I was but one of the many actors who keenly felt the closure of the theatres on the 16 March 2020.
I was in the West End for the first time in my twenty three year career. I was only an understudy and I was not otherwise involved in the production. I had no bit part. I had no stage time. But every night I went to the theatre and went to my dressing room and I waited. Like so many actors do – the audience never sparing a thought for the hordes of actors waiting around backstage for that one chance to be on stage. It’s a thankless job and at times could be soul destroying.
But in reality these opportunities come so infrequently for most actors that, for me, it was still a joy. I loved being in the place that I had dreamt about when I studied. I was in a proper West End theatre and my name was on a dressing room door. And if I managed to get on stage it would be a lead role. The atmosphere of the West End, the beauty of Covent Garden at night, all of it I soaked up, knowing that this moment in time was ephemeral. Hard to come by. Easy to go.
And that was before the reality of Coronavirus sank in for many of us.
On Monday 16th March I got the call. You’re on tonight. In hindsight, I see that the main cast of star performers probably had inside intel that the theatres were going to be closed that night but I had no clue. I spent the afternoon on stage at the theatre walking through my part, butterflies in my stomach, excitement racing through me. We got into costume. I had some makeup to do, I nervously ran lines with my understudy partner and then at about 7:10pm we were all called to the stage. And I looked around at everyone as it was announced that the theatre was closing with immediate effect. Bemusement, worried silence, fear, passed through so many faces. An invisible disease was taking away my dream. I couldn’t fight it. It was absurd, surreal. I felt like I was caught in a loop of a Samuel Beckett End Game.
We went onto the empty West End streets too early, we said goodbye too early, the little family you built up, like we always build up, scuttles away and the moment is gone and you are standing, kicked out of your theatre home, in a weird way homeless again, and your best friend who came to see your debut gives you a hug and asks you: WHAT NOW? And you shake your head, I don’t know. I don’t know.
And then we move to October and the UK has not faired well and I sense apathy in the air and the quiet normalising of 40,000 + lives lost. The numbers rising again. Live lost that perhaps could have been here still, if the government had acted to shut down everything sooner. It shakes me to the core that so many lives have been cut short. AND IT IS ALREADY NORMALISED to such a degree that we are on the brink of a possible second wave as we take this moment to open theatres again.
I watched on Twitter as a person called out a theatre, wondering if their theatre was completely safe and social distanced, being eviscerated by the producer of the show he went to see. The tone of their tweets were along the lines of: HOW DARE YOU QUESTION US. YOU SHOULD BE CELEBRATING THE RETURN OF THEATRE AND NOT CRITICISING US!!!
And I have to wonder, as someone whose bread and butter has come from theatre all my working life: why is the institute of ‘theatre’ seen as more important than a human life? It’s not more important, is the only answer. So why are we desperately trying to fill seats now when we know the virus, at the moment of writing this, is dangerously out of control? It’s the same mentality as THE SHOW MUST GO ON, which I find sickening and I want to vomit in the faces of people who use it so glibly. Somehow we have made this a commonplace theatrical adage – a badge of honour. I call bullshit.
If you are sick, if you are having a panic attack, if someone has died, your job as an actor is to look after yourself and NOT PERFORM. It does make me wonder how many of the actors in the shows on now feel truly safe or are they subverting their safety, staying silent, so that THE SHOW CAN GO ON? We have made such a masochistic virtue of this in this already sadomasochistic industry it disgusts me. We feel such guilt when our personal lives encroach on our ‘duty’ to perform and actors especially know that someone is just aching to take their place, so much so that we hold on, when we should let go.
And this self care should also extend to an audience member’s right to ask, to comment, on any forum, if the measures in place in a theatre are truly safe against Covid-19. I will not celebrate the opening of theatre again until I know for certain that no one is going to die because of it. The back lash on this Twitter feed was quite astounding.
Do you really feel so entitled to the institute of theatre that you would rather people died so that this economic, human-created business can survive? Or make it an even more elitist sport by shrugging your shoulders and declaring that anyone who doesn’t feel safe is quite welcome to never set foot in your theatre again? Isn’t this the same logic a gun toting fanatic uses in the USA when they argue that their right to own a gun is more important than the lives that may be killed by said gun? Your ‘right’ to theatre is not more important than human life. Never. Never. Ever. But just shut up and celebrate, yeah?
Let me be very clear. I want theatres to survive. Desperately. I love theatre when I can afford to go to it. But I know and you know they always will survive. I seriously do not think that theatre will ever die. It’s far too precious, it’s fan base is fanatical and theatres are well supported when they can be. Yes, now, things are precarious, but they have been the entire year. So what has changed? The one change I see on the landscape is a lot of hard work by theatres to make their spaces safe and I applaud that but not one of those theatres can absolutely guarantee that no one will get the disease in their venue. And really if we don’t understand that the Tory government has always viewed the arts with suspicion with their lack of funding and their lack of support for arts subjects in schools – they are only helping us now because they have to – they will gladly shut theatres for years if we are seen as potential covid spreading hotspots. We are heading into winter. We are heading in the wrong direction of the disease and NOW, NOW, is the time to celebrate the opening of theatres? I approach the answer to that question with caution.
What I do know is that I am incensed at being told to shut up and celebrate while the Titanic sinks into some covid-catastrophy. I won’t shut up, thanks. I am so tired of having my thoughts dictated to by very scared people who are trying to save their jobs – AND UNDERSTANDABLY SO – when I am scared too. I lost my livelihood too. We all did. It’s economic fallout for us all. But one human life holds far more value to me than any job, any institution, no matter how precious it is to me personally or to our tribe. It’s like we are trying to hold on to ‘normal’ where ‘normal’ left the building back in March.
I will always, though, fight for my right and other people’s right to question before we celebrate. If we are not allowed to question, where are we?
I look forward to that celebration. I ache for it.