MY STORY What no-one is telling you – the truth about Covid’s impact

An exhausted Michelle Carwardine-Palmer, chief executive of Kneehigh Theatre, is leading the company through the pandemic crisis to the achievement of changes that were already needed before lockdown

From its Cornish home Kneehigh Theatre began 40 years ago as an amateur group. Still based in Truro it has developed an international profile for its popular, vigorous – even anarchic – brand of story-telling and into being one of the UK’s main touring companies. For the last ten years it has also had its own portable venue, the Asylum. Last week it was awarded £250,000 from the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund.

I joined Kneehigh last year (having been managing director of National Theatre Wales for seven years before that) when we were in the thick of touring Dead Dog in a Suitcase to the UK and Shanghai, and preparing to open the Asylum in a new location on Carlyon Beach for two months, ending the year with the anarchic Ubu! A Singalong Satire.

That version is what you will usually hear from a CEO trying to maintain a positive outlook and leadership. But we need to be brave and say what really is happening (and the reason we don’t is because it looks like weakness or failure). So a fuller version of what we are experiencing also includes this. 

It is fair to say that when I started here in April of 2019 the company was asking itself serious existential questions, trying to navigate a new artistic voice, questioning what’s the point of it all and working really hard to tour mid-scale work sustainably. By April this year, key long-term members of the team had left for new adventures and our reserves were being used to make up the shortfall of unsustainable guarantees. The mid-scale touring circuit was already dying before the pandemic really took hold and so irrespective of Covid we needed to find a new way of working. 

So while still needing to work through the usual challenges of running a successful business, lockdown became a reality. For all of us in the sector March was a similar story as we switched to working from home, and where we could we redirected our activity to online to try and maintain work for freelancers already contracted to us - we felt strongly that “pay and purpose” was a key target, whereby the work of already contracted people was rechannelled. 

The work we produced was also focused around community engagement and wellbeing, with over two weeks of daily challenges set via our Windows to the World.  Workshops and master-classes have been delivered via video conferencing, providing work and engagement, but this activity is either free or just about breaks even.  Repurposing previous productions to be streamed online was not an option for us as full-length broadcastable versions of our productions did not exist.  Streaming for free has also come with consequences around what value we are placing on our culture and highly (and already) multi-skilled professionals. 

We did not seek ACE Emergency Funds as at that time we were not at risk of insolvency, but 80% of the team were eventually furloughed in mid-April, leaving just me (on a part-time contract), the new finance manager and a part-time senior administrator. During this time I worked with the Change Creation cohort (a network of about 40 creative organisations across the UK, which has been invaluable support with a genuine spirit of generosity and sharing) on a new business plan, which we started to implement from July.   

We concluded that the greatest needs that we felt best placed to make a difference were centred around wellbeing – of ourselves, our creatives and our community.  We have run a series of gentle weekends for practitioners, training and prototyping our practice within the new parameters.  We now have exciting plans for meaningful audience and community engagement from December through to autumn, which will be announced imminently. 

The Cultural Recovery Funding makes it possible for us to realise these plans because they will replenish our reserves to the level that moves us away from the threat of insolvency, to implement a new way of working by relinquishing our office in Truro and becoming a Distributed Teams model and an element of capital to assist with making outdoor work. 

These funds are genuinely a positive turning point for the company.  With our plans shortly to be announced, the team will return to their full contracted hours from November 1. As with any funder, we will always publicly thank the government, but it is understandable why the intent and transparency is under question by the sector.  

However, it has never been more critical for creativity to be at the forefront of a nation’s recovery, economically and mentally, but we still have a long way to go, not least in getting our government to intrinsically understand this. We need to be mindful that we are at the “wall hitting” stage of this epic marathon and must remain kind to ourselves.

I know I am utterly exhausted but am thankful every day to still have an income and a role to play in ensuring we remain at the heart of our culture. Community is key to a sustainable future.

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