It’s been difficult for many of us to see the well-oiled machine that is theatre, the hustle and bustle, the creativity – all draw to a close. No one knows this feeling better than photographer Helen Murray, who recently crafted a profound series of photographs and interviews, entitled Our Empty Theatres.
Murray has a deep connection with theatre; her first ever job was in a theatre bar and then a box office, before she went on to photographing performances in theatres big and small. Theatre is a space that she’s grown up in, that she works in, socialises in and much more. We asked her what it was like to encounter the same spaces, totally empty.
“It was so weird… I don’t think I was prepared for how weird it was, if I’m being really honest.” She tells us, “The silence really hits you. Going into the spaces and just being met with nothing – which is the complete stark opposite of what they’ve always been to me and to everyone who crosses those doors.”
Image: Shakespeare’s Globe
Helen’s project captures the eerie grandeur of 22 empty theatres across the UK, from the Globe to the Almeida. She tells us that shooting the Globe was particularly breath-taking; “It was really sunny, and I just had to sit for a few minutes and just take it in. Every time I shoot a show there, you’re shooting with a full audience and the cast is always so large, so being in that space by yourself is really weird. You could hear the birds singing.”
There’s a stillness in the images captured, they’re a time capsule of an industry that was once so vibrant, now on pause. Helen comments on the unusual tranquillity of the spaces; “even the refrigerator had been turned off, there was no hum. The clicks of the camera were echoing around the space. You felt very present in those spaces.”
For Murray, these buildings are not just a space but a locus of laughter, clamour, creativity and magic. They’re home to an army of freelancers, to ushers, to volunteers, to community and audience members. “Those buildings belong to us all,” she says, “They’re part of a web of life.”
Image: Hampstead Theatre
To capture this, Murray asked over 100 members of the UK’s theatre community What do our empty theatres mean to you? The response has been as heart-breaking as it has been eye-opening. Gloria Akpoke, a young company member at Manchester Royal Exchange said:
“To me empty theatres are bodies without a heartbeat. An empty Theatre is like creating a microphone and not letting anyone use it to sing. An empty theatre means we starve ourselves of stories that bring us comfort, magic, wisdom and unity. An empty theatre is everything it was never created to be.”
As the sector continues to face uncertainty, we asked Murray how she’s feeling about the future of theatre. “When we do get to go back and create, I think it’s going to be really special. I can’t wait. It’s going to be a long fight, I think, for it to happen, but we will come back stronger and better and bolder and braver.” Amen to that.
You can lose yourself in the entire Our Empty Theatres series here.
Use the hashtag #OurEmptyTheatres to share what these images mean to you.
Check out more of Helen’s work @helenmurraypix.
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Image: The Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
Image: Battersea Arts Centre
Image: Royal Court
Image: Young Vic