Head of Sound – Kunene and the King, Ambassador’s Theatre, London
I’m back at home in Llanelli, South Wales with my parents and I’m relaxing into it for now. I did have to leave the London flat: I was one day away from signing a new tenancy agreement. I had already had my next work contract but had started to feel like the coronavirus was gaining ground and was going to impact us sooner than we thought. I phoned Regents Park and asked if they thought the season was going to go ahead. It was a nervous answer understandably. A friend and I had decided to treat ourselves and get a really nice flat for once and live a little ‘high’ life for a while. I mean why not after sixteen years working and living in run of the mill London accommodation. But without a guarantee that the season would go ahead I couldn’t sign the agreement then risk around about 7 months of work being wiped out It was a lucky escape because the season was later cancelled. At the end of April I managed to get a six month contract working for the NHS at my local hospital. The contract takes me to the end of October. I was thinking I would finish in time for the Christmas season but that’s not looking great at the moment either unfortunately.
There was a murmur the week before [the theatres closed] among the company and it was starting to become something that they were beginning to be more concerned about. Our two main cast members were elderly actors from South Africa and with the rumour that there was going to be a lockdown, the company manger was worried about flights getting cancelled and them not being able to get back to their family and homes. They were also were really vulnerable to the virus too. On the Monday, everything was sort of as normal until about 6pm when the company manger came down and said that although she hadn’t heard anything officially, the front of house manager had come to speak to her because they had information that the whole of the West End was going to get shut down that night. Until she received something solid she couldn’t action that so she called us all to the stage to inform us of what she knew. Just before the doors were due to open, we were told that we were going to have to cancel the show. We were planning on coming in again the next day as normal but two hours later, once more information had started to come through, the producers stated that the rest of our run was to be cancelled. Ten minutes later the news came that every performance in the West End was not cancelled that evening and would likely not perform again anytime soon either.
There was a moment of reflection on stage and a weird silence for a little while as the scale of what was happening settled in then obviously we went straight to the pub, The Two Princes, for a pint. By the time we got there, the ‘City of Angels’ band were already there and then ‘The Mousetrap’ cast came in and our team from ‘Kunene’ were there too. That in itself was surreal: during audience walk-in time we were in a pub! Because the guys behind the bar knew who we all were (regular regulars), they let us pour our own pints for a while so that was really fun but felt like there was a bit of a storm over us. There were people visibly upset because the Mousetrap cast were really close to the end of their 6 month contract and the feeling was that was that. There were musicians with their guitars and keyboards and I think they knew immediately it wasn’t going to be just a week or two: it was going to be longer haul and they could maybe teach online. A lot of people were worried about their immediate future, financially especially. At this early stage there had been no support announcements (although a fair few of us have fallen through that support system now anyway) I could see it in their faces and their eyes – they wanted to go home and gather their thoughts. It’s a lot of information to take on board and process suddenly. You start thinking about the next 6 months straight away: what if there isn’t any work? Am I going to be financially OK? Are my kids going to be supported ? It was a very peculiar and overwhelming evening. We were together and talking and trying to offer advice and support for going forward in differing scenarios. I must have spoke to a dozen people that evening in depth about what had just happened. It was comforting that we were all in the same boat and could relate and respond to concerns. There was a feeling that London was going to be the first city into total lockdown and that you might not be able to travel so it felt like an Apocalypse: the invisible war…which is what it is really. At kicking out time it was really strange: the streets were just quiet and we knew that this was way more serious than we had thought. The place was usually littered with audience members pouring out and getting in the way of us reaching tube stations. That night there was nothing. Silence, an eerie silence. Like a ghost town.
I sometimes think about what the theatres are like inside without the people. How quickly does a theatre become uninhabitable? It’s only been three months but it’s going to be longer: nine months, maybe a be a year for some theatres so how much will it then cost to get it back to a state where you can use it again? The Ambassador’s is riddled with mice and they’re brave. I was putting someone’s mic on one day and the mouse just popped up and started eating the grapes on the table. They’ve gone from only coming out at night to wandering around in full light. They must be having a party right now. They don’t know what’s going on now.
When you think about a pandemic we are not classed as essential by the government. But it is essential to all of us who are working in the industry. I knew that, along with pubs and gyms, we would be the first to go and we’d be the last to be back. That was quite a worrying thought. Even more worrying is that we aren’t seeing anything for us on the news or from Boris [Johnson] about the Arts. I’ve not once heard anyone talking about the creative industries and what help can be given to them financially or when they might think large gatherings might be ok again. There have been no guidelines as to what social distancing measures will need to be in place so venues can start to judge whether it’s financially viable for them to do open nor any offers of support from the government in doing that. It’s more difficult to be optimistic when the people running your country aren’t giving you anything to hope for. When the furlough starts tapering…who knows what will happen? The deterioration of our optimism along with our theatres and performance venues? I’m determined that there will be a way. It may not be perfect but just something. We all love this industry and we’ve all been in it since an early age and for it to be in such jeopardy and to have nobody at the top really talking about it or talking about how they might support it…it’s heartbreaking. You think it cant happen: we’ll get bailed out but not at the moment. Theatres and venues are closing up and down the country already. This week producers have started to put redundancy packages together which means they will have to go through the whole process of re-hiring with interviews and auditions etc. [Cameron] Mackintosh this week are making decisions and putting hundreds of redundancy packages together and that means everything is in jeopardy – their mortgage, way of life, child care etc. That’s such a massive thing to happen in someone’s life. I do question yet slightly understand producers motives for staying closed and not wanting to adapt the venues for social distancing measures, especially the larger producers. It’s their job to look at numbers.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we work when we do go back. The main thing is that everybody feels safe when they go back: safe enough to do their jobs. Trying to adapt venues would cost a lot of money – money they really don’t have, especially considering how much has been lost of late too. There will need to be changes in seating; hand sanitiser everywhere; new rules for the toilets; more staff. But I also applaud innovation and motivation. As an industry we’re a really close-knit group and even though we might not see each other regularly, there are a lot of amazing brains and passionate people out there. I wouldn’t go back just yet though. It’s more to do with protecting vulnerable the people. There are a lot of people I care about – family and friends – who are vulnerable. Because we’re still in the midst of it, I wouldn’t want to be in an environment that could re-ignite infection. As much as I love this industry, everyone’s health is more important.
We’ll find a way: we still need to keep hoping and fighting and get our voices heard but I know a lot of my friends are having a really hard time at the moment. We may be past the peak but we’re still in mid-air and the uncertainty is what is causing the anxiety and that’s not going to go away. I just hope that those people have had the right support through this. I also hope that people that struggle with their mental health are doing as good as they can be. I often suffer from anxiety, and I’ve had some really tough days, this time more than ever can induce a lot of worry and anxiety and I hope everyone’s head space is keeping as healthy as can be through this turbulent time.
We just seem to be unimportant to the government. What do we do? Do we protest? We need to use the biggest voices in our Industry: the Dame Judy Dench figures of this world*, like Marcus Rashford did: he managed to overturn a government policy within 24 hours. We need to stand together and try to use the voices among us whether it’s as a collective or as individuals. This is has rocked our industry to the core. The pandemic and the now lack of support after it. It needs attention soon.
*Dame Judi Dench has since spoken out expressing her deep concern for the situation