“If we do meet again, why, we shall smile.” Julius Caesar, Act 5, Scene 1. On the Shakespeare’s Globe website, this quote has been changed to “When we meet again”. This week, ‘if’ has finally become a matter of ‘when’, as theatres reopen to the public as part of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown. For the Globe, tomorrow is the day, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream the first show on its stage – and the city will definitely be smiling.
Ready and waiting to welcome Londoners back to the theatre will be the Globe’s team of red apron-wearing volunteer stewards. Come rain or shine, they give their time free of charge to check tickets, give out cushions, shepherd school trips and offer assistance and first aid to anyone who needs it. A trip to the Globe, with a spare jumper packed in your bag for post-9pm chilliness, is a summertime rite of passage. For many of the theatre’s stewards, it was their first Globe-less summer in years.
Cathie Delaney, a retired primary school teacher, has been volunteering as a steward at the Globe for a decade. “I’ve always absolutely loved theatre, full stop, and was interested in Shakespeare but didn’t know a great deal about it. Before I actually retired, I started working part-time so I had a few days, and I knew it was on my list – the first thing I ever wanted to do was to volunteer at the Globe, which is what I did,” she tells me. It was the perfect way for her to combine her wish to give back with her love of the arts. Since she started stewarding, she’s had the opportunity to keep developing her skills, learning first aid and later becoming an access ambassador to support audience members with additional access requirements.
A fellow volunteer steward is Terry Pope, a retired freelance IT consultant. “When you retire you think ‘hmmm… now what?’ The thought of daytime television and gardening didn’t appeal, so I thought I’d do something useful. I’d been to the Globe some years before and I remember being greeted at the groundling steps by a steward. I thought, ‘I’ve never been greeted at a theatre like that before, they seem pleased to see me.’” That was 11 years ago.
The 500-strong army of volunteers, like-minded souls who appreciate the arts and want to give up their time to help others, have become a real community. Working together for such a long time, many have developed lasting friendships – not least Cathie and Terry, who are now a couple after meeting through stewarding. “It’s a shame really, it took us eight years to work out that we quite liked each other!” Cathie laughs.
But the bonds between stewards cross borders. Brian Allen, a pilates instructor, has been volunteering at the Globe for twenty years. He first signed up just before starting ballet school, when he had a summer in London with nothing to do, and has been coming back ever since. He tells me that not being able to open the theatre last summer was “devastating”; he has friends in New York and Switzerland who both come over to steward at the Globe as part of their summer holidays. When the Globe streamed some of its shows last year, they would all jump on a Zoom call with other steward friends and watch them together.
Over the years, he’s loved watching the way that shows evolve over the course of a season – no two performances are ever the same. He remembers seeing an actor performing in Henry V who got a laugh from the audience when he didn’t expect to; over the course of the production he gradually adapted his performance in line with how they reacted. “I think that’s what’s kept me coming back season after season, just that enjoyment of watching shows being performed and seeing how people play with that space. The building itself for me is really special – I love that feeling of how it envelops you and wraps its arms around you when you’re walking, because it’s a circle. Everybody can see each other, it’s quite democratic,” he says.
Reopening in a pandemic isn’t straightforward – all of the stewards have undergone new training, some of it online, in order to be Covid secure – but the stewards are used to challenging circumstances. Ask any of them about a particular memory and they will immediately mention the notorious fainters. Titus Andronicus in particular is a play that will make any steward say “oh, that one”, Brian tells me. A supremely gory production in 2014 had people “falling down like flies” says Cathie (if you’re unfamiliar, one scene has a mother unwittingly served a pie which has been filled with… her sons). But people can faint for boring reasons too – because it’s hot, or they’ve already been around three museums and they’re tired from standing up for three hours. Occasionally the first aid incidents can be “quite spectacular,” says Terry.
Standing in the yard – being a groundling, to use the parlance – is a tradition at the Globe. The £5 tickets make it affordable for anyone, from tourists to drama students. Because of social distancing requirements, this will be the first time in the Globe’s history that the audience members in the yard will be seated. One tradition that won’t go away, though, is the weather. But the relentless rain we’ve had over the last few weeks won’t put a dampener on the experience, says Brian. “If it rains, it’s part of it. If it rains – you get wet! We never stop a show because of the weather. I’ve seen hailstones bouncing off the stage, and snow. Sometimes at the end of a show you’re absolutely wringing wet – but it’s sufficiently rare to be amusing,” he says.
There are other joys to being a steward. Education is a huge aspect of the theatre’s work, and it runs special matinees for schools. “If three children come to the matinees and get inspired by Shakespeare and theatre, it’s worth it,” says Cathie. There are also the midnight matinees, performed under London’s night sky – Brian has special memories of cycling home along the river as the sun rises, feeling like the only person in London. But there’s a general sense of “belonging and rightness” about being at the Globe, which Terry has missed. “It’s difficult to put into words, but you sort of walk in the door inside the theatre and you just go, ‘ahhh’. It just feels right. You can go in feeling hot and bothered, but you usually come out feeling calm and peaceful and stimulated.”
The audience is the “last piece of the puzzle”, says Brian. The stewards can’t wait to welcome them back – not least because the theatre has been in a perilous situation without them. They’re aware that for most, walking through the doors of the Globe will be their first time back in a theatre for a year.
When the theatre reopens on Wednesday, Brian won’t be wearing his apron. “I’ve actually decided specifically not to work on the first show. I’ve bought a ticket to sit and watch – because I think I’m going to be an emotional wreck.”
Shakespeare’s Globe reopens on May 19 with A Midsummer Night’s Dream; full details of the summer season can be found at shakespearesglobe.com/whats-on