UK Spotlight: The Dark Theatre

Nina (Wilson) Dunn: Video Designer for Theatre and Live Events

March 2020. For the first time in the modern history, in the whole world, all cultural institutions enter the most dramatic lock down. Without any discrimination, big institutions such as philharmonic, opera, theatre, museum, etc became just a landmark on google map. I don’t know if you looked on the interactive google map in March, but the sensation was horrible. When everywhere appeared just “1 sign closed” for I remember that entire March was like a horror news about Coronavirus. For many of us this was a situation so difficult, that words cannot describe it.

TechvangArt: England was one of the countries that entered lockdown a little bit later, compared to other countries. I suppose, it is difficult to witness the phenomena of everything going down like in a sad domino effect, having that fear that you will be the next piece smashed.
So, for you, how was that period when the postman delivers only sad-news?
Nina (Wilson) Dunn: It was really strange. We should have locked down earlier, that’s for sure. I was in the West End preparing for a press opening of a brilliant show when the shutdown of the Theatres happened so the difference in my life between one day and the next was like day and night. I think the rest of the country was perhaps on a slower course towards the realization of what was coming but for me it was like an axe had just cut down a the tree of a career I had been growing for over a decade with a single announcement from the government. I am an optimist and I wanted to continue to try and think positively but eventually I had to start to become more pragmatic as I witnessed the remainder of my year’s work commitments vanishing and the health situation escalating. My sister is a Doctor so I could see that side of what was going on also. I had to learn to embrace a period of time at home and with two children to teach and online resources to prepare for university students as well as a business to freeze it felt quite busy! Soon after the lockdown, we suffered the loss of a family member, which brought things into a fresh perspective yet again and it felt like the world had changed forever. Eventually I found that starting to create again was the best solace.

TechvangArt: You were between the first that tried to create a group that can support especially performance arts. After that, more actions were set in place. How did you come up with the idea of setting up TheDarkTheatersProject?
Nina (Wilson) Dunn: The Dark Theatres Project came about primarily as an artist / maker’s response. I needed to start creating work again and I was curious about the stories that these close theatres concealed. Then one day I was on a zoom call with the cast and company of my last show that had never seen its press opening and I realised that there were a lot of people out there who had fallen through the cracks in government financial support packages and had nothing to fall back on so I decided to make it a charity and awareness project. I had seen a few other projects receive a good response such as the Theatre Support Fund that sold T-Shirts and a tote bag campaign so I decided to build up a profile with a website and social presence to use as platforms. The phased release of stories and images coincided perfectly with the groundswell of voices petitioning for wider government support for the Arts and awareness of our plight so politically, it worked well – I always seemed to have an image to hand from the photo shoot to illustrate the zeitgeist – and the interviews that I carried out to accompany the images make for a really interesting and quite emotional read.

The Dark Theatres Project

The book that will be released is the culmination of this phase. It will provide not only a historical legacy through these stories and images but also a source of funding for the charities for as long as people buy the book. It took around eight weeks to compile the stories and edit the images so already there has been a real difference in the cultural and health landscape between when the start and completion of writing and it was thrilling to be creating something live as news unfolded.

TechvangArt: It is quite difficult to express in words what an artist goes through.
Most audiences know the actor through a role. Although we almost always feel them, there was an invisible wall between the audience and the actor. In your project, the people who work in the theatre reveal their thoughts, hopes, feelings and fears, different aspects that need to be changed. This approach was answered by many people in the theatrical world such as: Natalie McQueen, Sarah Myott-Meadows, Merlin O’Brien, Richard Darbourne, Jen Raith, Howard Harrison, Andy Evans, Jen Raith, Andrew Hilton, Andreas Ayling (I hope that I didn’t miss anyone).
What were their reactions to your idea? What were the reasons for participating? And just as a curiosity: was anybody at all, that did not wish to participate?
Nina (Wilson) Dunn: My interviewees were on the whole really delighted to be part of the project – not only as it gave them a chance to tell their stories and re-connect with a job that they once loved, which many found cathartic – but also to be able to help raise funds and awareness. The overriding sentiment I drew from all of their interviews was the unbeatable sense of community that exists within theatre workers. The intense periods of deep collaborative work in storytelling really create unique bonds between people and we as a community are all missing each other like we would a family. This family is made up of around 300,000 people in the UK and our livelihoods continue to be in grave jeopardy. There were two performers who declined to be involved however I can understand and respect that. I wonder what they will think when they see the book though. Perhaps they will regret not being part of it!

TechvangArt: In this period, the different sectors from the art world choose online as a form of expression. Although you generally express yourself through the power of the image, you have chosen the written Story as a way of expression. Why did you opt for the letters?
Nina (Wilson) Dunn: It’s true – writing is a fairly new thing for me. I have frequently written articles and blog posts relating to my profession but this will be the first of two books that I have now undertaken to write over the next twelve months. I think the main reason for working hard to document the stories that accompany the images is to give the audience a better sense of the personal meaning behind each one. It’s easy enough to understand what an empty auditorium looks like as a regular theatregoer but to understand the story behind a dressing room table with a false eyelash complete with glue still on it ready for the evening’s show that never happened or the reason why a sandwich is not mouldy after three months is because it was a prop, set for the evening’s show – these glimpses into what life is like behind the scenes bring the personal narrative into focus and are far more interesting than simply shots of vast auditoria with empty seats. After all, there were no ‘ghost lights’ as one romantically night imagine and many theatres didn’t have their auditorium lights on either. They were epically dark and silent and above all spoke of the wrenching absence of people.
I will certainly return to expressing the world through images and animation again soon but for now, this change of pace has seemed appropriate and fitting.

TechvangArt: What is missing from “online theatre”? Is there something that online will never be able to do?
Nina (Wilson) Dunn: The relationship between performers and audience is extremely symbiotic and this is the first thing that you lose when performances are mediated through a screen. There is also wonder and power in sharing an experience between hundreds of people who are witnessing something elapse live before their eyes – no CG tricks, no edit – it is delivered as is and even when the mechanics of how the piece is delivered is exposed this can add to the magic through the leap of imagination that the audience undergoes. It’s live – anything can happen and you are sometimes sharing a space with truly great artists who you may never otherwise encounter. We are privileged to have this form of storytelling in our lives and we need to protect it as a shared, in person, collective experience even if we seek to explore ways of delivering performance to a wider audience in new ways – that is always going to be second best.

TechvangArt: I was impressed about the #ProjectionMapping you involved, developed together with Stuart Harris (lights & projection) and Rah Petherbridge (photography). The concept is interesting. I love the moment when on the front of the theatre the projections of the employees appear with those wonderful banners in their hands. A very strong image. And the main message MISSING / LIVE / THEATER.
Nina (Wilson) Dunn: The Light In Red campaign seeks to raise awareness of buildings that remain closed with their existence in peril in a crisis like this. Many buildings around the UK were lit in red to highlight the plight of the arts by drawing attention to the locations that we associate with the arts. This was something that had been done in Germany already and felt right to do in the UK however we felt that identifying buildings wasn’t enough: since over 70% of all workers in the live entertainment sector are freelance, we need to highlight the plight of these individuals too. The buildings are only brought to life by the people who work in them and visit them so we worked in collaboration with the #FreelancersMakeTheatreWork campaign that supports this freelance workforce to realise this image on the buildings.

TechvangArt: Considering that you had different roles in the art world, in relation to technology and digitalisation – what is it that you would not include in/ not recommend for the artistic world?
Nina (Wilson) Dunn: I feel that art needs to relate to humans and is therefore most effective when humans and their stories are included within art. Human presence gives the observer or audience the staying power to invest in the subject or narrative and leads to empathy and deeper feelings. ‘Art’ without a human touch can leave me cold.

TechvangArt: I know that there is no recipe for success, but usually the success contains certain ingredients. What would they be in your opinion?
Nina (Wilson) Dunn: What a difficult question?! Perhaps I would say that lasting success is never easily won. You have to be prepared to work hard for it and also to believe in what you are working at. Without this belief you won’t be able to find it within yourself to work as hard as you need to and without working hard, you will never become good enough to be extraordinary, nor will you feel the rewards of your endeavors deeply enough to give you the stamina and thirst to keep you going. Blood sweat and tears is not always a negative thing – it can in fact be a recipe for success and those tears can become tears of joy when you achieve your goals. And finally, collaboration is crucial. Your success and the rejoicing at that success will be exponential if you share your endeavor.

TechvanfArt : When we was talk last time with Nona she was excited because
The Book was going into print tonight
People who appreciate, understand and missing those magical moments when the theatrical curtain once opened at the sound of the gong. If you wish to help theatrical workers, to support the cause, you have the possibility to pre-order the book here . You can contribute to the fundraising campaign project.
We stay in lockdown separately but We live this time together,
We keep the social distances, but we long for a hug
We look at the safety(iron) curtain on the proscenium, but we dream and imagine that velvet curtain
What’s left? The LightInRed on the The Dark Theatre and We, the public,
who still clap in front of the padlock at the Entrance of the Stage
WE miss each other
This is our story of our times, that is revealed in the book that describes a unique journey through prominent London Theatres that have stood empty for three months. The photographs will be accompanied by personal testimonials from the people who once inhabited these buildings, working behind the scenes to create the magic of Theatre.

The Dark Theatres Project seeks to raise funds for Theatre Professionals who have lost their livelihood during COVID-19. 

www.darktheatresproject.org

Thank you to artists who give us photo credit to realise this interview

LightInRed and Nina (Wilson) Dunn portrait Photo credit: ©Rah Petherbridge
The Dark Theatre Project: Photo credit: ©Nina (Wilson) Dunn