Covid - A Year On: Blakehay Theatre named South West's best despite closure

Sally Heath, Blakehay Theatre manager. Theatre has bid for cash, for its SEN project.
Picture

Sally Heath, Blakehay Theatre manager. Theatre has bid for cash, for its SEN project. Picture: MARK ATHERTON - Credit: Archant

A Weston theatre has endured a challenging year but still managed to be named the South West's best venue.

The Blakehay, in Wadham Street, started the year with the show Swan Lake, a co-production between Theatre Orchard and Living Spit. Many more shows and events were planned for the year ahead.

In February, the theatre won the Chamber of Commerce Award for best evening out. Each week, regulars do yoga with Emma Gliddon, and tidalwave dance with Emma Duffill community classes were enjoyed in the studio and the monthly coffee mornings, run by volunteers, brought many people in for a chat.

Then on March 16, the theatre was told it had to close and the whole country went into lockdown due to Covid-19. Staff cleaned the venue and cleared themselves out of the theatre and started to work out what working remotely would look like.

Staff could talk with each over through Zoom video meetings and emails and could talk to customers through a remote box office and keep everyone updated through its website, Facebook and e-newsletters.

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Views of The Blakehay, Wadham Street, Weston.

Views of The Blakehay, Wadham Street, Weston. - Credit: Archant

Despite a challenging year, the Blakehay, which is owned by Weston Town Council, was named theatre of the year in the South West by Prestige Awards for 2020/21.

Theatre manager, Sally Heath, said: "We are absolutely delighted that the theatre and the staff were recognised for their hard work and dedication at this difficult time. 

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"When we are unable to open our beautiful building to the public, we have come up with new ways to ensure that we are still supporting the arts industry and the community."

By working with production companies and Honalee Media, staff were able to bring customers virtual productions. The Blakehay provided links that would take the audience to shows that other theatres and organisations were screening without having to leave their homes. 

Staff deep cleaned and provided sanitizing stations and introduced the wearing of masks as well as adopting the NHS app system for quick alerts if positive cases were reported. they then began working in the theatre once again, albeit in small bubbles.

Blakehay Theatre, Weston-s-Mare. Theatre has bid for cash, for its SEN project.
Picture: MARK

Blakehay Theatre, Weston-s-Mare. Theatre has bid for cash, for its SEN project. Picture: MARK ATHERTON - Credit: Archant

The Blakehay opened with measures in place from September 14 only to go back into lockdown on November 5. In the short time they were able to offer these services, everything which had been put in place to make the venue Covid secure worked great and it had a lot of interest from new companies looking to start their community classes at the theatre.

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Sally and Weston Town Council officers worked to put in an application for the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund. The Blakehay was awarded £323,000 to make the theatre even safer and more comfortable for audiences and companies to return to.

It has also gone towards the cost of equipment to develop live streaming of small performances and, ultimately, shows in the theatre.

In February the venue launched Blakehay@Home, its first in-house stream on both its Facebook page and dedicated YouTube channel on Valentine’s Day. 

Links to online exercise classes allowed a large variety of activities to be shown every day, including Tai Chi with Tony Dove, online ballet with South West Dance Theatre and new classes such as SASS by local company Inspire.

John Crockford-Hawley has written a book on the Blakehay Theatre. Picture: Sally Heath

John Crockford-Hawley has written a book on the Blakehay Theatre. Picture: Sally Heath - Credit: Archant

Towards the end of last year, historian and town councillor, John Crockford-Hawley, also published a booklet telling the history of the theatre to help raise funding.

The Blakehay then worked with the town council to bring socially distanced events to Weston, including Halloween Fest in Weston Town Quarry.

Going forward, the theatre is about to enter a period of building work which uses some of the money it received from the Culture Recovery Fund. These works will further improve the theatre and ensure it is ready for its next stage as a vital building, part of Weston’s Heritage Arts Culture vision for the next 10 years.