2021 was another tumultuous year for theatre, for CPT – and probably for you. None of us, alas, is out of the Covid woods yet, and life continues to be very challenging for – well, for all of us, but not least for organisations like Camden People’s Theatre, that make public performance their business.
Like much of 2020, this was a year of tentative steps forward and false dawns. But at least – in happy contrast to last year – we got artists back on our stages and audiences back in our theatre. We’re immensely grateful to all of you, artists and audiences both, who ran the gauntlet of masks, hand-sanitising, social distancing and more to make wonderful live-theatre encounters a thing again on Hampstead Road. We’re grateful, too, to funders including the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and ACE’s Culture Recovery Fund, for helping tide us through this precipitous period. And to Camden Giving, who’ve ensured that access and inclusion is at the heart of what we’re doing on our return.
I was at CPT two nights on the bounce in October, to see Matty May’s If You Love Me, This Might Hurt (in development at CPT since long before the pandemic) and Sh!t Theatre’s newbie Don’t Look Over Here, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Both nights were (safely) packed with audiences, absolutely revelling in this brave, brilliant new work from artists at the top of their game. It was a restorative CPT double-whammy after a year-and-a-half wondering if/when we’d ever be able to stage live, in-person theatre again.
But those artists weren’t alone. In the first quarter of 2021, we supported the recipients of our biggest ever round of commissions, issued in autumn 2020 and including four Outside the Box projects, and nine seed commissions to artists from marginalised backgrounds. This process included awesome digital performances of Pigfoot’s Hot in Here (a carbon-neutral dance party) and Adam Welsh’s No Future, and the premiere of Anna Morrissey and Tristan Kajanus’s walkabout audio piece North West, commemorating the gentrified-out-of-existence North Westminster comprehensive school, just west along the Euston Road.
All were made hand-in-hand with members of our local community. All were staggeringly creative, and kept the CPT flame alive when our stage remained out-of-bounds. So too our 2021 Starting Blocks artists, in (digital) residence with CPT from January thru March; and our hugely successful CPT Digital programme, which carved out a unique space online for leftfield performance, and connected CPT’s work with countless audiences who we might otherwise struggle to reach.
Meanwhile, back in three dimensions and at CPT HQ on Hampstead Road, all was hard-hats and masonry dust. CPT’s building was under re-construction throughout the first five months of 2021, as part of the first major capital development project in our 27-year history. We brought the works forward to capitalise on Covid-enforced closure, and vacated the building while our contractors transformed it – into the gleaming, much more useable and still characterful building you may have visited since we re-opened to the public in June.
The summer found us re-entering and animating our new home – now much better equipped to welcome artists, audiences and the local community. It was also the first time staff had been in the same building for many months, and a first experience of working in situ for several members of our ever-growing team. They included my amazing new colleagues, interim executive director Nic Clements, new general manager Emma Groome, and incoming community engagement manager Christina Ford. It wasn’t always easy re-populating chez CPT, always with safety as a priority, through the ‘ping-demic’ and the various snags that come with brand new premises. But we did it, and for that I have the resilience and indomitable spirit of our fantastic team to thank.
The building now open, we ‘soft-launched’ in the summer with a pilot season of onstage work – performed to a distanced audience, which at CPT makes for very modest numbers indeed. Even this, though, was thrilling – the more so for included superstars like Will Dickie, with White Sun, the inimitable In Bed with My Brother, Georgie Jones’ ‘Calm Down, Dear’ headliner Ish and the long-awaited Andromeda by Charlotte Vickers and Hannah Greenstreet. CPT was back! – with a bang.
The autumn has followed suit, ushering back onto our stage a legion of stellar artists – with shows cooking since pre-coronavirus, and others brought to the boil for late 2021. We’re still not programming at 2019 levels of intensity. We’re still obliged to be cautious – about audience behaviour, about the future, and (most importantly of all) about health and safety in the never-quite-ending pandemic era. But we’ve ramped things back up – enough to enjoy that wham-bam Matty May / Sh!t Theatre one-two, alongside unforgettable work from Bezna Theatre (whose People’s Tribunal on Crimes of Aggression put the wind up the right-wing press), Barrel Organ, Frankie Thompson’s blissful Sex Party, Tom Ryalls, Simone French and more – not to mention our Tolmers Square Variety Spectacular, bringing the best in contemporary and circus performance to our nearest neighbours, right next door.
And not to mention Sprint, which – unbowed by a global pandemic – has still never missed a year since its inception in 1997. Our 2021 version ran in September, better late than never, and including a handful of shows pulled when the 2020 festival was cut short by Covid. The event, such a highlight of our calendar, returns, back on schedule, in March ’22.
When we formally launched our new building in November, surrounded by CPT friends, and dishing up Drummond Street samosas, it felt – I cannot deny – just a little like a phoenix rising from the flames. We’re not complacent about the challenges ahead. But this feels like a moment, as a new year beckons, to say thank you to artists, audiences and local residents who bore with us in early 2021, and were there for us as live theatre took its first faltering steps back onstage. We’re back now, bolstered by incredible support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to commission more artists, from a wider range of backgrounds, and in more joined-up ways than ever before. For all of that, and more – see you next year!