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.

Natalie McQueen

Performer – 9to5 Musical, the Savoy Theatre, London

“We were actually on stage warming up for the show the evening the Theatres closed. We all knew something was happening so a few people had their phones and were watching the news of other shows and theatres announcing they wouldn’t be performing that evening. As we finished warm up we were told the news. 

We kind of new it would happen at some point. For me personally and a few others in the cast, we were due to finish our contracts around 2 weeks later so there was a real gutting feeling knowing we may never perform 9 to 5 again. We had no idea at the time how long it would be but I had a feeling I wouldn’t finish up my run as Doralee. Unfortunately that did happen – for all of the cast sadly.

It’s the weirdest feeling knowing that a whole part of my life exists in a space I haven’t seen in months. Also, that room was ready for a show that evening. There’s probably lash glue on a lash ready to go for that night. Going back to collect everything will be a really surreal moment I’m sure.

Would I go back to the Theatre right now? It’s a tough one because, obviously people want to return to theatres to be entertained and I’m sure social distance seating is a real possibility but the fact is, that side may be a lot simpler than what would be able to happen on stage. On and off stage we are in such close contact. I of course miss theatre but safety is the most important thing here. 

I truly cannot wait to get back into the audition room and back onto a stage. Once I’ve cleared up my savoy dressing room first of course haha!”

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.

Andreas Ayling

Production Manager – Kunene and the King, The Ambassador’s Theatre, London

“I just remember watching Boris when he first said that immortal phrase along the lines of “don’t go to the Theatre but we’re not going to tell them to close.” My phone went off – it was my colleague from The Ambassador’s – and we just had a very nothing conversation were we just said “What are we doing to do?. 

That day, both Anthony [Sher] and John [Kani] were going to be off anyhow and as bizarre as it felt we just said “we’ll just close the show”. We only had two weeks of the run left and both Tony and John were in the high risk category so it just seemed the most pragmatic decision. There could have been some ground to do it with the understudies but the show was selling on Tony and John who had also written the play. Such a-beautiful and poignant piece, especially considering the Black Lives Matters protests and the way in which people of colour are seen.

Once we knew the show was closing it was a question of whether we could get staff in to buildings and we had to find out what the deal was with all the hire companies. One said “we have no space because everything is closing so you can keep it if you want” whereas another supplier said that until Boris declared an actual lockdown they were going to potentially keep charging for the equipment rental. The Theatre said we could leave everything there but there was a question of insurance.

We went for the option of the full get0out but we had to be done by 6pm because there was rumour that the lockdown was coming. During the get-out everyone was very much already sticking to trying not to shake hands or hug. It was bizarre: there were a lot of us who over such a short period of time had become close so it was weird when we saw each other not to hug or anything like that. We had all said that when we did the get-out I’d take them for a beer to say thank you for everything but when we finished it was like “well we can’t do that so see you at some point then. All the best!”. 

Obviously it was heartbreaking that the show was going to close early because it was a show that everyone loved and a wonderful show to be part of but it was the human side of things when you can’t properly thank someone like you would normally that really hit me afterwards. You know what they say: You don’t do theatre for the money you do it for the love and that’s true. I can’t imagine the next time I see my colleagues that I can’t give them a hug. 

We don’t even know when that will be.

I decided I would go and stay with my mum because she’s on her own. It’s great that people are able to spend more time together – families – but equally sometimes you just want to be on your own.  Luckily Troubadour had put me on a Contract so I’m on furlough and have an income so really all I have been doing is baking, daily walks and far too many Health and Safety courses that I never thought I’d be doing including new WHO ones and COVID ones. Just doing things to stop me from watching Disney or Netflix all day.

When we go back I would like to see the Theatres made more accessible in terms of both the spaces and ticket prices. On a bigger scale there are certain companies that will have to look carefully at ticket prices. For a family of 4 to go and see a new musical, it can cost £400-500. I completely understand why ticket prices have risen to where they are but it’s slightly worrying when you think that 15 years ago, a top price seat was £60 whereas now it’s upwards of £120 so it would be nice to see Theatre mad a bit more accessible to everyone. Broadcasts and NT live shows allow more people to see shows from one aspect so there needs to be a bit more of that and generally a bit more care given to the theatres themselves. The Ambassador’s is one of the most inaccessible in the West End: there’s no lift, there are stairs everywhere and the seats aren’t that nice so it needs a bit of love. Brighton Theatre Royal is a favourite and it’s got such a lovely history but if it wasn’t for the staff I don’t think anyone would tour there because it’s becoming harder and harder to get a show in that wont bring the grid down! With how things are going at the moment I think refurbishing and ticket prices are the last things that are going to change.”