It is no secret that the arts have been hugely impacted by COVID, so I wanted to learn more about the first-hand experience of The Riverhouse Barn, an arts centre in Walton-on-Thames. It faced a hard year, with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting usual events. They had to think outside the box to continue their work and engage with their audiences, so last summer performances ran in their car park (sometimes it rained!) To avoid the same situation this year, and attract even larger audiences, they have been crowdfunding for an outdoor stage, and this has gone incredibly well. They have currently fulfilled their original target of £14,000 and are now trying to reach a stretch target of £17,000. The link to donate can be found here: %20Together%2C%20whatever%20the%20weather%21

To learn more about how they have continued engaging with the local area, I spoke with the director Emily Boulting for more of an insight. I began by asking about how the centre has managed to maintain public interest during COVID, and I discovered that they applied for a grant to get 3 streaming cameras. This allowed them to put their productions online, and people were able to watch for free or leave a donation of their choice. Furthermore, they even managed to keep their choirs going by moving them online, which were free to join, and, each time the guidelines allowed, they opened for small audiences or ran performances outside. The cafe has been open for takeaway almost the whole way throughout the pandemic and they ran playreading groups for people to try different plays out informally within a friendly group, which must have been lovely for the people feeling isolated throughout lockdowns. 

I also wanted to know more about how they were planning to use the new stage, and the focus was on entertainment and encouraging people to have fun and enjoy the arts. They are putting much of their programming outside (music, folk, jazz, youth, festivals, theatre, comedy and cabaret) and so the ability to move this outdoors without the worry of British weather would help significantly. 

There are some definite positives though. Because of running their programmes online, they have been able to reach a slightly different demographic of people. People who have moved away from the area and even people who live in different countries have been able to interact, leaving a ‘real sense of community’. The audience feedback has been great too, as the cameras they were given were top quality, and so Emily feels that online performances are here to stay because it is a great option for people with mobility issues, who cannot afford to come or do not want to go alone to experience the joys of the arts and interact with others in the chat boxes. It also helps people who cannot make the events to see the performances afterwards, meaning a much wider audience can be reached.

Finally, with restrictions lifting, I asked what she was most excited about for the future of the centre. Emily said she is really looking forward to people being able to enjoy live performances again, and also said how they are planning a new zero-carbon garden project which seems like a great way to encourage more of an eco-friendly approach to theatre! 

COVID has evidently proven a challenge for the Riverhouse Barn, however Emily and her team have thought so creatively about how to overcome the problems they have faced along the way. The outdoor stage would make such a huge difference to the future of the centre and it has been interesting to discover more about how it has worked over the last year and how they are hoping to progress. The newfound accessibility of theatre is definitely a bonus, and hopefully with the new outdoor stage they will be able to stay ‘together, whatever the weather!’