Where are they now? Jen Raith, Stage Manager

With one month to go until the anniversary of the closure of theatres at the start of the pandemic, we are getting in touch with some of the cast and crew featured in the book to see where they are now.

First up, we talk to:

Jen Raith, Stage Manager

I am working in Tescos now […] you have to make sure only one person from a household comes into the shop, make sure they’re definitely wearing a mask […] I can’t begin to tell you the abuse I have had from customers. It’s disgusting. Some of the general public can’t be trusted and we’re on our third lockdown because of it.

There’s been so much that’s happened since we last spoke in June. I’m working at Tesco’s now.  We were in Scotland and stayed there until the end of July purely because of the lockdown rules there: we couldn’t leave. Martin had been at home working night shifts just to keep the pennies coming in. He was on a temporary contract and that was coming to an end so the purpose of me coming back was trying to get things back to normal-ish. I figured I could try and find some work and we could split shifts and take care of childcare between us. So when things started to relax at the end of July – it was exactly four months since we arrived – we headed back down. Phoebe was 7 months when we went to Scotland and 11 months when we came back so that’s a long time: a big growing process for a baby so Martin did miss out on all of that but for me and my Mum it was time we never would have had so there was a huge silver lining through all of this. We had to remain as positive as we could.

Since then, things have had to changed so dramatically for us: we’ve had to move to Bristol: we couldn’t afford London any more. Not with two incomes from theatre. Martin was relying on pirate crew jobs when things started to move again in the industry but it still wasn’t enough for London. We were eating in to our savings – as most folk were – so the ball started rolling at the start of August and we then moved at the end of October. We chose Bristol to get closer to family and so we could rely more on them for childcare.

We didn’t know if there was any work going to be coming in. I applied for Tesco’s before I even left London. The week before we moved I got a call from the big Tesco Extra down the road and they had me on a seasonal contract until Christmas and now they have just put me on as permanent staff, which is perfect. With everything building up to moving there’s been lots of positives – even Christmas – we were going to have Martin’s folks up but when we know we were going into another lockdown we thought it’s fine – it’s just a day, a weekend. We’ll just do it next year when we can. So none of that has been upsetting and we thankfully had each other: myself, Martin and Phoebe.

I have to admit though it’s the last month that has really got to me….oh dear…I’m going to get upset. It’s just been hard. You see they have this person in Tesco’s called a ‘door greeter’. You’re standing at the front door saying hi to everyone who comes in but since the new guidelines you have to make sure only one person from a household comes into the shop, make sure they’re definitely wearing your mask, so you’re like the fun police. I am happy to talk to people and have a friendly chat but I can’t begin to tell you the abuse I have had from customers. It’s disgusting. Some of the general public can’t be trusted and we’re on our third lockdown because of it. My employers have been brilliant – the management are so supportive and you’re PPE’d up to the hilt – I’ve got a mask, a shield, gloves. They’re constantly putting you on breaks so you can wash your hands. It’s mainly – weirdly – the elderly who give us trouble, would you believe it? It’s the cantankerous old men who say it is just a guideline and not law. I’m there thinking “We’re doing this for your sake! I’m standing here on minimum wage and it’s not me who has made up the guidelines”. Of course I’m an employee so it’s not worth losing my job over. You know we’ve all had to adapt and change because of this and we’re now in this position where we have no [theatre] industry because we can’t trust the general public. It’s shocking. Sorry.

I’ve been able to share some of my frustration with colleagues – a lot of them are now friends. There are all walks of life working there now: there’s even a guy who worked for British Airways who’s got no industry either so everybody’s got a story through all of this. Some of them have been there 17 years and some of them have been there 7 months. You can at least laugh with these people. When I get home, that’s when I get properly angry and upset. My whole world has been turned upside down: we’ve moved cities and every step of the way we’ve remained positive and said OK we’ll need to adapt – which is what we do in theatre – we adapt, we change, we move on – and then you see this happen and you ask why? We’re frantically trying to vaccinate the elderly and roll it out before another variant comes along and I’m trying to stop watching the news so much but and when you’re missing an Industry….it’s just hard to see people act like that.  I mean I’m sitting here getting upset because I’m talking about it now but actually Martin is on good form, Phoebe is doing well and on a daily basis we’re like a very well oiled machine. Thank goodness for Martin. He is so strong and all I need to do is come home and vent at him for five minutes and then I’m done. I’m usually Mrs positivity: I always think there’s some sort of silver lining – and that comes from my mum and my sister, Pamela, my God, she’s high on life but even she has had her moments and that’s not her.

Also, the government haven’t been hard enough. Even Priti Patel admitted that we should have shut the borders last year and I thought ‘How dare you? You’re supposed to be the person in charge of this. I feel like they all just need to bloody resign and we need to start afresh with a new team because it’s in such a tangle now.

It must be hard for parents who are homeschooling and there are children who still don’t have laptops. We are year on from this and these promises from the government still haven’t happened. We’ve got Phoebe in nursery now: she’s doing two days a week. We were um-ing and ah-ing about it but it came recommended and they are amazing with all the covid rules. She’s had no baby groups and no interaction with other babies up until now and she loves it. Now I can say to Tesco’s I can definitely do two mornings a week. Without sounding selfish, it is a bit of a sanity in itself – you’ve got 8 hours a week that provides a bit of routine to keep to. We are creatures of habit in theatre anyway: we like a bit of routine. Martin and I never get a day off together now though so I just hoover.

My mum’s had her vaccine. She got it at the start of January. She’s actually about to retire – that was always going to happen. March was going to be her date for retirement. She was stuck in Scotland on her own for Christmas and they were properly locked down but she didn’t bother with it really. She just had a little dinner on her own. But poor thing she’s been on her own up there and it’s been snowing and icy. She does have support in the village where she lives but where in the summer they could go and sit in each other’s gardens, in the winter all they can do is wave through the window. But thank goodness for technology we can show her Phoebe growing up as well. Before now it would have just been phone calls – or even letters.

We’ve not seen much of our local area at all because we’ve been in lockdown since we got here. You are get stuck indoors most of the time with this. We literally have a triangle of Martin’s work, which is about 8 miles away, the nursery and Tesco’s. I’ll drive out and drop him and Phoebe off then go to work. We’ve got a little playpark nearby and we’ve got to know the neighbours from afar: we said hi over Christmas but we’ve not seen much. If the weather is decent you have to try and get out and about because otherwise you’d just go mad wouldn’t you. 

Around the time we were moving I ended up speaking to a cast members from shows gone by and they were all anxious, working for delivery companies like Amazon and that sort of thing and my advice to them was if you can get back to your parents do it. There’s no shame right now. At least you’re not on your own. I mean, I did it: I went back up to my mums and I’m almost 40 for God’ sake. I mean it’s your parents that’s what we do as families. You’re still their baby at the end of the day. 

It’s good to have a plan. I think I will come back to theatre eventually but right now with Phoebe I just don’t want to yet. I don’t feel like I can give 60 hours a week to a Theatre. At this stage I’d much prefer to have family time and use this as the excuse for taking that time: to get Phoebe into school and then start thinking about it again. Weirdly it’s like the universe and our little universe aligned nicely. But that’s not to stop us from dipping in to theatre here and there if we were able to do something part time. We’ve got theatres just down the road. We’re also just down the road from a clothing company that was started by two of the cast of 9 to 5 so I could ask them if there’s a possibility of working with them. We were in a good place with friends and colleagues when it all shut down so here’s hoping that in 3 or 4 years we can go back. We’re not a million miles away from London either. 

Hats off to everybody who gets involved and these shows that get up and running. They’ve got nerves of steel I don’t have the nerve for it right now. I’ve got my strength in my family and my little bubble but I’m rooting for everyone from the sidelines. If we can get back up and running that’s superb and I am on everybody’s side. I know we’re in this for the long haul and I do believe we can adapt but we just need to pull our socks up a bit – the general public and the government too.

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