Merlin O-Brien

Head of Sound – 9to5 Musical, the Savoy Theatre, London

Merlin O-Brien – Sound Engineer – 9 to 5 Musical, Savoy theatre, London

“I was halfway through eating my reheated pasta when the call went out backstage for everyone from all departments to go down to the stage immediately. There are very few occasions when the whole company is asked to assemble on stage, and it’s not normally to celebrate. Having previously worked on shows that have received their closing notice after weeks of speculation and gossip, this felt strangely familiar. The only difference being we weren’t given six months, three months, or even two weeks. 

It felt incredibly sad to be told that we needed to pack up our things and head home, but it felt absolutely necessary in the wider context of what was happening. Although the news was upsetting, shocking, there were practicalities to be dealt with. We collected the radio mics that had already been dished out to dressing rooms and put batteries back on charge. We powered down the sound desk, the amps, the LED wall and the video racks. We even finished our dinner in the dressing room, and I shared a cheeky beer I found in the fridge with my deputy, Tom. We then did what anyone would do when anything vaguely stressful, sad, or indeed happy happens: we went to the pub. 

For me, there was a feeling of relief when we were told that the show wouldn’t be going ahead that night. In the weeks leading up to the closure, as we watched what was happening around the world as countries began to shut down, the anxiety over what would happen to us began to grow. We talked about the show closing for a short period of time no longer as an ‘if’ but a ‘when’. It seemed strange to watch daily briefings from the government, waiting for an update on the future of mass gatherings and it sought to intensify the seriousness of the matter that we were dealing with. BBC News doesn’t normally mention a musical about to receive its closing notice. 

Over the last few shows at the Savoy I had started saying – half jokingly – that I was mixing that night’s show thinking that it might be my last. I mixed the evening show on the 14th with this in mind.

I mixed the final playout a little louder than I would normally, as it might have been the last time so I wanted to enjoy it and sadly it did turn out to be the last time I would ever mix the show. Afterwards I looked up to the MD monitor to see Andrew saying his goodbyes to the musicians in the pit and the full sadness of the situation hit me. Standing at the back of an auditorium of 1200 people seemed like the wrong thing to be doing at the time, but it didn’t make it any easier to accept that we wouldn’t be back doing it for a very long time. 

Aside from the obvious negative impacts that are currently happening, I hope that we see some positive changes further down the line. Sound departments are often thinly staffed and are left unable to self cover any sick leave days, relying on a pool of freelancers being available to come in and cover. At a time when people’s health has been pushed to the forefront of our minds, I am hoping that this forces a conversation about how we could staff our departments more effectively, and change some of the working conditions that we have become accustomed to. I hope that in a time of enforced rules and rigidity, theatre comes out the other side as a more flexible, adaptable industry. 

I have no doubt that we will find a new, safer way of returning to work. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking how a quick-change backstage – often involving wardrobe, wigs and sound – will be able to happen under the current restrictions. The nature of our jobs backstage is the complete antithesis of how we are being told we need to live our lives currently. We will need to find new ways of working and we will need to change and adapt and be willing to do so. This is an opportunity to think creatively about how to achieve what is so engrained in us and not a time to be digging our heels in because ‘we always did it this way’. We might not be able to fit radio mics the way we would like to, but we have the best and brightest minds in the industry ready to come up with new methods, and maybe within time these will become the new norm.

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