Unity Theatre: Supporting Artists During a Pandemic

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

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Unity Theatre: Supporting Artists During a Pandemic
Thursday 14th May 2020

When something uncommon or unexpected occurs, the instinct to respond to it as quickly as possible kicks in. Just like many other venues, at Unity we wanted to reassure audiences, artists, staff and communities that we were on it. We didn’t want anybody to feel forgotten. We also wanted to do all of this not just quickly, but as meaningfully, creatively and uniquely as possible. Eight weeks ago, we moved to get an ‘announcement’ out to audiences and artists fast. We spoke of online quiz nights, artist advice sessions, application support, and moving our family programme online. We knew we didn’t have any digital recordings to share but we could certainly collaborate with partners, so we added this to the list too.

But after this initial rush, it occurred to us very quickly that we didn’t even know if anybody actually wanted this. We know these parts of our programme do well under normal circumstances, but is this what people want right now in a pandemic? We needed to find a way to answer this question.

What do artists and audiences want and need?

Once we had safely closed the building, postponed all productions and communicated with all bookers, the work began to financially stabilise the business and plan for the future. But to progress meaningfully we knew we needed to carve out some much-needed time to listen to what was really needed from us throughout lockdown and beyond.

Talent Development is a significant part of the Unity programme. We pride ourselves on the fact that the opportunities we offer creatives are formed in consultation with working artists and those trying to work in the arts. Our Creative Card, for example, was shaped through what training you asked us for. As such, it felt only right that our emergency response should be created in the same way.

To achieve this we set up two focus groups that came about following an open call to artists to join us in a consultation. These two sessions would give artists a chance to hear about our immediate and future plans, shape our thinking and help us determine if our current plans were still of use. What emerged were requests for a “unified” place to find information, support in skills sharing and advice, and for workshops on “the boring stuff…like finance and business planning”. The word “collaboration” featured heavily, with artists displaying a strong desire to work together through this time. One artist used the phrase “knowledge network” and there was an agreed desire to learn from others. All mentioned wellbeing. Together they reassured each other that, while it was great to use lockdown as a time to grow creative practice and make work, it was just as ok to not want to.

The programme we announce today is a direct response to these conversations.

Our Artist Emergency Response Programme: Building a Future has been developed with over thirty of these creatives from across Liverpool, looking to a supportive future helping artists develop and share their career skills, networks, and knowledge.

We’re incredibly grateful to the artists who took the time to speak to us so on these calls for sharing their concerns and needs so honestly, not just with us, but with each other. As a result of their help we have tried to address initial requests and concerns with this new scheme, though we acknowledge our learning is ongoing and so further feedback can be voiced here.

Today’s new programme also sits alongside previously announced work we designed to keep audiences and wider communities supported. Of all the things we rushed to publicise in those opening weeks, a simple list of links to information proved to be the most shared, most viewed and most engaged with work we created. This Resource Centre, as it became known, was designed to centralise financial, educational and wellbeing advice. The message from audiences was loud and clear, keep it simple and keep it helpful. So we followed this method again for our What’s On(line) calendar, a central place to find the best of online performances, family activities, quiz nights and workshops from Liverpool and beyond.

As we plan for a future reopening we will once again be calling upon audiences and artists for their feedback on how we create a venue that feels safe and comfortable, so that we’re ready for their return whenever that may be.

In the meantime, the work goes on. We keep applying for funding, we keep rescheduling programme, we keep in contact with our customers, we keep supporting artists and we keep asking questions. Most importantly we keep learning.

These are new times for us all, and we can’t thank you enough for the patience and kindness you have shown us as we adapt together. We hope to see you very soon.

With best wishes,

The Unity Team