a while and created an unwanted milestone for one local amateur performing arts group.

By James Trimble
Friday, 23rd October 2020, 4:30 pm

Falkirk Operatic Society has been putting on shows for well over a century now and 2020 – which will go down in history as that most dreaded of years – marks the first time in almost 80 years the group has not been able to tread the boards and entertain an audience.

Carol Sutherland, president of Falkirk Operatic Society, said: “Falkirk Operatic Society was established in 1903 and the only time we were not able to put on at least one show in a year was during the First World War and World War II – we have never missed a production in all those years.

“Even in those war years the society was still able to go out and fund raise – now we can’t even do that.

Falkirk Operatic Society performing Anything Goes at Falkirk Town Hall last year

“We are following National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA) guidance and there really isn’t much we can do at the moment. We could put a show on put we would only be able to fill 20 per cent of the venues due to social distancing restrictions.

“We wouldn’t get the return from tickets and take back the cost of putting on the show. For us it would just not be viable.”

Carol said the restrictions also meant the society could not visit care homes and put on shows for the residents.

Falkirk Operatic Society's Carol Sutherland appearing in Me and My Girl at Falkirk Town Hall back in 2014

"We are doing things to keep the society together,” said Carol. “Mainly through Zoom meetings. It’s just for our own mental health as much as anything. A lot of people in our society are front line workers like nurses and teachers and performing and working with the society is their hobby – it’s their lifeline.

“It’s not so much a hobby for me as a way of life. I’m 53 now and I’ve been doing this since I was 11 and I’m very passionate about it.

“We consider ourselves as being a large family and we need to stress this effects not just the members of the society you see on stage every year – it affects everyone who works in the background too and the musicians who play for us.

“It effects Falkirk Community Trust, which will struggle having no revenue from the shows either.”

Falkirk Operatic Society's production of Fiddler on the Roof back in 2010

Falkirk Operatic Society, which has around 50 members, is one of the biggest amateur performing arts groups in the area. It usually performs one major show in April and a short run cabaret in September.

The society was four weeks away from putting on a production of Hello Dolly in April when the COVID-19 lockdown came into force and the plug had to be pulled.

“We hope to either preform it in April or September next year,” said Carol.

Falkirk Operatic Society is of course just one of the performing arts group in the area – we also have Larbert Operatic Society, Falkirk Bohemians and Grangemouth Young Portonians to name but a few – and they are all in the same situation.

Falkirk Operatic Society's production of Viktoria and her Hussar from 1949

According to NODA amateur theatre performing groups produce over 3500 productions – pantomimes, plays and musicals – annually, which are watched by an audience of more than two million people every year.

NODA’s members groups generate between £150 million to £200 million in ticket sales with at least the same being produced in additional spending including food, drink, travel and accommodation.

The group is campaigning to the powers that be to give the amateur theatre sector the same consideration as that of the professional theatres, which are currently being highlighted in the press.

A NODA spokesperson said: “The vast majority of this supports a wide range of businesses, including theatres, village and community halls, theatrical suppliers, restaurants, musicians, bars and hotels. Many groups also raise significant sums for local and national charities with post show collections and specific fundraising events.

“Amateur theatre plays a significant part in the cultural life of the nation; helping with both physical and mental health, not just for the performers and all taking part, but for audiences too. Youngsters involved, grow in confidence and self-esteem.

“Amateur theatre, in many smaller communities, is very often the hub of cultural activity as well as helping to bring communities together. Also worthy of note, is the fact that many professional performers and stars of TV, originally trod the boards in amateur theatre thus shaping them for more lucrative exploits ahead.

“Amateur theatre also supports professional theatre as well. The venues amateur groups are hiring, mostly, are professional theatres and with that comes the employment of staff, both front of house and technical, as well as the hiring of freelancers like choreographers, directors, musical directors, make-up artists.

“At the present time, virtually all amateur theatre productions have been cancelled across the country, and given the lead time for productions, it is unlikely there will be many, if any, productions before the end of 2021.

“This is a significant loss to the cultural and economic life of the UK. Many groups have been making use of technology to keep in touch, rehearse, or put together videos to entertain their audiences via social media channels.

“They are eager to maintain their involvement and to resume a normal programme as far as they can.”

So what does the future hold for Falkirk Operatic Society and other local groups?

Carol said the society would be able to rehearse via Zoom and perhaps the principal performers could even get together – at a safe social distance of course – to run through their lines.

“We need to see if our members would want to come back – whether they would feel safe performing. We also don’t know if the audience would feel safe to come to the show and see it.”