Learning from Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020

Thursday, 18th February 2021

This is part of our Learning From 2020 tools for artists and producers.


We are so pleased that the Paul Hamlyn Foundation has encouraged us to share our learning from our experience in reopening the opera/theatre sector last year. Tête à Tête safely hosted 19 different live productions with live audiences  between July and September 2020, including a DCMS pilot for the return to indoor performance. We have some way still to go, with the reporting, but wanted to share a draft now as we continue to reflect, refine and hone our thinking. You can read the full festival evaluation here, and read advice on specific parts of bringing a festival to life here. As ever, we’re always really happy to hear your thoughts.


1. Don’t hang about. Triggering #Coronachorus ten days before lockdown meant we were really over “going online” and “art in isolation” pretty much before everyone else had started.


2. Keep flexible. TàT’s biggest advantage in this crisis was to be able to move fast. That’s because we’ve always been in a state of crisis, moved fast and survived. In that, and many other senses, 2020 was a normal year. Nothing shows this better than this graph.


3. Put a marker in the sand, have an aim. The Manifesto was more than theoretical; it gave a framework by saying “we will start from these values and get as far as we can towards the target, but also value all the work along the way that gets us there.”


4. In aiming for the goal, make sure the planning is tiered. We encouraged each participating company to i) really consider what was critical to their dream for their show, what could be lost and what had to be kept to do their dream justice, and ii) set that against a series of tiered options, prepare for those offset against the disruptions caused by/expected from the pandemic:


a) Covid compliant performance theatre with live audience and interactive broadcast

b) Covid compliant performance in the theatre with no live audience but filmed for interactive broadcast

c) Covid compliant filming for interactive broadcast elsewhere, managed by the participating company

d) Postponement (with the constant reassurance that this could be a valid artistic decision justified by i) above, and that the process of developing the show was of value per se whether or not it reached any kind of performance in 2020

e) Cancellation (again with the same reassurances that this too could be a valid artistic choice and that work done was nevertheless not wasted.)


5. Prototype. We were so lucky to stage a pilot for the return to indoor performance for the DCMS. This meant we could rehearse covid compliance and begin to understand our working relationship with new partner The Cockpit, then have a few weeks off to regroup before the main event. This was critical to the scale and success of what we did.


6. Start Small. Our Pilot was as small as anything could be that could be described as “opera” – just one performer. The audience was also tiny. We deliberately set a low capacity before attempting to build it up, so that everything could grow in baby steps without straining everything. Watching the bigger, commercial re-openings that were achieved in 2020 just validates this. “Small showers last long but sudden storms are short,” as sadly became apparent across the sector.


7. Pace. The *start small pacing* ran through the whole live festival programme. The schedule day by day ran:


a. 2 performer show, live audience

b. 2 performer show, no audience, 2 performer show live audience 

c. 2 performer show, live audience

d. 8 performer show, no audience

e. 2 performer show, live audience, 2 performer show, live audience

f. Day off

g. 1 person show, live audience, 4 person show, live audience

h. 2 performer show, live audience, 3 performer show, live audience

i. 2 performer show, live audience, 2 performer show, live audience

j. 2 performer show, live audience, 2 performer show, live audience (with a lot of tech!)

k. 4 performer show, live audience

l. 3 performer show, live audience, 3 performer show, live audience


(In actual fact, we had to count company size rather than number of performers as the number of creatives also affected what could be done in terms of covid-compliance.)


Almost every day represented some kind of gentle growth, in ambition, in numbers, in activity, movement or technical demands. All these were reconciled and incorporated into very carefully paced planning, in as much as availabilities allowed.


8. Everything takes longer… Scheduling doesn’t just need to be gently paced and incremental. With Covid-compliance, simply everything takes longer. This has to be incorporated into all aspects of planning.


9. …and needs more staff. To maintain the controlled environment that keeps everyone covid-safe, more staff are required, front of house and backstage, in effect to act as covid wardens. This pushes costs up. In a small space, as we discovered, this also means losing other staff, eg FOH welcome, which thankfully for us pushed costs down.


10. Empower everyone involved to follow the guidelines. It’s not just enough to have a lot of rules and expect buy-in. Artists need agency in the application of these rules and the rules need buy-in from everyone to be strictly observed. For us this meant a continual and very protracted process of our Technical Director repeatedly taking everyone through the ever-changing rules. He also produced some really invaluable tools to help artists create within this framework such as his “cut and play” plans.


11. Empower everyone FULL STOP. Our PHF external evaluation mentor Gerri Moriarty very helpfully pointed out that, while many arts organisations ‘commissioned’ work in 2020 and thereby dumped the problems of covid-compliant creation on artists, the relationship between Tête à Tête was more that of co-creation and teamwork. As the planning unfolded and Zoom enabled this, a certain amount of co-production also developed, where participating artists were involved in management decisions affecting the whole festival.


12. Take account of everyone’s mental health as they return to performance.  It was a huge threshold to cross for many artists to return to performance in September 2020 after being shut out for so many months.  Lots more time has passed, though there are still plenty of people yet to get back in a theatre.  When they do under your care, do try your very best to respect the significance of this moment.  Be sure to treat everyone with the greatest sensitivity and kindness, especially if this has become routine for you.


13. Don’t let covid force you into discrimination. Every live event we hosted last year was wheelchair-accessible. The question was not “will this be ok?” but rather “why wouldn’t this be ok?”.  Similarly, we thought through this carefully and talked it through with participating artists [on a box-office split] before deciding that there would be no financial penalty for single audience members (ie bubbles of 1 person) even though a bubble of 2, 3, 4 etc would give a higher ticket yield. There’s more still to unpack here about artists and staff. 


14. Flex to make the most of this disruption. There was so much in the press last autumn about the unviability of socially distanced theatre when audience capacity is reduced to 30%. But actually, if you perform two short shows in an evening, your capacity is effectively 60% and now things begin to get viable. Audiences were wholly accepting of this in our festival, and happy to pay. In the stressed climate 60 minutes was a good maximum length, and also removed the stress of covid-compliant intervals. The Cockpit talked of taking up this model with other work.


15. Accept and enjoy the disruption that covid-compliance causes to the ritual of theatregoing. Rather than pretending everything was normal as audiences went through the very unfamiliar process of socially-distanced theatregoing, controlled entry into the space, mask-wearing through the shows etc, artists were encouraged to think about how this new form of ritual could contribute to rather than detract from their vision.


16. Consider what really matters in the vision for your show. This is really set out in §4. above, but important, too, in its own right.  It’s a key to keeping your creativity alive.


17. Keep communicating. The feeling of being ignored, lack of agency, being stuck outside the loop in 2020 was a particularly hurtful aspect of the pandemic crisis for freelance theatre workers. This resulted in the birth of many emergency organisations, such as Freelancers Make Theatre Work.


Founded to be an artist-centred company, Tête à Tête, not only communicated with artists, freelancers and stakeholders from the outset like never before but also gave them real voice, agency and input into the Festival. In many cases we were the one organisation still offering our artists the sustenance of creativity, artistic agency and their only live creative outlet that year. This absolutely depended on a bedrock of constant, clear, open, two-way communication.


You can read advice on specific parts of bringing a festival to life here.


[This post was updated to include an additional point 13 on Sunday 21st February, and an additional point 12 of Tuesday 30th March]