As we near the end of 2020, we look back on Eden Court’s journey through a watershed year that has seen an international pandemic affect all our lives.
Carlos Acosta and his critically acclaimed dance company, Acosta Danza
Those halcyon early months of 2020 at Eden Court seem to belong to another era in history now. Cuban ballet superstar Carlos Acosta strutting across the stage to the music of The Rolling Stones in a rapturous, sold-out Empire Theatre. Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite packing out our cinema screens, the first non-English language film to storm the Oscars. The year had begun with a bang for the arts and things were only going to get better! A thrilling live programme, a brilliant slate of cinema releases scheduled for the summer, Eden Court’s engagement programme bursting with opportunity. It felt like the party was just getting started.
And then everything stopped.
With the ink barely dry on our summer brochure, the full, life-changing extent of the COVID-19 pandemic became frighteningly clear. For Eden Court, this was a crisis that threatened the very core of our existence as a unique multi-arts organisation serving the Highlands. We bring people together. If we have to shut, what is Eden Court for?
On Tuesday 17 March 2020, we closed our doors. At that stage, the only certainty we had about the future was that we should continue serving the community, in whatever way we could. Following emergency talks with the Highland Council, it was decided that Eden Court would collaborate on an innovative solution to keep the organisation afloat and our 200 employees in work. Staff were redeployed to support the delivery of the Highland Council’s resilience response to the pandemic. This unique relationship meant our Engagement Team – a crew of ten creatives, artists and producers - could support the children of Key Workers on the front line. Members of our Visitor Experience Team were deployed to field calls to a new Highland Council Helpline.
Love Letters Straight From The Heart (Uninvited Guests/Fuel Theatre) May 2020
Whilst this essential work was being carried out, we wanted to keep our audiences connected with the best in arts and culture. This meant stepping out of our comfort zone to present live performance in new ways – hosting theatre shows on our website and social media pages, like the beautiful interactive zoom-based Love Letters Straight From Your Heart. In May, settling in for the long haul with a whole summer lockdown, we were proud to support Scenes for Survival, the National Theatre of Scotland’s online artistic response to the pandemic, and Makar 2 Makar, Jackie Kay’s weekly celebration of poetry and song.
With the lights out in our cinemas, we also had a strong desire to continue engaging our film audiences in a meaningful way, offering something different from all the other viewing options available to stream at home. In June, we presented an online weekend of Scottish short films from Inverness Film Festival alumni, many of which were exclusively available on our website. Our viewing figures (4315 across the weekend) confirmed an appetite for curated cinema from Eden Court. Exploring Scotland through a range of voices, places and events, the films also felt full of contemporary relevance, not least in Gordon Napier’s 1745, which looked at 18th century Scotland through the eyes of two black slaves fleeing their captors.
Jacqueline Briggs at work on her BLM installation, June 2020 (IMAGE: Neil Hepburn)
The film informed part of a global conversation taking shape across the summer. Worldwide protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by an American police officer turned the Black Lives Matter movement into a global phenomenon. In June, driven by a small group of young people in the city, a peaceful protest saw placards and artwork line Ness Bridge in the centre of town. For many, this raised uncomfortable but necessary questions about racism in our own city. We wanted to show solidarity with the BLM movement and felt we could amplify the range of voices contributing to the conversation. The placards, banners and artwork from the protest were re-homed at Eden Court. As part of ‘Black Lives Matter – Scottish Mural Trail’, we commissioned local artist Jacqueline Briggs to provide an artistic response that would form the centrepiece of a temporary installation. We provided a safe outdoor space for people to view the artwork and reflect on the issues raised. The reaction was overwhelmingly supportive.
In July, the Empire Theatre came alive again (albeit behind closed doors) when the stage was transformed into the Highland region’s humanitarian aid centre. Jane Barlow, Press Association award-winning photographer, captured the arresting sight of our theatre with not bums but bags on seats, in images that were shared in print and online press across the UK media. Every week, more than 1000 food parcels were sorted and packed on the stage, then stored on seats in our theatre auditorium, ready for pick up and delivery to those in need.
Empire Theatre, July 2020 (IMAGE: Jane Barlow)
The melodious sound of Mozart’s Don Giovanni soared across our grounds in September, as Scottish Opera’s outdoor, socially-distanced pop-up roadshow visited for one sunny Autumn weekend. This reminder of the raw, emotive power of live performance made our decision to announce the cancellation of Eden Court’s 2020 Panto all the more heartbreaking. However, some good news was just around the corner: we were able to crank up the cinema projectors and partially reopen our building in October.
With a slick new look café bar designed for maximum COVID safety and socially-distanced cinema, both staff and audiences were entering entirely new terrain returning to Eden Court. The cinematic riches of November’s Inverness Film Festival reminded us what we had been missing all these months. Despite being a muted affair this year, there was a palpable sense of relief amongst film-goers: the shared experience of cinema is like nothing else and we were all relieved to bring it back.
Frances McDormand in Nomadland (Closing film of the 18th Inverness Film Festival, November 2020)
Eden Court’s restlessly inventive Engagement Team was also able to restart their vital youth work on the CashBack Highlands programme. CashBack Highlands is part of a Scottish Government initiative that takes money seized from criminals and invests it in young people. Our Engagement Team work to provide long-term support, enabling young people to create work; from film, scripts and music videos to public art events.
As the building breathed into life, piece-by-piece, it was a joy to welcome the Eden Court community back - in person. It was also bittersweet to feel winter draw in; a time of year synonymous for us with one thing above all else. Our decades-old pantomime brings thousands through our doors, keeps our building bustling with a joyful atmosphere throughout the season and enables us to support the full range of artistic output we programme for the rest of the year.
This year, in the absence of dames, dancers, princes and pratfalls, we wanted to do what we could to spread some festive joy. We commissioned Inverness-born leading Theatre Designer Kenneth MacLeod to come up with a Christmas tree inspired by our building’s ‘three generations’ architecture and acknowledging the hardships and loss we’ve experienced in 2020. Kenneth developed a beautiful design for a Norwegian spruce; both a celebration and a remembrance open to all to reflect upon in our front lawn. Our very own Graeme Roger (an award-winning visual artist) brought the Bishop’s Palace to life with a panto-themed series of site-specific film projections. The Engagement Team pulled a Christmas Cracker out the bag, broadcasting live to no less than 485 Highland classrooms across 11 outrageously fun shows. And to top it all off, we enlisted panto stars Steven Wren, Ross Allan and Claire Darcy to search for the Spirit of Panto in a short film paying homage to our absent Christmas extravaganza.
2020 took us all by surprise - a truly exceptional year in our organisation’s history, full of unpredictable obstacles and entirely new challenges. With the sudden announcement in December that all of mainland Scotland was moving to level 4, we have closed the building for the second time this year, and look ahead to an uncertain future. But closing does not mean that Eden Court Highlands ceases to function. What 2020 impressed upon all of us who work here is that we are so much more than a venue. We belong to the vast community that we serve here in the Highlands. Whatever 2021 throws at us, we will be here for you: sharing the arts and bringing people together.
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