Back in February, Samuel Nicholls spoke to Tobias Cornwell, artistic director of GOOMS, about standing out in an already oversaturated fringe theatre scene. Now, ten months and one pandemic later, the two catch up and discuss what’s changed.
A lot has changed since the last time I spoke to Tobias Cornwell about theatre.
That first time was on a crisp January morning, at an overly chic rooftop-café near Leicester Square: we discussed the intricacies and realities of immersive theatre as we gazed over a city bustling with energy. This time around, it’s in locked-down November and over Zoom, as Cornwell wrestles with the grim Wi-Fi endemic to Tunbridge Wells.
Cornwell, too, has changed. That first time he was burning with optimism and determination, only a few weeks away from his company’s most ambitious promenade production yet, Black Fate. 10 months later and the determination is still there but it’s offset by a newfound anger: anger at the ruthless pandemic, at the government’s pathetic response, and at the theatre industry’s flawed efforts to get things back to ‘normal’ (his beard is also much longer now, too).
The artistic director of GOOMS (Get Out of My Space), Cornwell previously spoke to me about Black Fate and what it meant to put on immersive theatre at fringe level; we had no idea that entire arts industry would be fundamentally hobbled in two months’ time. Luckily, Black Fate managed to escape the ire of Covid – the stylised, immersive reimagining of Romeo and Juliet was performed in February without a hitch, earning acclaimed reviews from critics and audiences alike… but even if it were to be performed during the pandemic, Cornwell is confident it would’ve been absolutely fine.
“Right now, immersive is the safest form of theatre,” he explains, “our audiences are outside, free to stand two metres apart, and are already wearing masks: there’s literally nothing better.” Indeed, back in September, GOOMS mounted another immersive show, Rotten States. Described to me as “Game of Thrones meets Hamlet”, the production engrossed audiences within the world of Celtic tribal warfare, painting the picturesque hills of Tunbridge Wells red with violence and betrayal; visitors loved it. “We sold out across the board,” Cornwell reflects: “our audience still came through for us. It proved you can still put on theatre; you just need to think outside the box – figuratively and literally”.
When pushed on what he means by “boxes”, he lets out a measured sigh. “There are some incredibly creative people out there, who have made success and now they’re going ‘this is the correct formula, I don’t want to change it’, even when that formula becomes outdated”. It would seem, in a socially distant world, theatrical practices can become ‘outdated’ incredibly quickly. For all the safety measures or ‘imaginative’ repurposing of spaces, venues have struggled to find a safe and reliable status quo in the face of this elongated battle with Covid.
Likewise, nothing speaks to this more than how theatres, not theatre, have become central to current funding conversation. With preferential treatment being given to big-name venues over the freelancers that inhabit such spaces, it’s likely that this funnelling of cash to the ‘top’ will cause further systemic imbalances for the industry moving forward. A Business Studies graduate, Cornwall rolls his eyes: “trickle-down economics has been proven to never work, but it’s definitely going to work for the arts industry…! I just think it’s ironic that creatives can’t find a creative solution”.
And creative solutions are possible. Take GOOMS’ upcoming show for example, A Cratchits’ Christmas Carol. Slated as an “Tier-3 friendly immersive dining experience”, the audience assumes the role of the extended Cratchits family, meeting up for their annual festive meal. During the evening, as the audience chows down on Michelin Guide quality food (yes, really), four members of the Cratchits clan volunteer to retell the story of Scrooge, with the audience picking which of the quartet will play the infamous miser; in a 39 Steps-style twist, the three not chosen perform the 100 or so remaining characters. “It’s the GOOMS version of a Christmas show,” explains the show’s co-writer James Alston – “taking the path less travelled and doing something fresh with a classic story”.
Even the way the show is being rehearsed takes ‘the path less travelled’. Hitting two birds with one stone, the Cratchits’ team are aiming to devise, plot, and rehearse the entire show all while bubbling together two weeks before opening night. It’s an ambitious plan, but the cast aren’t fazed. “I see the value of a monologue show about Covid, but it’s not the only thing people want to watch, and it shouldn’t be the only option they have,” equivocates Anna Blackburn, a member of the cast. “Escapism counts now more than ever, and I’m looking forward to helping with that.”
Last time I spoke to Cornwell, he said he lifted his guiding principal straight from the New Zealand All-Blacks (“Rule 6 – No Dickheads”). Now, in the face of everything that’s happened, he’s found something new – the African philosophy of Ubuntu: ‘I am because of you’. “I’m still not a fan of dickheads,” jokes Cornwell, “but, especially for a show like Cratchit’s, the actors need to know that they can rely on each other for support, that that they can depend on each other: if you go in with a competitive mindset, you’re screwed”. The cast, for one, have definitely bought into this outlooks – “you just don’t get experiences like these as a fresh actor”, expressed Kat Djemai, a member of the cast and a recent drama school graduate: “I think the industry would work a lot better if they thought ‘I am because of you’.”
In the wake of another national lockdown and more theatre shows being postponed, Ubuntu rings especially true. Now, more than ever, the industry will be relying on each other, hopeful that comradery, unity, and innovation will pull us through. And who knows – maybe the next time I meet up with Cornwell we’ll be reflecting on how the industry came together, creating a fairer system as it dealt with Covid (and perhaps our beards will be much longer as well).
A Cratchits’ Christmas Carol begins performances on 3rd December. Visit the GOOMS website for tickets and more details.