Back in March, when the UK went into lockdown, The Albany arts centre in Deptford was looking forward to a busy year of performances and gigs and community projects.
Everything changed immediately, recalls Gavin Barlow, the chief executive and artistic director. “It was a really difficult time for us. When we had to shut our doors, we lost the majority of our income overnight, so it was very tough financially. But we also had to work out how we could still support all the people that use the building.
“On the one hand you are looking at survival, and on the other you are trying to come up with new ideas.”
Some activities went online, including its youth programme, which has put on hundreds of free dance, drama and music sessions for young people during lockdown. The team came up with other ways to keep in touch, too.
Meet Me at the Albany is its award-winning programme for over-60s, which is run with Entelechy Arts, where participants join in everything from singing and gardening, as well as enjoying films and performances in the Albany café, and at various locations around Lewisham borough.
With face to face meeting no longer an option they came up with Meet Me On the Radio instead, a weekly radio show that has been broadcasting every Tuesday morning on the community radio station Resonance FM since the beginning of May.
“Not everyone can be online, so we had to look at different media to keep people connected and radio is a great way of doing this. Even when people are isolated it still feels very personal and it has been a big success,” says Gavin.
“We have been learning new skills too. One of our producers quickly became a radio producer and two of our older people, Ron and Rosaline, present the show,” he adds.
Choir leaders Tim Gardner and Rachel Bennett have been leading group singing sessions over the phone while a team of volunteers have been making twice-weekly phone calls to the 180 participants they regularly work with.
As restrictions have been eased, the Albany’s building on Douglas Way is gradually reopening to the public and the venue hopes to be fully open this month, but the team will still support those who can’t visit.
The Albany has received some emergency funding from Arts Council England and Lewisham Council and has applied for support from the Culture Recovery Fund.
“It’s been a struggle and we have had to use all our reserves. Thankfully we were in quite a strong position when this happened so we have managed to survive, but if this had been a few years ago we wouldn’t have,” says Gavin.
There are 26 resident organisations that are housed in the 1980s building, including Heart n Soul, a creative arts charity for people with learning disabilities, and Apple and Snakes, a spoken word poetry organisation, Apple and Snakes. Some have started to return, and rooms are now available to hire again. Its Come ‘n’ Grow gardening club has been taking place twice a week and has been running a socially distanced summer programme for young people.
Last month the theatre company Teatro Vivo staged the finale to their online show The House That Slipped in the garden with the audience in ‘bubbles’ marked out with bunting. More socially-distanced shows are planned for the autumn, as well as the Christmas children’s show The Man Who Wanted To Be A Penguin, which runs from November 29th to Christmas Eve.,
“We think it is important to do this if we can as there is likely to be very little for families this Christmas. It will be socially distanced, with families in bubbles, and we will stream it for schools too,” explains Gavin.
“I live in Deptford and when people see me in the street they always ask when we are going to reopen. The Albany is such a big part of our local community and it has such an important role to play in whatever comes next.
“People are really missing the opportunity to come together and so we are doing everything we can to make sure we can do this in a safe and secure way. The Albany is not just a theatre, it’s full of people and full of life and that’s what we want to get back to.”
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