Feeling like his theatre company was picking up speed, Jasper Frost was on cloud nine until the pandemic struck. He talks to Samuel Nicholls about what it’s now like working with the ‘Coronavirus Theatre Club’ and entering a whole new medium.

Two weeks ago, Jasper Frost was on top of the world. His theatre company, Caged Bird, had just staged a hugely popular limited run of two short plays at the Drayton Arms and plans to expand with further productions over the next few months. It seemed things were finally taking off. Buoyed by this success, Frost went into the Drayton Arms the day after the run closed to collect leftover promotional material and managed to catch a brief look at the tech-run of the space’s new show. Impressed by the scope and standard of what he saw, he thought he would try grab a ticket to see the full thing.

He would never get the chance. Soon after, the Drayton Arms, along with nearly every other venue in the UK, cancelled all theatrical performances for the next few months, under a government directive to battle the coronavirus. Suddenly Frost, who had meticulously planned the rest of the year for his company, saw his arrangements crumble, with even the best-laid plans spurned completely by the debilitating effect of COVID-19. As he reflects, “the feeling that you’re finally picking up speed, only to hit a full dead stop… well, it’s really weird.”

Indeed, Frost’s experience is unfortunately typical for many freelancers now. With venues shut, economic outlooks bleak, and audiences ordered to self-isolate, theatre in the UK has come to an effective halt. However, when one door closes, another one opens, as Frost discovered when he was tagged in a Twitter thread…

The ‘Coronavirus Theatre Club’ Twitter account (@ClubCoronavirus) put out its first tweet on March 17, where it called for displaced actors, writers and directors to message them if they wanted to be part of a new online creative project. Formed by three self-isolating actors, the page wanted to bring together out-of-work freelancers and provide a medium for theatrical collaboration – despite the lock-down. As the account aptly mused, ‘just because buildings are closed doesn’t mean we can’t create. Where there’s a will, and all that!’

The response was massive. Within one week of its creation, the page has gained thousands of followers, been mentioned in major publications, and locked-in its first event: a series of monologues to be streamed live from across the UK at the end of March. As the organising trio said in their introductory livestream, they hope to provide some opportunity to creatives despite this tumultuous time.

Frost is one such creative. After being tagged by a friend in their open call, he entered conversation with the page and was invited to direct one of their initial pieces. “It’s a weird honour,” he tells me. Paired with a writer and actor he’d never met before, the three are collaborating via Zoom on a monologue examining the impact class and privilege has on education – important stuff. Moreover, whilst big institutions are making some effort to fill this void (the National Theatre is streaming popular past productions every Thursday on YouTube), it still isn’t enough. Instead, freelancers like Frost are picking up the slack. “Its levelled the playing field in a way we didn’t expect,” he remarks. “It’s demystified the creative industry, in a way. Fringe or west end, we’re all just people doing our best to get theatre out there.”

Furthermore, getting stuff “out there” comes with its own difficulties. Adapting text from stage to live-stream isn’t a seamless process, with the first rehearsal taking some getting used to. Usually quite a hands-on director, Frost had to wrap his head around not being able to share a space with his performer, much like how his actor, Brogan, how to wrap her head around performing to an audience she couldn’t respond to. As he concedes, “it was very odd for the two of us to do our jobs in a way we’ve never done them before throughout our time making theatre.”

But… is this theatre? Certainly, it’s being approached in a theatrical way, being performed ‘live’ and with a script explicitly written for the stage. But isn’t it more like traditional live streaming, found on platforms like Twitch and YouTube? With its online-nature and invisible audience, there are definitely similarities but perhaps its neither. Indeed, as Frost posits, ““if you see this as a replacement of theatre, you’re naturally going to be disappointed, because you’re going to be expecting something else. But if you treat it as its own new thing… you find something different and exciting.” Something, then, that straddles the line between theatre and livestreaming, nevertheless offering new work in this time of crisis.

Will this ‘new’ media stand the test of time and remain even after COVID-19 is defeated? Frost is unsure, but he hopes, at least, the industry is paying attention. “I hope the government and funding groups see projects like the Coronavirus Theatre Club and the scope of people involved and realise how many people are out there rely on the theatre and who need support in this time – I hope more is done for them in the future.” Nevertheless, no matter the long-term impact it has, Frost is just excited to be involved. “Being part of something like this, no matter how big or how small, is paving the way to get theatre back on its feet, keeping culture alive, and for that I couldn’t be more grateful”.