Cautious optimism for our theatres

Barnham-based theatre director Joe Harmston is feeling cautiously optimistic about the year ahead for our theatres.
Joe HarmstonJoe Harmston
Joe Harmston

He admits he doubted his own future in the business in the depths of last year, but Joe has now re-emerged with a greater clarity and also confidence, he says.

“I doubt things will be starting in April or May. I don’t think we will be in a position where we can properly plan before the summer but I would hope that by the autumn we might be approaching a new normal. In theory, I am going to be starting rehearsals at the end of August for a new play. We were working on it during 2020 and made the decision to push it back a long way.”

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The difficulty is simply not knowing what the government will say, as Joe says. If you plan to open something in March and then actually manage to do so, you could well find yourself having to close it again in April: “I wanted to take a longer view. In the last year I have had three projects that I was going to do cancelled, but there was one smaller show, a two-hander called Howerd’s End, that we managed to put on for a week in London in a pub theatre. It was going to go to Birmingham and Glasgow which was all cancelled, but we managed a week.”

And at least the pandemic year of 2020 brought a chance to take stock: “Like of lot of people in many industries I had the feeling of ‘Stop the world. I want to get off.’ I wasn’t obviously wishing it in quite such a brutal way, but it meant I did have the chance to get off. And I took it as an opportunity to take stock and to consider what it is was that I was doing and to consider which bits of what I do matter and which bits don’t. And I think the most important thing now is that I know that theatre events must really know what they are for. I am going to be more ruthless in my analysis of whether the things I am doing really are 100 per cent worth doing.”

With considerable experience behind him, Joe concedes he is in a fortunate position: “I really feel for the people who are just starting out. Every year the drama schools churn out another huge group of hopeful young performers and directors. It is hard enough for them all at the best of times. but this year for the industry has been simply awful.

“It is going to be really interesting to see who survives and who still bothers. There are so many people in so many industries, I am sure, where having a bit of a cull is not actually a bad thing. I know that is brutal and a horrible thing to say, but it may be that there are organisations and individuals that are going to stop operating in their business, and as a result it is going to leave the people that are so completely devoted to it, the people for whom it is their lifeblood, a calling as opposed to something they just fancy doing. I know that it is a lifeblood for me. I am really fortunate. The other thing I can do is build stuff. I worked solidly from June until Christmas as a builder, and I was able to make a decent living. I enjoy it because it is creative. I have built a house for some people and I have renovated a couple of houses, and it looks like I am going to be building some more houses. I am lucky that I have got another string which is also a career string.”

But it won’t ever be instead of directing, Joe now knows.

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“There was a time in the middle of the year where I was feeling totally exhausted physically and mentally and it got me down. I thought I just had to face the fact that I was never going to go back to the theatre. But lots of people quite aggressively said to me ‘Don’t be ridiculous’ and lots of nice things. And it has made me realise that it is not just my job; it is me. And that’s the thing about so many people in our industry that I have been lucky to work with. It does feel like a calling. We are story-tellers and somehow we get energy out of life by being able to share those stories.”