Jen Raith

Stage Manager – 9 to 5 Musical – The Savoy Theatre, London

I’m at my Mum’s. It was the safest option. We’ve been up here since the week the theatres closed, around three days before the lockdown. I think for a lot of folk – especially those with family – they’ve gained time that they wouldn’t normally have had. Mum’s a nurse and she works part time at the hospital still so she’s been worried about patient contact but she’s been nowhere near Covid patients because the hospital where she works is really well organised.

I went back to work when my daughter was ten weeks old. They managed to put me back in part time which was ideal. It’s the future of things I think as well. Before this all kicked off, the management were talking to me about future projects and being part time – letting somebody else start it and go through tech then coming in afterwards, even as an Assistant Stage Manager (I wouldn’t have minded) – before she (Phoebe) goes to preschool anyway. There are a lot of employers who can’t see how it can work especially as a stage manager but thankfully the team were very willing to do it help out to get us back. Matt Cullum (general manager, ATG) being a parent himself wanted to be an advocate of the job share. That approach was gaining traction and I was enjoying going part time and working out how to do it with Phoebe. That’s all been quashed now though! It’s just too uncertain and it’s not just worth the headache on top of trying to bring up a little one.

It’s been lovely being a full time Mum. I’m not going to complain. She’s a lovely baby – so chilled out. Because we’re not at any toddler groups or anything I have been putting on programs from the BBC so she can see the other babies. You know this: dealing with a baby is a lot easier than dealing with actors that is for sure.

We’re lucky because Martin’s a doer. He was with FOYS up at Harry Potter on the Monday when we were sent home and by Wednesday evening he had a new job. He ended up working for DPD doing overnight shifts for about three months. It sent him loopy but he just had to find work. He’s just been picking up odds and sods like everyone else at the moment just to keep money coming in so he just stayed in London and we haven’t seen him for four months. Four months in a baby’s life is big you know. She was seven months when she left and now she’s nearly a year old. We video call every day but you can’t get a sense of what she’s like now physically. We’re going back down south on Thursday and he’s going to see a huge change in her – all these steps that she’s taken since she’s been up here you know, crawling, all these words and she’s starting to toddle now. It was the most sensible thing to do though.

Nicola Sturgeon has been playing it sensibly safe and we’ve felt very secure up here. I think it would have been a very different story staying down south with Martin going to work every day during the spike, not knowing who he’s meeting. I’d be very different person. We’re still wearing our masks and gloves but I think I would be more neurotic about it if I’d been at home in London.

We’d gone in to work and had set up the show on the Monday and we were going about our business as normal. It was odd because we were all getting information on the news but we didn’t really realise the extent of it I don’t think. They had been saying it was a bit like SARS and it’s one of those things that will just disappear and then it was ramping up and getting more serious in Italy. There had been word that London might lock down but again there was nothing one the news, nothing from the government to say this was about to happen. We were getting word throughout the afternoon that folk were being told not to go in to work. Cameron Mackintosh shut Hamilton in the afternoon and Nica Burns followed suit. Harry Potter was another one – Sonia Friedman had Pulled theatres on Broadway the week before so she was prepared.

At five o’clock, Sarah (Whalley, Company manager) came down and said “Matt’s on his way down. I think we’re about to get some news”. We then knew what that meant but the cast were thinking “Oh my god we’re shutting early!” because usually when the general manager comes to make an announcement that’s what it is. When he arrived he talked for about ten minutes, explaining the discussions that had been going on during the day with producers and Westminster. Matt told us that due to circumstances we couldn’t let audiences in and they wanted to make sure that we were safe. At that point he didn’t have any more information – not even about the rest of the week – and he said they would be in touch.

Within the hour, the iron had dropped and everybody went outside and headed to the pub. We only went for a couple because all of a sudden there was this reality hit that it was actually getting serious because we’d watched it all on the news and we knew there was a severity to this but we didn’t know how severe. Sitting with us all talking over that pint, it suddenly drummed it home that it was bigger than we had all expected. I had all the ASMs with me and they were all asking what I thought was going to happen. My opinion at that point (and it turned out to be correct) was that I could imagine the producers being quite frightened because they’d not been told by the government to shut down and they wouldn’t know where the or not the insurances would cover them. I did say at this point I thought it would be a couple of months. The fear suddenly set in. We all had the same question: what’s going to happen next?

We kept in touch over the coming days. I went in on the Wednesday to do a tidy up of batteries and make it safe but there were minimal folk in. And coming in from Beckenham – well, you know what it’s like in the centre of London at six in the morning on a Sunday: it’s dead. Well that’s what it was like in the middle of the week at ten o’clock on a Wednesday. It was bizarre – like 28 days later. I had to walk over Waterloo bridge that day and it was deserted. Really odd. There was nobody on the train, nobody on the tube. That was my weird moment in all of this. It was abandonment, like everybody had just jumped away. I was away by one o’clock in the afternoon. I said goodbye to everybody and then just had to go with the flow.

I don’t reckon I will go back to doing what I did before. Not right now. I don’t want the uncertainty as a freelancer. I’ve always felt lucky doing what I do – I’ve had no gaps: I’ve always gone from job to job and I’ve met some amazing people – but the kind of things we can deal with on our own without family involved I can’t deal with any more with my daughter. I just need to have a break with all of this going on. In a weird way it’s come at a good time in her life: she’s a baby, we’re not having to worry about schools and things. It’s given us time to spend together and get through some of these milestones so in a very strange way, the universe has worked in our favour because we can take a break and take a step back and use this time for family. And that’s the way it should be.

It’s an odd situation that none of us will ever ever be in again. It’s going to be so hard to explain to people. Not even in World War II did all the theatres shut down. That’s bonkers. And we’re not the only industry that’s been affected but we’re so lucky that as a community in theatre we band together so well. Look at what we’ve managed to do: we’ve made it onto the news, the unions have been on. There are thousands of people in the UK who don’t have that camaraderie so we’re very lucky to have each other.

With any luck the theatre world will come back bigger and stronger because we’ve now got the opportunity to start from the ground up again and I’d rather come back into an industry at a level where everybody’s comfortable and you’re not fighting for the jobs. My CV’s not going anywhere. I’ll just take everybody for pints. Thanks how my career started: by taking everybody for a pint so I’ll just carry on doing that again!

Howard Harrison

Lighting Designer – Blithe Spirit, Duke of York’s Theatre, London

We had opened Blithe Spirit the week before so I was actually at The Garrick working on City of Angels but bizarrely I had just been for a meeting earlier in the day at the Duke of York’s on the Monday we were all sent home. Believe or or not, the two theatres are actually connected: you can actually get from one to the other if you go up to the top floor. At one point they were sister theatres and used to share a stage door. We had done Blithe Spirit this time last year in Bath and it then got mothballed until January when it went out on tour in an adapted version. Then of course it came into town at exactly the same time we were supposed to be at the Garrick doing City of Angels so I spent less time there than I would have liked to because the other show was very demanding but I had very good associates and it all went very smoothly. I kept turning up at breaks and everybody said “What are you doing here?” so I just came back to the Garrick. For me it was a weird thing having two shows going on back to back at the same time. Two such different shows – two completely different teams with different atmospheres – it was kind of extraordinary.

The week before, you just knew something was about to happen but it was interesting to see how everyone reacted to it that day: the various factions and disagreements about whether we should perform. We were having a conversation about it and trying to decide what to do but then the government broadcast came out and there was no decision to be made after all. If it was a play, the history of that day would have a rather anti-climatic ending!

I presume at the Duke of York’s they also didn’t play that night either. It was a very happy show, Blithe Spirit: It was a lovely company and it was a very pleasant experience – a very good production. The backstage image sums up Blithe Spirit to me because it was all very naturalistic so we wanted to hide the lights from view. Jennifer [Saunders] was a very good company leader and she was incredibly good in the show – as was everyone -so it was terribly sad that it turned out to be such a short run. It was only due to be there for eight weeks or so and it was sod’s law that it was doing incredibly well. I presume the set’s still sitting there. 

Who knows, maybe it will come back again. It was supposed to close in May and there were another two shows backed up going in there. Absolutely choc-a-block. I don’t know what’s happened to those shows – whether they will reappear. That’s the thing: we just don’t know. There’s a big question mark hanging over all of us. Weird times indeed and one day we’ll probably all go “Where were you when…?’. 

Looking at the image from the circle, it makes me think that someone is about to take the iron out and it’s all going to be fine and everyone’s going to be on stage and we’re back to normal. I think we’d all hope that when we go back, we’d want to return to an enlightened version of where we were. I think there are a lot of things about the world that will need to change. I think the lockdown and the virus has pointed out to us that the way the world works is not great and we could do with being aware of this and starting again. However I think in the Theatre everything was going pretty well. It was pretty healthy, everyone was going to the Theatre: it was good, So I think in the meantime it would be great to think we’d go back to the way things were but maybe we never will so who knows?

Obviously it was terribly sad with City of Angels because it was a great show and we’d all been working extremely hard on it. We’d got so far and to get that close to the finishing line was desperately unfair. We were shut down on the Monday and we were supposed to open on the following Tuesday so we were eight shows away from opening. I think there’s something quite poetic about that. People will say “You did the show that never opened.” It will become the stuff of legends.

Andy Evans

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

Richard Darbourne

Producer, Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG Productions)

16th March is a day we’ll never forget at ATG Productions. In terms of any shut-down then at that point we thought we might be able to see the week out and if it came we weren’t thinking months at that point. More like weeks. At the time though, I remember feeling a sense of ‘you don’t know anything except the day you’re in’.

On the day, we knew there was a speech coming around 5:15pm. The whole industry; actors, crews, producers and venue owners all heard the same news in real time as it was said theatres, ’should’ close immediately. In the follow up questions a journalist said something along the lines of “are you telling them to shut?” and the response was that they obviously have the powers to do that but they suspect theatres will make their own decisions. When those words were said I caught the eye of Exec Producer Adam Speers and we all just collectively drew breath. We knew there and then that there was nothing definitive but we had to make a decision. 

It was around half past five – so we had to get moving. The only thing we could say definitively was “the performance tonight is off”. Not tomorrow night, the next night (or the next few months) but just “tonight”.

We had four shows running in London, two had already closed in the US and another on tour. We were all very deeply connected to the people in all of them but we couldn’t all be in all places so the three Producers in our team and our General Manager  had to split up and go alone to the ones we could. I went to Pretty Woman at the Piccadilly where the cast and crew had been gathered. I was struck by the calm grace with which the company took the news. All the cast just gathered together on stage in a very un-socially distanced group hug and just said “We’ll be OK. We’ll get through this” and that was it. There was a lot of love around. They just took the statement and off they went.

I then went round to the Front of House where the audience were starting to come in. The box office learned the news and had started to turn patrons away at the door. One lady just said “Oh no that’s a shame – is the bar still open?” As it happened it was so a lot of people just went up to the bar!

The four of us arrived back at the office and rejoined the team. Some of our co-producers were around and there was a small gathering of other people who didn’t know where to go so they all came to our office and we ordered pizza and had a few beers. Thinking about it, there were people there who we later learned had Covid at the time. That was the last time we physically saw all of our team of eleven in person. ATG’s CEO emailed saying we were all going to work from home from that moment on so having just closed the shows, we had to clear out of the office. It felt weighty and dare I say it: ‘unprecedented’.

As a community of practitioners we are much better at action than inaction. That’s what’s hard about this particular scenario: we’re having to go against all our natural instincts which are telling us to go out there and just make it work. Anyone who thrives in the [Theatre] industry does so because they are a positive problem-solver. If we have one common thing amongst us it’s that.

In terms of going forward, I think about our audiences and how we can welcome them back. It sounds obvious but it’s about them and not us. Audiences need to feel they have been looked after and valued and that they have had a really really good time. If you get that right – not just with the content but the experience as a whole – then it’s healthy. That needs to be at the heart of how we embrace the ‘new normal’.

Sarah Myott-Meadows

Associate Director – Blithe Spirit – Duke of York’s Theatre, London

I was associate director on ‘Blithe Spirit’ during its initial run at the Theatre Royal Bath and its subsequent tour and west end transfer. I was responsible for running rehearsals with Richard Eyre and rehearsing the understudies in. The show has some mildly technical elements such flying and a intricately timed final sequence including some magic tricks, so perfecting this was also a part of my role. Once the show was up, my daily/weekly responsibilities involved show watches and notes with the main cast and weekly on-stage understudy rehearsals. I would also be there to support stage management or the main cast in any on-going technical issues or changes needed once the production was running and we understood its demands. I was also opening my own show ‘One Jewish boy’ at Trafalgar Studios, so was sharing my time between both productions in The West End. 

I remember two days before the theatres officially shut and I went to watch a matinee – with a predominantly older audience – of ONE JEWISH BOY at Trafalgar and felt very uncomfortable and was by that point willing the industry to make the decision itself, despite woolly government guidelines. I could feel things changing in that moment and knew how big this was going to be in the history of the theatre industry. 

I recall the day the theatre shut down. The directive came just as stage management were beginning to prepare for the show. I was not due to do a show watch at BLITHE SPIRIT and my assistant director attended ONE JEWISH BOY so I wasn’t in town but I remember being sent pictures from both casts and the entire West End descended on the local pubs for one last drink. 

The actors said they sat and drank with the cast of WAITRESS amongst others and there was a very strange, ‘last supper’ feel in the air while they all imagined what was to be faced ahead. I was at home with my then seven month old baby and was feeling the loss of my two west end shows that had just opened and there was also the fear of what was to come and questions of how we will survive this. 

I hope this provides us with a chance to rethink how we work and connect with new audiences properly: making theatres the civic spaces they should be and inspiring collaboration between buildings and freelancers on how to we make shows as we will have to make them differently now. I hope that shows considered a ‘risk’ will now be seen as the work that need to be put on. It is no coincidence that we are witnessing a civil rights movement at the same time as this pandemic. It is all entwined and theatres more than ever need to progressively reflect these changes. Society has changed and theatre must be a leader for society.