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Challenges ahead as Corn Exchange can open, but without live events

"We continue to look forward" says director

The Corn Exchange
The Corn Exchange

As lockdown eases and the Corn Exchange is permitted to open to the public again, but without ‘live’ events, its director Katy Griffiths has reached out to their audiences with a mixed but ultimately upbeat view to the future, asking how to help them feel comfortable returning to the venue or whether different ways for them to access activities are needed for a while. With big challenges still ahead, they have emailed a survey to supporters to help inform their thinking and planning for the future.

“When we first closed, we thought three weeks was going to be challenging. The practicalities of closing down our buildings, setting up to work remotely and refund thousands of tickets were enormous,” says Katy Griffiths. “Adrenaline carried us through, and as it became clear that this was going to go on for some time, the amazing support for our Keep Newbury Creative fundraising campaign and heartfelt comments from our audiences kept us all afloat – thank you.

“Theatre folk are an adaptable and creative bunch - we’ve continued to look forward and find ways to think about all the things that we can do, rather than the things we can’t.

“But the challenges keep on coming. Our industry relies on bringing groups of people together to share experiences; live audiences and live performance is what we are all about – but at the moment, although we are permitted to reopen from July 4, we can’t offer the ‘live’ events that are so central to what we do."

Many of the Corn Exchange staff have been furloughed to reduce costs, but as part-time working becomes permitted, they will return as the organisation looks at ways to bring creative activities back to its buildings; which also includes the Learning Centre in Market Place, The Base and 101 Outdoor Arts space in Greenham.

“Our reopening plans remain fluid," Katy adds. "We are certain that we can reopen and keep our staff and audiences safe. But we have to make sure we do this in a way that is financially viable - without our live performance programme and with limited attendance.

“We are exploring reopening our cinema and café as well as finding ways to run our Learning Centre classes and sessions in a blended way so that attendance can be in person or virtual. We hope it won’t be too long before outdoor performances will be permitted, and although we won’t be inviting thousands of you to a huge celebration in the Market Place, we are looking at a number of exciting outdoor projects that we hope will be possible in the coming months.”

Within a week of lockdown, the Corn Exchange had launched a digital engagement programme, and have now reached more than 5,000 people with online activities.

“We have a vital role to play in supporting local people to use culture and creative activity through lockdown, and arguably even more vital as we move to recover," she says. "The number of people who have taken up (or returned to) hobbies like painting, singing, learning an instrument, has been a real wake-up call to the value that the arts bring to support our mental health and well-being.

“This work continues to expand, and I am delighted to share that in the last week we have received funding for two new projects: Unlocked and Unbolted, a youth-led project to document the stories and experiences of our young people during lockdown which, in due course, will lead to a socially distanced performance; and Contactless Creativity, a project designed to deliver weekly creative activities for those living in care homes or isolation who don’t have access to the internet.”

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