Culture Interviews theatre

Behind the Scenes with Songs From The Old World: Shows We Wish We’d Done

Oxford’s theatre community proves perpetually innovative in the face of current restrictions. 00 Productions are back with another virtual show, “Songs of the old world: shows we wish we’d done”, a cabaret comprised of songs from shows which have been affected by COVID-19 in some way.

The event is in aid of three charities: Artists Fund Artists, National Black Arts Alliance and the much beloved Oxford Playhouse.

I spoke to Harvey Dovell, co-founder of 00 Productions and producer of ‘Songs of the Old World’, and Priya Radhakrishnan, the event’s charity co-ordinator, about how they are handling the seemingly impossible task of creating a virtual musical and their chosen charities.

Harvey outlines what audiences can expect on the 19th. “Songs range from solo numbers to larger ensemble pieces from a wide range of shows. Much like a scratch night you’d see in Oxford, each song is its own piece, with direction and editing to tell its own particular story”. We can expect numbers from West Side Story, Annie and In the Heights to name but a few. Ensuring that they have a range of stories to tell has been a priority for the team, as Priya explains. “I’ve been focused on trying to make sure we perform musicals that have encouraged opportunities for performers of colour and their narratives, so I’m hoping that shines through.”

Preserving a distinctly theatrical feeling when you are performing through a screen is one of the many challenges of an online show. One of the ways in which the team have tried to keep that authenticity is by limiting location changes and moving cameras in order to prevent any slippage into something that feels more like film.

While Harvey affirms that creating any virtual theatre is challenging, it becomes clear that a virtual musical brings its own unique set of difficulties. “Musical theatre specifically requires much more work organizing bands and casts while ensuring that video and audio syncs.” Priya expands: “performing without an audience to bounce off and a band to keep you going rhythmically is one of the biggest challenges of online musicals.”

Nonetheless, the team’s resourcefulness is impressive. Cabaret allows the team to navigate not just the logistical, but the emotional minefield of an online show. “Music and singing especially is a very personal experience for most performers. It can be overwhelming to record yourself from your bedroom and be going over the clip again and again.

Cabaret allows performers to pick pieces they feel comfortable performing and gives everyone a chance to showcase their strengths”. Trying to deliver a showstopper while your family go about their daily business is far from ideal, but Priya reminds me that home theatre does have its advantages: “personally, I enjoy having a cup of tea by me at all times”.

I must admit that before this interview, the event’s nostalgic title made me look back rather mournfully at the “old world”, and all of the productions that would have been. However, hearing Priya and Harvey’s experience makes optimism far easier. When asked if the production process has been bitter-sweet, Priya responded “ultimately, I’ve embraced working with a team of extremely talented artists. I love that we can support such brilliant causes despite the restrictions and set-backs. With everyone scattered over the country and the world even, there’s a little bit of everyone’s hearts in this production, which is what makes a show successful”. The reminder that you don’t need a packed auditorium, smoke machines and grand spectacle to make good theatre is remarkably comforting.

While the bulk of venues remain closed, there is no escaping the fact that live theatre will continue to be missed, musicals especially so as many venues (Oxford’s Keble O’Reilly among them) ban singing altogether. Yet as theatre rapidly adapts to its new limitations, Harvey points to positive changes which could take root. “I can see virtual shows remaining in some format and possibly bringing casts from around the world into the same shows”. Priya observes how the increased number of online shows could force the industry to become more accommodating, “virtual and relaxed theatre could be an effective way to understand how theatre can accommodate people with disabilities”. This includes both artists and audiences. What’s more, the financial viability of online shows means there is potential for engagement with a wider range of people than ever before.

The team have ensured a spread of support over both venues and artists with their choice of charities. “We made it a point to make sure the charities we chose needed the money imminently, would benefit from the awareness our platform provided and were reflecting the present needs of the industry.

 Artists Fund Artists is an initiative providing financial supporting to artists struggling during the pandemic. Their last fundraising was dedicated to supporting black artists, and the one we will be supporting involves extending financial aid to artists from working class communities.

 National Black Arts Alliance was started 1985 by a black female poet and librettist. They do inspirational work, uplifting BAME artists through collaborative projects, and even helping them in their personal lives by supporting refugees with their documentation, convening LGBTQ+ weddings and much more. NBAA also curates North West England’s only cultural library dedicated to black arts and studies.

 Finally, the Oxford Playhouse was a strong choice because we as Oxford-based performers are so connected to this amazing institution. They have been affected by the pandemic, just like other local playhouses and if we can’t perform on their stage we definitely hope we can perform to help them out so they continue to provide a state-of-the-art venue for young professional and student artistes.”

While many of us will have sought solace in TV, books, music and plays more fervently than ever over the last year, the arts have never been in more need of our support. I asked the team what else we can be doing to help. “The main thing people can do is go to virtual events; giving money to charities such as the ones we are highlighting; and continuing the discussion about it as the arts are being left behind as other industries open up more and more”, says Harvey. Priya suggests “taking the time to watch and read works by young, aspiring artists. They’re the future of the theatre industry and need our support now more than ever”.  

I look forward to watching 00 productions prove that “there’s no one way to perform a musical”.  The team’s determination to continue producing theatre, and to help those trying to do the same, has for me restored a great deal of hope for the future of the industry.

Songs from the old world will take place at 7:30 on the 19th September