A CHAT WITH: BILL ELMS

Following his inclusion in the prestigious The Stage 100 list for his contribution to the theatre industry as it faced the pandemic, we caught up with Bill Elms to discuss navigating COVID-19 to deliver the Liverpool Theatre Festival in 2020 and what he has planned for the coming year.

So Bill, tell us a little bit about yourself for the (very few) who might not know you…

I’m born, bred and located in Liverpool and I suppose some would call me a theatre entrepreneur, basically because I have my fingers in lots of theatrical pies. I am a theatre producer, a director of an arts communications company and I am also the artistic director of Liverpool Theatre Festival.

Plenty to keep you busy then! You’ve worked in the theatre industry for more than 30 years now, what have been the highlights – and lowlights – of your career to date?

There have been so many highlights, just being able to work in an industry such as this is an absolute blessing. I have worked in so many wonderful theatres around the UK, worked on some incredible productions and with some amazing people. I learned my trade from the age of 17 at Liverpool Empire Theatre and Manchester Palace and Opera House. A key highlight was setting up my communications company in 2008. Everyone thought I was mad specialising in the arts, but I spotted a much-needed gap and I have never looked back. Another highlight for me has been the creation of Liverpool Theatre Festival, which I aim to build into an annual event.  This festival was created ironically during the real lowlight of my career – and many others – the pandemic. To see theatre and live entertainment cease for such a long period of time, putting theatres and workers careers at risk has been heartbreaking.

The region has changed a lot during your time in the industry too. What do you think has had the biggest impact on the theatre and live events industry here? 

Liverpool has always had a very strong arts and culture scene and it has continued to grow. We are known for creativity and courage. We love the arts in our city and I hope that once this pandemic is over that the region comes back and supports the arts more than ever before.  

Do you think there is enough collaborative working across the six boroughs or does more work need to be done?

I do believe there could be more visible collaborative work not only across the region but across the venues in our city.  I would love to grow the Liverpool Theatre Festival into a multi-venue festival in years to come and even create pop-up theatre and performance within the diverse communities of our region.

If you could bring back/revisit one past live event or performance to the city what would it be and why?

There have been so many to choose from, Culture Liverpool are exceptional at creating large scale public events in our city, The Giants are a perfect example. It’s incredible how the region embrace them, but for me it would be wonderful if there were to be another event on the scale of European Capital Of Culture, it changed our city beyond all recognition and the great thing about our city is that we still have room for growth and to evolve, so it’s exciting to see what we can become in the next 10 years.

You were recently recognised in The Stage 100 list for your contribution to the industry as it faced the pandemic, going above and beyond to keep the sector going in the most challenging climate of our time. Can you tell us a bit more about how you approached the COVID-19 crisis, how you created and ran the Liverpool Theatre Festival and the impact that that had on the city?  

The inaugural Liverpool Theatre Festival was created in response to a lack of cultural events in the city due to COVID-19, having only ever worked in the industry, the closing of theatres and lockdown felt completely alien to me. So my eyes were glued to government guidelines on what we could and couldn’t do and as soon as there was an opportunity to present work I ran with my idea. 

The festival was held outdoors in September and was aiming to create both work for artists and a cultural experience for audiences in a safe environment. There were 12 productions over nine days with an audience of 2,500. Great effort went into ensuring that COVID-19 safety rules were adhered to and we made sure we covered every safety measure.

Despite the many barriers, the festival was a real success and we were praised for the running and programming of the event. It received several excellent reviews and already it has been awarded Community Event of the Year at the Liverpool Echo Awards. The event has also been shortlisted for a top Liverpool City Region Culture & Creativity Award for contribution to culture, the winner will be announced on 19th February. The feedback from the public was really heart-warming, with many calls to make it an annual event.  We brought theatre back, creating a brand new theatre festival in our city when theatres across the UK and the world were silent.

What more do you think needs to be done to help the local theatre and live events recover?

I think first and foremost audiences need to feel ready and also that they are entering a safe environment, many of the venues that opened to socially distanced audiences in the autumn went to great lengths to achieve this, but financially they can’t continue to programme the theatres with just a fraction of their auditoriums filled.

The vaccine is the only way out of this and we have to give credit where credit is due, the rollout is going out at great speed and let’s hope it continues and reduces hospital admissions and deaths. I think the way we operate will change for a while to come, but we will soon be able to live with the virus and get back to some normality.

So, what do you have planned for 2021?

If all goes to plan and theatres reopen soon, I will be touring the UK with four shows this year, some of them to theatres with socially distanced audiences. Swan Song by Jonathan Harvey starring Andrew Lancel, Judy & Liza Musical which celebrates its 10th Anniversary, Something About Simon, a Paul Simon show which is hopefully doing a run off-Broadway next year and Helen Forrester’s By The Waters Of Liverpool.

I am also working on two Liverpool LGBT+ plays, a revival of Masquerade by Laura Lees and a new play called Dim Lit Star by Kai Jolley. I am in planning stages of two further productions with my companies Northern Ricochet and Break A Leg Productions for later in the year.  I will also be bringing back Liverpool Theatre Festival, which this year will have two strands, a weeklong festival of new work called Little LTF in June and the main festival which will return to the Bombed Out Church in September.

This year our theme is ‘Young At Heart’, which promotes the right for LGBT+ people to live happy, healthy and carefree lives, regardless of how they identify. What does this statement mean to you?

I understand why we have to create themes and why it’s important that we highlight particular issues of concern, but we really shouldn’t have to. I hope the one thing that comes out of this pandemic is that we all have a better understanding and appreciation of life, of the world we live in and the people who live in it. We need to face reality and embrace it. The world would be a much better place to live if we all just opened our minds a little more and create an inclusive, accepting and kinder world!

Is there anything we should keep our eyes peeled for this year? Any ‘ones to watch’ or new venues?

Well, I would obviously have to say Liverpool Theatre Festival and especially Little LTF which is a platform for new writers/productions to present their work in front of an audience for the first time. We want to profile up and coming talent from our region, the main festival will focus on more established talent and productions from our region. There are also some new theatres opening later this year, with a brand new innovative space on Bold Street called The Purple Door and the Epstein Theatre will reopen under new management and a new vision.

You can follow Bill on Twitter and Instagram and learn more about Bill Elms Associates here.

For updates on Liverpool Theatre Festival, visit: https://www.liverpooltheatrefestival.com/

📸 Image credit: Kai Jolley

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