Creating Theatre During COVID with Katy Lipson

In this time of limitations thanks to COVID, Producer Katy Lipson discusses how her latest, innovative show took to the streets.

Always test the barriers – if you can’t do something in the way you’re used to, that doesn’t mean you can’t do something.
Katy Lipson

At the time of writing, the future of our beloved theatres is still unclear. While the government have pledged £1.6 billion to help save our cultural industries, it doesn’t change the fact that most theatres will struggle to overcome the tricky obstacles brought on by social distancing. We can’t sardine ourselves into rows of seats next to fellow theatre-lovers anymore.

Fortunately, some theatre companies are getting creative to combat this tricky situation. One such person is musical theatre producer, Katy Lipson. Along with Aria Entertainment, Mathilde Moulin and WEF Productions, they’re putting on C-O-N-T-A-C-T – a sensory theatre experience which uses a specially-created app, state-of-the-art 3D sound design, your smartphone, and the streets of London to immerse you in a performance like no other.

We were thrilled to speak to Katy about the show’s creation, its future, and the challenges she faced putting the show on during such difficult times. 

Hello Katy. How did the show come about?

This was a show that was actually created in France, in Paris, by a company called Music Drama. It goes back to a time when I was meeting new people around the world, and I already knew this company. They actually reached out to me to say they’d been doing this in Paris, and would I like to help them expand it into the English language and bring it over to England.

It’s a theatrical show I probably wouldn’t have come across or been involved with in a non-COVID world because I tend to focus on musical theatre and also try to do new musicals or revivals. But it ultimately came to me, and I just thought, what an incredible, innovative, brave thing to do. To take the limitations we have, do a performance outside, do a silent experience that avoids any direct talking or any sense of spreading the virus, and socially distant audiences.

So, it sort of came as it is, but I was able to expand the brand, bring it to England, make a bigger noise about it, to get it seen, hopefully, around the world.

Has it changed much from the original version in Paris?

Because it’s an audio experience, the sound design - as in what you hear in your ear in terms of the backing, the music, the sound design – that has to stay the same. The only thing that’s changed is it’s done in the English language, and we re-recorded it with British performers. It goes back to France and they sync it all together.

We haven’t changed the text, but we have obviously got new locations as we’re doing London rather than the Parisian streets. Whether we’re in Clapham Common, Greenwich, St Paul’s Cathedral, or Monument, it’s a very different experience. Also, if you’re in a big group, a small group, if it's day, if it's night-time because obviously it’s been getting darker so by the 7:30pm show it’s quite dark so you get a very different experience.

That’s what’s interesting about it – you can watch it 10 times and it feels different every single time. You see how the audience navigate the public, how they navigate the actors, and it’s a really interesting experience for all those different levels. Do the audience feel confident to follow the actor? Are they a bit more reserved? Do they need to be pushed on by the stage manager? It’s really interesting when you see audiences react in different ways.

What has been the most challenging part of putting on a show like this?

Introducing this concept to the marketplace when it’s not a traditional marketplace anywhere – there are no tourists, people don’t want to go out, people don’t want to travel on the tube - that’s been hard. Figuring out where we’re going to do it, how we’re going to keep the cast safe, how we’re going to make sure there’s room for everybody when we go down a passageway. That’s something we figured out with our creative team.

The hardest thing has been managing the marketing and the press, and to keep the buzz for the show out there, and to encourage audiences that we’re a safe experience, and that things like the rule of six don’t affect us because we’re a business, it’s not a social gathering. We’re not at a theatre, so the biggest challenge of that is we don’t have a database of theatregoers that have been to that theatre before so we’ve had to go from scratch to build up an audience, to market to an audience.

Do you have plans to take the show elsewhere?

We’re looking at different major cities in the UK, and we’re talking to national partners in the USA, South Africa, Australia and then other parts of Europe like Sweden, Greece and Germany. The dream is it’s meant to be an international app, so when you log in in Italy, you should be able to see the English option, the Italian option, the French option, the Spanish option. You’ve got the opportunity to choose any language so it feels as if every country is connected.

How has the response been?

The response has been glorious. Every night I get a show report from stage managers to show me how the nine shows of the day have gone, and to see people say how moved they were, how appreciative they were to have this experience, how different it is, how high quality it is and how they’d like to come see it again in a different location. So we’re getting a fantastic response and we really feel that this brand has somewhere to go. We have the opportunity to introduce another type of show like this to audiences in the future.

I’m also very encouraged about the technology in general. How can we take this technology and create new shows with larger casts? Or post-COVID - we don’t have to wear masks; we don’t have to have such a distance between the actors. Everything was created as a response to COVID, and it’s all about anxiety and loss and grief - what can we do with different themes afterwards? The show itself could absolutely be presented in a post-COVID world.

What advice would you give to theatre companies looking to be innovative?

Always think out the box. Things are not normal, but how can we continue to add positivity and enjoy the experience of performing? In the amateur circuits, it’s all about the joy of being on the stage, so not everything has to be Oklahoma! or Fiddler on the Roof. There are interesting ideas out there. Always test the barriers – if you can’t do something in the way you’re used to, that doesn’t mean you can’t do something.

Thank you, Katy, for sharing your experiences with us. Unfortunately, C-O-N-T-A-C-T’s initial London run has now ended, but from 19 January, it will be travelling to Manchester and Salford for six weeks. Keep an eye on their website for the announcement of new dates and locations. In the meantime, Katy’s latest show, The Last Five Years, will be on at Southwark Playhouse until 14 November in a social-distancing equipped auditorium.

Image by Pamela Raith