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One year on...

Today (Tuesday 16 March) marks exactly 1 year since we first had to close our doors to the public as a result of Covid-19. Back then we had not heard of terms like social-distancing and furlough and who would have imagined that we would still find ourselves closed a year on and in our third national lockdown.

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the theatre industry and the thousands of people who work in it. The Corn Exchange has experienced a significant loss of income and the whole team has been furloughed for at least part of the last year, with most people still working significantly reduced hours. Over the past 12 months the doors of the Corn Exchange have been closed to the public for all but 9 weeks but, even with a reduced team, that doesn’t mean we haven’t been busy finding ways to entertain and engage with our community. Here are just a few of our highlights…

During the first lockdown we offered a programme of digital engagement activities to keep people active in their homes. We launched an online community choir to make a recording of I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing and commissioned 5 projects with theatre professionals to create online activities which were enjoyed by people from across the country. We’ve engaged with over 15,000 people through online activities and have continued running digital sessions including youth theatre, art classes, Tai Chi and Pilates.

We reopened (and closed) our buildings twice between September and December with a range of films and live performances for socially distanced audiences. In September we began with Unlocked and Unbolted, an original piece of drama directed and written by Bryn Holding, based on the experiences of young people during lockdown, and presented in a socially distanced manner by young performers from the area. And December saw just two weeks and 26 joyous performances of our pantomime Aladdin, which had been specially adapted by our writing and directing team Plested and Brown to adhere to social distancing, before a change of tier for West Berkshire meant we had to close our doors once more.

The dedication and creative thinking of the whole organisation to find ways in which we could present this was inspiring and included redesigning and rebuilding our auditorium seating in order to maximise the capacity whilst facilitating social distancing. We also filmed the first performance so were able to offer our Aladdin As Live recording so people could still enjoy the pantomime experience from their home over the Christmas period.

For our programme of outdoor work, we were thrilled to host Luke Jerram’s In Memoriam at Goldwell Park - a moving and reflective tribute to those who have lost their lives as a result of the pandemic. And in December 3,451 people were able to experience our reimagined Winter Lantern Trail, discovering the stunning array of lanterns (many of which were made by some of the 1,400 school children who took part in our lantern making workshops) along the canal path and through St Nicolas’ Church. At 101 Outdoor Arts Creation Space we’ve been able to continue our support of freelance artists (many of whom haven’t been eligible for any of the financial support schemes put in place by the government) with 11 R&D commissions, 29 residencies and 174 artists in our buildings creating work that will become their livelihood as we are able to return to performances.

Since the summer we have delivered nearly 3000 Contactless Creativity bags to those who are digitally isolated or shielding to enable them to enjoy creative activities from their homes. These projects have ranged from clay to drawing, chair dance to creative journaling and we are hugely grateful to the team of volunteers who have distributed these each week.

None of this could have been possible without the generous support from our community in response to our fundraising appeal and we are truly grateful to you all. We are also very thankful for the continued support offered to us by Greenham Trust, the Arts Council, and the other trusts and foundations whose continued financial support in this impossibly difficult situation has ensured we have still been able to reach out to audiences, albeit in a slightly different way to normal.

As we follow the roadmap out of lockdown, we all look forward to being able to bring our community together again for shared creative experiences. We are busy planning a new programme of activities and events which we will share in due course and look forward to welcoming you back just as soon as we can.

Katy Griffiths, Director