Earlier this year, most of the theatre awards season just about manged to sneak in under the wire before coronavirus brought the shutters down – the Oliviers, of course, did not. The current circumstances mean that there are questions about whether there will even be an awards season next winter/spring especially as there may, ostensibly, be little to give awards for. However, one scheme has stepped blinking into the light and looks set to encourage participation and innovation. Step forward the OnComms. I spoke to three people who were there at the beginning in different capacities.
Geoffrey Brown is managing director of OffWestEnd (already home to the Offies and the OffComms) which supports, promotes and celebrates the work of independent, alternative and fringe theatres across London. The organisation has developed these new commendations as a specific response to current circumstances.
Once lockdown curtailed live theatre, it was clear that some of the independent, alternative and fringe venues and companies were keen to continue by offering online performances. We felt that it was right and appropriate for OffWestEnd to offer an award to celebrate these efforts, and to recognise the best of this work – and thus the OnComm was born! It is an “online commendation”, an award in itself.
Any online theatre show is eligible for an OnComm; the only restriction is that it has to be a “theatre” show – so it does exclude dance, music or choral performances. It can be a show that has been developed and presented since lockdown using new technologies such as Zoom. A recording of a production presented on stage prior to lockdown is eligible and we have also opened OnComm to audio recordings of theatre shows. While the recording must be of sufficient quality to enable the performers to be seen and heard, principally the OnComm is an award for theatre that generates the “wow” factor. Our other awards are focused on OffWestEnd venues in London, but geographical restrictions make no sense in the new world of lockdown, and so eligible productions may originate anywhere in the UK. Introducing the OnComm to recognise and celebrate online work during lockdown was the logical next step for us, and we are delighted that we have already had over 80 submissions and awarded 20 OnComms to date.
Many of the eligible shows are working with a new website called SceneSaver to showcase their work. Site founder Caroline Friedman explains how the development came about and why she decided to link up with the OnComms
Whenever I saw a wonderful performance in a small theatre, it struck me that there was all this amazing work being created, but that when the performance ended it was lost for ever because there was no record of the performance. I was also very conscious that I was one of the lucky ones who could actually go to these productions. But what about the people who could not, perhaps because of financial, child care, accessibility, work or geographical reasons? So, I set about designing Scenesaver, a website that would be a hub for performance; like Netflix but for theatre productions. Scenesaver wants to make little theatre big, to showcase the talented creatives, make performances accessible to all and to encourage people to visit the little theatres that host wonderful work.
I was working on Scenesaver when the pandemic shut the theatres, so decided to launch it as a free website. Users are asked to pay a “ticket price” donation and this money goes to the performers. Linking up with Offwest End seemed to be the perfect partnership. We could encourage people to keep on creating exciting and innovative new work to be seen by audiences worldwide. OnComm applications are coming in all the time for a diverse range of performances. Performers are becoming ingenious, using whatever technology is available to them, whether it be a mobile phone, Zoom meetings or footage recorded in sections and then transformed into a completed play.
And what of the end users? The first recipient of an OnComm was writer/director Simona Hughes for her new play About 500 originally created for the VAULTS festival but scuppered by lockdown. Nothing daunted the play was reimagined for performance via modern technology
About 500 is a play about female fertility and time, exploring the unique pressure that women face when battling their biological clocks. Clem is an ambitious go-getter woman with no interest in motherhood. Four years later, and in love with Luke, she decides she does want a child after all. They find themselves journeying gradually into a crisis of infertility. The piece combines an unfolding drama with an exploration of the subjective nature of time and a docu-theatre thread suggesting the real women’s voices behind the play. When lockdown kicked in, we were all devastated to have an opportunity snatched from us, but then, like everyone else, we quickly adapted. After a successful virtual premiere (courtesy of the Tower Theatre), and a couple of great reviews, we were emboldened to video a Zoom production and launch it on Scenesaver.
I was beyond delighted when told that About 500 was going to be awarded the first ever OnComm! An “Offie” is a highly prestigious award so to receive a commendation from the same body was beyond my dreams. It was also a wonderful way to overcome all the disappointment of missing out on our stage run. A couple of theatres have since expressed interest in the piece and receiving the OnComm gave me the extra push I needed to get a new full-length version in front of programmers. I would urge any theatre makers out there to get their work online, submit it to Scenesaver and therefore be eligible for an OnComm. The ‘silver lining’ of lockdown is that unheard of companies and artists are getting their work aired and viewed…. Make the most of this brave new world!
So now, in the best traditions of the award ceremony. it just remains for me to thank Geoffrey, Caroline and Simona for their time in contributing to this blog. Your positive take on the current situation will certainly be an inspiration to many and shows how even the theatre awards season need not be entirely subdued by current circumstances and what we will be facing in the “new normal”. Now we just to need to work out how to do the actual ceremony.
To find out more about the OnComms and register interest in the awards please go to www.offies.london/oncomm
To access the Scenesaver website and its rapidly growing catalogue of productions please go to www.scenesaver.co.uk/
The first OnComm winner About 500 is available on Scenesaver. A review of the online version can be found here
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