As well as acting as Associate Director on the West End’s Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, George Richmond-Scott has his hands full with another project – the Omnibus Theatre’s Small Change. He talks to Josephine Balfour Oatts about the impact of Coronavirus on his work and how best we can look after ourselves.
George Richmond-Scott is taking his daily turn outdoors. Although our telephone call is set to cross the threshold of early evening, the heat of the day remains. With a rich assortment of credits to his name, most notably as Associate Director for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Richmond-Scott’s work spans both the West End and Fringe circuits. Currently in pre-production for Peter Gill’s Small Change at the Omnibus Theatre – the staging of which has been postponed from its original running dates (21 April – 9 May) until the Autumn of this year – he, like many other creatives, is staring down the barrel of the arts sector as it languishes under the invisible heft of Covid-19.
Richmond-Scott is particularly drawn to Small Change’s purity, “it’s a very clean, simple piece,” he says, breathily, “with a lot of space for the actors to exist and respond to each-other.” That the production embodies themes of stillness and sanitation is perfectly ironic, given how the UK (like many other countries across the globe) has now been cinched to fit this cookie-cutter set. Its poetic nature too, appealed, as well as the narrative’s focus on familial relationships, “I’ve been interested in how we are formed by the environments and physical landscapes that we grow up in, in how they shape us.” In this sense, his recent staging of Lorca’s Blood Wedding (also at the Omnibus) makes Small Change a natural graduation.
The play’s timeline Richmond-Scott confesses, is complex. Small Change is rooted in “a restless social context; lots of unemployment, lots of strikes.” Here, the masses rail against the establishment without the language of socialism. While it doesn’t relate to post-Brexit Britain as such, there are some noticeable correlations. “Like all great art, [Small Change] has a timelessness to it –” Suddenly, Richmond-Scott breaks off mid-flow –“I’m struggling to socially distance now, hang on.” And audibly, he veers around human-shaped obstacles.
“I go for things that speak to me personally,” he continues, now in the clear. Richmond-Scott speaks of his identification with Gerard Harte, one of the play’s four characters, by nature of their shared sexuality. However, in speaking to Gill, he was cautioned against this. “It’s a mistake lots of directors make, to allow the growth of an obsession with him.” Despite this inside intelligence, the play’s secrets didn’t immediately make themselves known. “I like a challenge,” Richmond-Scott admits, with what sounds like a smile. The decision to postpone Small Change was made on the same day Broadway went dark. As the West End had yet to follow suit, the stakes loomed (and still loom) large. His sense of responsibility to his company has also seen the cancelling of the production’s tour to Somerset, with those funds initially reserved for the trip given to his team upfront instead. “It’s not much,” he adds sadly, “but it’s something.”
Despite the current health crisis having generated a surge in alternative theatrical programming – The Coronavirus Theatre Club for instance – Richmond-Scott is not tempted to repurpose Small Change. For him, “Theatre is about being present with [the work] in person.” He concedes that he might have to “change his tune” depending on the length of ongoing social restrictions, though. “It has crossed my mind,” he concludes, queasily. It seems Richmond-Scott’s other projects are also on ice. “Jamie is frozen” he confirms, but is sure that the musical will reamerge from the ashes of the Coronavirus, intact. “[Everybody’s Talking About Jamie] is a strong story. Such a beautiful, uplifting, joyful piece.”
Of the government’s and Arts Council England’s respective mission statements surrounding the support of now redundant freelancers and artists, Richmond-Scott gives due credit. “Everybody is reacting as quickly as they can, aren’t they?” he quips. Due to the fast-moving nature of the pandemic, these huge organisations – that usually have much more legroom in terms of their decision-making processes – are having to abandon typical models of best practice. “I think they are groaning at the nuts and bolts of themselves to cope,” Richmond-Scott reasons, respectfully.
The expense and high levels of competition attached to the stage means that theatremakers are used to the grazed knees, elbows and pride that comes with fighting to get their work produced. “One thing we know is that theatre is incredibly resilient,” Richmond-Scott declares, fondly “and people who work in theatre are equally resilient and wily, dogged and good at bouncing back.” But we can expect a radical shift in the landscape of live performance as we know it. Some smaller buildings might well struggle to survive. Bigger productions and production houses have a more positive prognosis thanks to their historical economic success (Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, Les Mis et al), however, this security blanket can’t stretch to cover Theatreland in its entirety. The future is completely dependent on the breadth of this lockdown.
While he admires those artists who have immediately leapt into action, he is wary of the potential for panic and comparison. “We will all respond to what’s happening in our own individual, unique way and we will also respond at our own paces.” A brief pause. “Competing to be creative in new parameters isn’t in any way conducive to good art – look after yourself and your nearest and dearest first,” he encourages, sagely. Despite his resolve not to pressure himself to be productive at this time, Richmond-Scott does admit to buckling under the pressure of his inner critic. “Like, why aren’t I doing X, Y, or Z?” he says, fiercely, “but, the fact is, I’m not. I’m going to go back inside, do a bit of Spanish, get my journaling going and then probably watch TV.” A good-natured chuckle rattles the airwaves. And with that, he’s gone.
Small Change has been postponed until Autumn 2020, with Everybody’s Talking About Jamie closed until further notice.