As the doors to theatres and venues closed last spring, there was a rush to keep a connection with audiences in any way possible.
Throughout the year and its extended lockdowns, it became clear that there would be no speedy reopening.
The content being offered became more sophisticated and there was a realisation that this could become another valuable strand to performance of all kinds.
At Dundee Rep, this year of reflection and planning has culminated in the launch today of Rep Studios, a joint project by Dundee Rep and Scottish Dance Theatre to bring theatre, dance and music to audiences, wherever they are.
At Dundee Rep, lockdown came during its 80th season celebrations, when shows like Tay Bridge, Oor Wullie, and Smile had told the stories of its home city.
There were online activities throughout the year to keep that connection, such as Where Are You Dundee? where online participants were invited to take part in creative collaborations.
Rep artistic director Andrew Panton and Scottish Dance Theatre’s artistic director Joan Clevillé were reluctant to rush too many productions online and instead of curating, decided to start a conversation with their audiences about what they would like to see.
There was the realisation that Rep Studios could be complementary to the live performances when the auditoriums sprung to life again.
Talking to the audience
“As soon as lockdown hit last year, there was a huge rush with everyone putting out all kinds of content, of varying quality,” said Joan.
“We made a conscious decision to take a step back, see what happened and then talk to our audiences rather than jump straight to producing content.
“Jess Thorpe and Tashi Gore who were our then new Engage directors came up with Where Are You Dundee? which took up a large chunk of last year and that was sort of carried on in Shine On, a socially distanced Christmas offering.”
Joan adds that it was more important to communicate.
“We needed to be more about our communities. That was our priority rather than our anxiety about somehow staying relevant.”
The first season of Rep Studios includes the Jim McLean play Smile (more below), the award-winning musical Islander, two digital premieres from Scottish Dance Theatre, a fresh focus on music events, and a mini-festival called This Is For You Dundee.
This is For You Dundee is a natural successor to Where Are You Dundee?
It’s a free to access series of six events where 26 freelance artists and creatives have worked with the people of Dundee to celebration their resilience during an extremely challenging year.
Sinder is a new performance for the Dundee Rep Ensemble, with an all-female creative team bringing together the stories of women from across the city on the impact of the pandemic on their lives.
Joan added: “We’re trying to pick up where we left off in the 80th season.
“The new platform isn’t for pandemics or lockdowns. It’s here to stay and will run alongside our live performances.”
Music in an important part of the programme, with Mixtape bringing together diverse Scottish music talents (and an appearance by Boy George) to collaborate on 12 duets.
In Area of a Circle presents Kathryn Joseph who relocated to Dundee just before the pandemic in a live-streamed event, joined by Su Shaw (SHHE), Andrew Wasylyk, and Sion Parkinson.
Scottish Dance Theatre will be live streaming from the Rep and will celebrate International Dance Day with the digital premiere of Thin h/as h/air.
The full programme is online today at Dundee Rep’s website.
The man behind the Smile
For many theatre-goers in Dundee, the last live performance before lockdown would have been Barrie Hunter’s tour de force as the Dundee United managerial legend Jim McLean in Smile, with able assistance from Chris Alexander.
The two-hander, written by Philip Differ and directed by Sally Reid was credited with bringing in audiences who had thought the theatre wasn’t “for them”, and even those who prefer their football of a dark blue hue.
The show has been filmed for Rep Studios, and will be available from Tuesday, April 6, from the Rep’s website.
Little has been changed, even though Jim McLean died on December 26 last year.
Barrie said: “Chris Alexander and I went back into the rehearsal room with the director Sally Reid for two weeks, and Philip was there part of the time.
“There were a few tweaks to the script, nothing much, just little annoyances that he hadn’t got round to changing first time round.
“Then we moved to the auditorium where the set had magically appeared again.
“Of course the zoning in the building has been very strict, and our movement through it has been carefully controlled, so we know things are going on but we don’t necessarily see people doing it!”
Getting so close to a character during a performance means that there have been some emotional moments for Barrie, with the added layer that since he played him last, Jim is gone.
“We were almost at the end of rehearsals and were getting pretty knackered.
“There are a couple of lines that Jim says about Doris, his wife, and I couldn’t help it, I broke down in tears.
“I won’t spoil the lines for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but of course there is added poignancy now.”
Barrie, Chris, Sally and the crew spent two days filming, with three cameras and multiple takes.
Keeping the same levels of emotion as you would in a performance was difficult but “the director kept reminding us about keeping an eye on levels of emotion, where we’ve just come from. It’s something that flows as a live play but in the stop start was something we had to keep a handle on”.
Barrie says he hasn’t see it yet, but those at the Rep who have seen what has been filmed are delighted that it gives the play new life and will allow many more people to experience it.
“It’s something of an honour but also a great responsibility to be given a role like this.
“It’s not about am impersonation. It’s about capturing the essence of a man.
“From what I hear I think we were successful so it’s great that Rep Studios have committed it to film where it can get an even wider audience.”