The Byre Theatre is a key part of St Andrews’ cultural life. Having been one of the institutions most impacted by the pandemic, The Saint sat down with the directors of the Byre Theatre, Jessica Richardsand Kally Lloyd-Jones, to understand the toll COVID-19 took on the Byre, how its first semester back had gone, and what there is to look forward to in the coming weeks and months. At the end of such a busy semester, with the Spelling Bee production having just finished the night before and with the Panto coming up, the directors were thrilled by what this semester had of- fered following a most difficult year. Recollecting the Theatre's response to the initial lockdown, Lloyd- Jones said, “We’d been in the post as joint directors for six months when lockdown happened. We closed initially for 10 weeks and thought that would be it and we'd come back and pick up where we left off. And so, I think it's easy to look back and say what you know the last year and a half or whatever has felt like. But I think in the moment when it was happening, we were just going step-by-step thinking it would be over soon, but there was a growing realisation that it wasn't going to be over soon and that was quite emotional.”
On their work during the pandemic, Lloyd-Jones continued, “We were working from our homes and not doing the thing that we love, which is bringing people together in a building. It was devastating at a business level, and it was devastating at a personal level. It impacted everyone who worked at the Byre because we are theatre people and that's what we do, and we weren't doing it.” Moving on to how it has felt finally reopening, she said, “We are all absolutely thrilled to have our doors open again. We opened in September and audiences are thrilled to be back and business is good. We have shows that are more spaced out than other shows, so that audiences feel safe to come back. This means they can kind of gain confidence by coming back and seeing that it's all very well thought out and planned and safe for everybody.” Richards added, “The choice of going to a show where the capacity of the auditorium is reduced to a third gives the more nervous people about sitting next to a stranger the chance to feel that there's literally some space around them and that their care is being considered. We also have shows labelled for the less risk averse if we are expecting a large crowd, so it’s very clear that there’s going to be a full house and there will be 200 people in the audience with them.” Beyond the experience of the audience at the Byre, the directors outlined how performers were dealing with COVID-19 restrictions in their acts. Richards said, “We've seen some really beautiful bits of choreography where people still socially distance or people have put masks on before they come close to each other. I mean there were some, really, ingenious creative solutions to legislation. It’s within the law that performers can only remove their masks in certain conditions, so it's been interesting when you have the awareness of what people are trying to deal with to see it being marked out on stage.” Lloyd-Jones also added that two student productions had been particularly ingenious in how they had been performed in accordance with the rules. With mask wearing becoming a normality, she said, “I think with the audience wearing masks, I think it's just something we've all got used to. I mean, inevitably it does impact your enjoyment to some degree, I think, but I think it’s become a fact of life, hasn't it? For all of us, whether it's going shopping or sitting in a cinema or theatre, we're just getting used to it and understand that that's the way it is for now and it's about keeping other people safe as well as yourself and being a stand-up member of the community.”
The differing COVID-19 rules across the United Kingdom has also posed challenges for the Byre Theatre, with performers fresh from England not being aware of differing legislation north of the Tweed.
Richards explained, “Our job as a venue is to make sure we're really clear on what the rules are for our venue and for Scotland, because obviously the English press runs stories which don't apply here, and so we have to make sure that the audience are up to date with what's being asked of them. When we have UK touring companies coming to perform, they're surprised at the requirement for mask wearing in the theatre because it isn’t the same in England.”
With the Byre having been shut for so long, St Andrews has suffered due to its absence, and, with near-normal service finally resumed, the Byre has been experiencing a surge in pent-up demand.
Lloyd-Jones responded when asked about this, “Yes, I do think that you see a pent-up demand. I think people are really fatigued from trying to watch things on a screen, so I think that sitting together with other people laughing together, experi- encing something together...I think that's really magical, and I think people have really, really missed that.” Richards made sure to add that all the productions this semester have received “fantastic feedback” from audiences.
Another consequence of the pandemic for the Byre has been a significant cohort of students, particularly second and third years, with more limited experience of the Byre as a result of COVID-19.
Regarding the student productions, Lloyd-Jones told The Saint, “I think what we're aware of is that there are very vibrant student shows happening in the Barron Theatre which is now in our studio theatre in the Byre, and we've also had the musical theatre society. They're in there, they're busy and they're creating really inventive work. The big difference students face from past to present are the Covid regulations. I mean, I think that's the big difference for students. They've got all these rules to follow this time and there- fore the creation of their work is a bit harder going and a bit more time-consuming and demands a bit more of them, but they seem really on it and really enthusiastic, and we really enjoyed having them in the building.”
On a broader level, the directors stressed how the dearth of arts in-person during the pandemic had only highlighted the importance of culture in society. Lloyd-Jones said, “I felt that the arts had a difficult time arguing their urgency because people were dying, and the NHS was struggling. There were so many difficulties that felt more important than the arts in that moment. But I feel that now that we're getting a bit more back to normal, the arts have a massive role to play in healing and recovery, and aside from going to performances, arts activities are really good for bringing people together to do things that create a sense of community.”
Finally, Lloyd-Jones stressed how at the Byre they “real- ly see the degree of healing and wellbeing that offers people.”
Looking ahead to Panto season, the directors are excited for students and locals to enjoy it after a very long two years. The Panto begins on 3 December and will run until Hogmanay. Lloyd-Jones underlined the popularity of the Panto saying, “We usually have about 11,000 people coming to see Panto. They come from far and wide and from local families and communities, but I think there's a lot of staff and students attending as well. It's a big favourite! I know lots of staff whose children appear in the youth cast as well, so I think it brings together lots and lots of people.”
Following a successful first semester following the lifting of restrictions, the directors are busy completing the schedule for an exciting second semester. “We've got some fantastic things coming up, and the Barron will also have their freshers’ drama festival in January, which is a really key activity for them and for us. We've also got our new ‘Sands: International Film Festival of St Andrews, our inaugural festival in March, and of course, the stanza poetry festival as well. So, we've got a lot of our usual big programmes, cornerstones, and lots of new stuff coming too. That’s all in addition to ‘On the Rocks’.” The Byre has lots of things for students to look forward to. If any students want to find out more about the Byre they can visit their website (www.byretheatre.com), or look on their Facebook page. Following the travails of the pandemic, art and culture in St Andrews is bouncing back, with the Byre at the heart of this renaissance