Fife looks ahead to a creative revolution for libraries, theatres & museums

Heather Stuart  (Pic: Fife Photo Agency)Heather Stuart  (Pic: Fife Photo Agency)
Heather Stuart (Pic: Fife Photo Agency)
Cultural group plans very different ways of working after lockdown

It’s been three months since the doors to Fife’s museums, galleries and libraries closed, and our theatres went dark.

Places which once buzzed with activity remain silent, and how we explore art and culture, devour books, and enjoy live show and events may well have changed forever.

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For OnFife, which manages around 50 diverse venues, the pandemic has handed them a complex challenge - how to deliver a vast range of services across nearly 50 venues when its audiences and customers cannot access a single venue.

A full stage for  Kirkcaldy Gilbert & Sullivan Society's  The GondoliersA full stage for  Kirkcaldy Gilbert & Sullivan Society's  The Gondoliers
A full stage for Kirkcaldy Gilbert & Sullivan Society's The Gondoliers

Since lockdown, it has operated virtually after transforming its operations.and witnessing real success in many areas.

Its LibrarYAY initiative has netted over 500 new library members and seen book borrowing digitally soar 65 per cent, with demand for e-books up 128 per cent.

It formed part of its Shine On project which has increased digital engagement dramatically, but also provided a vital human touch with staff logging huge numbers of calls to customers who are on their own, or perhaps shielding.

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Digital archives have sparked many conversations and warm memories, while Fife In Lockdown will create a permanent record of how the region coped during the global crisis.

Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy
Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy

The challenges are far from over.

The trust is now looking at how it re-starts in a very different world where social distancing means going back to what we had is simply not possible.For Heather Stuart, chief executive, that represents a real opportunity to embrace the new.

She said. “We know what normal is when we look back - but we are in a time when things are changing like this, and the word ‘normal’ doesn’t apply. “There is nothing to define the ‘new normal’ right now.”

That blank canvas gives the trust an opportunity to be as creative as possible and come up with something very different.

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“Our business is experiences – not just a a building,” she said. “We open doors to inspiration and fantastic experiences. Right now we are doing that digitally.

“I am hugely proud of the whole organisation and how it has adjusted so well and so quickly.

“We have continued to do what we do really well, which is providing experiences.They are just different for these circumstances.”

But the move to online is simply step one for the trust.

While the days when theatres can again host full houses are still a long way off, libraries, can look to re-opening.

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“We need to get staff back in buildings and up to speed, and then look at how we operate – is that click and collect or open access? – and what adaptations we need to make,” said Heather.

But the success of LibrarYAY has also allowed the service to reach a much wider audience, and that means events such as BookBugs, and author events can perhaps offer a blend of being there or signing up to watch and participate online.

Expanding events and activities beyond four walls will continue long after lockdown has ended. It will, in time, become the ‘new normal’ - and that will include theatre.

Michelle Sweeney, director of creative development and delivery, explained: “Our virtual programme launch happened so quickly. That has now become our programme. We are actively looking at it and arranging more.”

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It made an early call to cancel its theatre programme for 2020 to to next Spring to give everyone – from promoters and performers to local theatre groups clarity.

Explained Michelle: “We faced growing pressure from local groups to know what was happening.

“ It felt like we were going along from one three week period of time to the next.

“Based on the information and guidance on social distancing, we were not going to be able to come back together to produce a programme until Spring.

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“Our decision provided stability and some certainty with the provision that, if Government guidance changes and there is more clarity on numbers acceptable for social gatherings then we can respond quickly. We can review our position.”

The capacities of venues such as the Adam Smith Theatre, Carnegie Hall, Rothes Halls and Lochgelly Centre mean they could host smaller shows once there is clarity over numbers attending - but they are also flexible spaces.

While filling every seat is not currently possible, the focus is on looking at the building as a whole – not just the auditorium – to see how it can re-think the experience of live shows. It is, in many ways, a cultural revolution - one the team at OnFife says has challenged, and excited, them.

Heather said: “We have to see the building as a whole - not just what we put on in the auditorium.

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“The building is the whole space wrapped around it, and lots of our venues have great space which we can use.

“People’s expectations will adjust. We are comparing experiences with what previously happened. We have to adjust – not lower them. This could mean traditional theatre but with a digital element - such as NTLive which has been a huge success. There are a whole range of challenges, but we look at this as an opportunity rather than a crisis.”

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