Adapting to Digital  

Finding new ways to sustain revenues, support actors and provide content for schools, Blackeyed Theatre has been quick to evolve and find creative solutions to survive the pandemic. Adrian McDougall gives us an insight.

It’s a bit of a cliché but when times are hard, creativity thrives. And for those working in the arts, the need for creative problem-solving has never been greater. The closure of theatres has posed an existential threat to companies like Blackeyed Theatre, which found itself in the middle of six-month tour of Jane Eyre when theatres were forced to close their doors in March.

“It felt like we had lost our relevance overnight”, says Blackeyed’s Artistic Director, Adrian McDougall. “We lost 13 weeks of touring, and that represents a huge loss of income for us. But I was determined to find ways of continuing to engage with our audience, partly because we have to in order to survive, but also because I wanted to support our artists, who arguably are the hardest hit of all”.

He continues, “As an industry it was clear we had to embrace the online market. And while the National Theatre’s online streaming of work was fantastic for so many reasons – the most obvious being accessibility to the arts for all – the fact it was free revealed an inherent challenge facing so many theatre makers; namely how to engage audiences online in a sustainable way. It’s all very well getting your work seen, but if you can’t properly monetise it, how do you survive in the long term and how do you pay artists?”

Being more commercial isn’t something that comes naturally to some parts of the industry, particularly the smaller scale and fringe elements, but it’s a concept Adrian believes theatre makers must embrace in order to overcome the huge challenges brought about by the pandemic. “for me, it’s not about dumbing down our work or selling out”, he says. “It’s about forging stronger relationships with stakeholders, fostering greater collaboration and being better at listening to what audiences need and want. Our work has always been rooted in education, so reaching out to schools seemed like an obvious route for us”.

What came out of that was an offer to drama teachers of free access to Blackeyed Theatre’s recording of Teechers, John Godber’s timeless play about life at a struggling school for a new drama teacher. “We had a huge response to it”, Adrian says. “John Godber was kind enough to allow us to make the offer, and as a result over 13,000 students from over 500 schools across the UK and further afield were able to access the production from home. For many teachers it was a lifeline”.

“Just as important though, it gave us a way of understanding what schools were dealing with, and in particular the challenges inherent in remote learning”, Adrian continues. “I come from a family of teachers, so I have great admiration for those in the profession, particularly at the moment. We surveyed the teachers who contacted us and as a result built up a really interesting picture of how they felt about the coming academic year and what they needed from companies like us”.

The result was an online pack of digital resources, all designed around Teechers, including the show itself, an education pack, Q&As with the cast and artistic team, and even an exclusive interview with John Godber himself. In all, over five hours of content designed to address those parts of exams students find most challenging, whether it be for live theatre evaluation, Godber as a practitioner or the BTECH Tech Awards. And crucially, students can access it all from home or in the classroom.

“There came a point – probably around June – when I realised we really were in this for the long haul”, Adrian continues. “The majority of teachers we surveyed didn’t envisage school theatre trips being possible until at least April 2021, so licensing the pack to schools for the 2020/21 academic year became the obvious next step. It would provide teachers and students with accessible, fun, relevant resources while also providing the artists involved in producing the play with some income at a time when there’s literally no work out there”.

And the company isn’t stopping at Teechers. It’s creating similar packages for its 2011 production of Oh What A Lovely War and its 2020 revival of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, which is adapted by Nick Lane. Adrian says, “We didn’t want to stop at drama. And for Jekyll & Hyde, we’ve created lots of resources also specific to the English syllabus”.

And while there is a cost to the packs, the company remains confident that schools will recognise the value of the work they’re producing. 

“It comes down to the perceived value of online theatre”, Adrian says. “We’re offering year-long online access to a show along with unique insight and analysis from the people who created it for the equivalent cost of one theatre trip for a dozen students. It’s difficult because I know many schools are limited in their budget for additional resources, and yet I firmly believe what we’ve created has a value. Based on the response so far, I know many schools realise that”.

And where does Adrian see this all leading? “The pandemic has changed the way the theatre industry works, how people access it and how its value is harnessed. It’s also revealed the very best of the industry; its resilience, its capacity to adapt, the ability to do a lot with not a lot. It’s for those reasons I believe the arts will return stronger than ever. It’s precisely what John Godber refers to in Teechers as the importance of learning and thinking creatively. I think we’re proof of that”.

You can find all there is to know about access to Blackeyed Theatre’s online resources at

Adrian McDougall: Credit Alex Harvey-Brown
From Teechers (2018): (l – r) Rosalind Seal, Jake Addley, Nicole Black