How the last live theatre show in Sussex proved a triumph...

The very last live theatre performance in Sussex before the lockdown fell to the students on the University of Chichester’s Musical Theatre Triple Threat course.

The company
The company

Adapting quickly to fast-changing circumstances, they managed a mini triumph amid all the difficulties.

After months of planning, and with lockdown looming, they opted to live-stream their performance of Guys and Dolls in front of an empty auditorium at Bognor’s Regis Centre.

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Paul Ackerley, senior lecturer in music and resident producer, said: “Last year more than 80 per cent of the Triple Threat students were offered professional contracts within six weeks of graduating and more than a third of the original intake are still in the creative industries.

“So when the latest company of undergraduate hopefuls embarked on the intensive six-month journey to produce a West End-ready production of Frank Loesser’s iconic Guys and Dolls to pitch to industry agents and delight friends, families and local audiences across three counties, spirits were running high.”

It was the tour company’s tenth anniversary production, and audiences were booking in droves. By the start of production week, the show was the second highest selling production in the university’s history and set to break the record set in 2014.

The first three shows were sold out. At that point, theatres, bars and restaurants were still open. 24 hours later the country was put on seven days’ notice and the schools were told to close at the end of the week. Two days later theatres and bars were given a Monday curfew. Many took steps to close straight away.

“This was 48 hours from the sold-out opening and 15 hours before the first dress rehearsal. Everything was ready. The cast and company had every song, every dance and every nuanced piece of dialogue down rehearsed to perfection. Everyone was healthy.

“Few had seen anyone else for more than two weeks. We were still in the mitigation phase. More importantly, the Alexandra Theatre, the home of the Chichester’s Musical Theatre course, stood by the company and invited us to at least run the show on stage for the friends of the cast.

“That night about 30 students, a few lecturers and our head of department sat in an empty theatre and admired a near-perfect show. Their cheering resonated through the auditorium and a few tears were shed.

“Head of musical theatre Karen Howard brought the technical team together at the end of the show, standing in the post-show rain outside stage door asked if there was aay way at all we could live-stream the show the following afternoon and evening from an entirely empty theatre.

“We had never done that before. Just one more day. Still within government advice.

“The team she was addressing had been together through thick and thin for some five years. Production manager Chris Keen phoned a friend. Neil Ambrose of Smart Tuna, Worthing. They supplied live stream services to the industry. With the chairman of the Regis Centre Hazel Latus behind the idea, it was all play for.”

At 2.15pm on the Friday, Paul rushed into the auditorium, grabbed a set of headphones as instructed and positioned himself behind one of the camera tripods.

“’Have you ever shot a live stream, Paul?’ I shook my head. ‘Okay, just listen to Matt’s instructions. You’ll pick it up. Good luck,”

Various technical difficulties ensued. The 2.30pm broadcast was abandoned. Instead, the company ran the show and filmed it for the archive. The team worked behind the scenes to detect and fix the problem for the 7.30 broadcast.

“At 7.10 we went back on air. Another frenzy of texting and messaging to alert an potential audience and we were once again behind the cameras. Luck Be A Lady Tonight! No one blinked.

“The five-minute mark ticked past. Four, three… two minutes to go and we were still live.

“All the signals were firing across the globe. Brady waved an arm in the pit and The Overture started to play. We were live around the world. The very last live theatre performance in Sussex before the lockdown and possibly throughout the country had just gone live.

“With such little time to promote the stream, we were thrilled when by the interval we had 350 people watching. By the time the cast came off stage it had grown to more than 6,000 and the comments that we were receiving were extraordinary.

“We had viewers from Australia, Canada and as far afield as The Falkland Islands. We were live all over Europe, from Berlin to Budapest, Gibraltar and Georgia. We had viewers in New York and Yorkshire and thanks to the theatres we were planning to tour to, viewers who had booked to see the show were getting to see what they thought they had lost…”

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