Over the past few days, my timeline appears to be flooded with people in our industry genuinely struggling and feeling afraid for their future. The human cost of COVID is heartbreaking, the emotional cost of the pandemic though would have changed the lives of millions forever.
In many ways COVID was the great equaliser, regardless of our careers to date in the industry this microscopic germ floored us all from producers to runners, from the established stars to the new graduates, suddenly the playing field was level. However, that in itself has transpired to be unsettling.
1) SHOCK AND DISBELIEF
For the first few weeks, we were all in shock and huddled indoors reeling at the fact that our lives had turned into a SciFi movie, suddenly we were all extras in Russell T Davies’ Years and Years, a programme that we’d all admired for its exceptional writing and exquisite performances by top-rate performers, yet suddenly like all of the people involved in that show, we too were all suddenly at ground zero.
I don’t think that anybody in their wildest dreams could have envisaged a time when every theatre in the world would go dark? It’s no wonder we survived the first month. We were too numb to do anything else
Then came the posts where people declared cheerfully that this was almost a good thing as it would allow all of us to stop being defined by our careers after all this was an industry that had been bleeding us dry for years anyway, so we’d been given the opportunity to reboot ‘life’. A few people put out content, but the majority either stayed silent or felt the need to explain to everybody why they weren’t able to put out content. Of course, in reality, we were all attempting to deal with the reality in whatever way we could. It was actually called survival, not creation. Shows started to stream and we all bathed in the reflected glory of our friends in these shows. There were beginning to be some pluses to this mess after all. Free theatre to the masses – it was the socialist dream realised, and as we all know, most of our industry love the idea of a free theatre (even if we’ve failed to make it a viable concern as we’ve also all wanted a fair salary for the work that we do too).
However as the weeks turned to months and things slowly restarted our industry, the industry that we all believed was so vital to the health of our nation suddenly didn’t matter. Our fans appetite was being sufficiently sated by the online streaming going on, yet as Joe Public sat and enjoyed the performances, the performers and technicians were just stuck at home, not earning and not even hearing the applause that was no doubt going on in various places around the country. That same applause that actually seems to lift us up regardless of our mood, the sound that generally speaking makes us feel worthy. Self-validation is vital but the sound of applause is something different isn’t it? The joy of watching our friends had somehow turned hollow and we were simply being reminded of what we had lost. We don’t talk about this much but let’s face it, the sound of strangers appreciating our work is the greatest drug of all. A drug that lifts us up when we feel like life is hard, that gives us an adrenaline rush so massive that many performers feel the need to artificially recreate its effects long after the curtain has come down. Well, times were certainly hard, and our ‘drug of choice’ just wasn’t available anywhere, more than that it was now against the guidance of the government to partake in it.
4) ANGER AND BARGAINING
As 1 month turned into 3 months and there was still no real sign of recovery for our sector, and with so many people financially struggling having fallen down the massive cracks that the treasury had created in its DIY fix of the economic crises that was the secondary disease that the country was attempting to fight, you could see people on social media losing themselves more and more.
An appallingly unjust death in the States provided the release that everybody needed. Finally, there was a worthwhile cause to utilise all the anger and feelings of injustice that we had all been feeling. Of course, we couldn’t get that angry for our own issues, as part of the problem with a global pandemic is everybody understands on one level that we actually don’t know where to place the blame that we’re so desperate to park up. Where do you locate the anger? We were finally able to truly bargain an explanation out of this mess. We might have felt like we were lost, but some much needed social change could grow from this anger. This was our chance to turn the nightmare into something positive. It was like releasing the steam from a pressure cooker for a cause that most people had no doubt believed in over the years (as that is the white privileged position of choosing when to get involved in the fight for equality)
Suddenly years of niggles about everything rather unfairly in many ways diluted the main fight, relegating it some 4 months on to a well-intentioned occasional social media post again as we all got swept away into a tsunami of what felt like validated pain.
Now that the anger was being released we got angry about literally everything and we made sure that everybody heard us (all with the hashtag #bekind). We were angry at people putting content out, we got angry at people putting positive messages out, we were angry at people saying that they were struggling, we were angry at the other industries starting back, we turned on each other as we couldn’t actually scream at patient zero, the person who unwittingly started off this catastrophic chain reaction. We couldn’t sit with the anger of a pandemic as that was too huge, so we turned to the minutiae of life and suddenly shouted about all the little (but important) things that have impacted us during our lives. Things that under normal circumstances we would have brushed off by now, but with nothing else to focus on for months it was time to revisit them and shout about it. We couldn’t get positive strokes from an audience, but we could get a social media validation for our feelings online.
We’ve shouted and screamed albeit it virtually, in a bid to be seen and remind people that we exist as an industry, yet we’ve wept when we’ve seen the outside of the theatres converted into outside dining areas for a hospitality trade that had been suffering every bit as hard as us, but who were already permitted to go back to work. Talk about salt in the wounds.
The inevitable loss of jobs has been hard-hitting, literally every day an announcement about a theatre or a company that has had no choice but to make sweeping redundancies in the hope that this will save their business from going under. We’ve wept for the buildings and our memories in them, and we’ve wept for the people that are left stranded out in the street, weaponised with an enviable skill set but for an industry that doesn’t exist.
We hear a lot about people thinking that they should retrain and move onto something else. I mean the industry has never been easy anyway, you could be waiting years for a job (literally). However, that was manageable (just) when there were clearly jobs happening. You could see the ‘dream’ happening for others every single day, and for many, that’s enough to keep going for. If it could happen for ‘them’ it could happen for ‘you’, you’ve just got to hold tight and survive until it was your turn. Now though it was nobody’s turn. We weren’t even seeing ‘what we could have won’.
We hit the depression stage with a thud. This is different to clinical depression, it’s a feeling of abject loneliness looking into an abyss, even when you’re surrounded by your loved ones. Suddenly this all feels far too big, and we are all left feeling so small and insignificant. The public are getting on with things and we’ve turned into Mr Cellophane.
There are very few people in our industry that have not been told by somebody in their lives that what we do is just a hobby. I’ve been a professional musician for 36 years and my father still wants me to get a proper job. Suddenly the government’s response to our sector has felt like every bad taxi ride conversation we’ve ever had.
6) RECONSTRUCTION AND WORKING THROUGH
Some 4 months later we were permitted to do outside performances. Producers and performers alike were quick to seize on this glimmer of hope. Would people want to come back to the theatre again? Had they missed us? Shows were slowly emerging, filming had restarted, jobs were appearing. Finally, theatres could open again, of course not like before, but open to try and work out how to survive this mid pandemic limbo that we find ourselves in.
So I guess that’s where lots of people are right now, which is why it’s particularly tough. In order to work through this period, we’re all going to have to adjust what our plans were. A temporary career to financially see us through this period? Possibly retraining in something to build up a skillset in another area. Of course, lots of us have said for years that this would have been a good idea, suddenly though it’s the only idea. That’s rather scary when you know that you’re only really good at the one thing. . . our industry.
We are a vocational industry, our work defines us just like we define our work. That’s not to say that the industry is driving us to early graves and abusing us along the way, for so many of us this is our hobby as well as our career. I don’t know much about civvy street, maybe bankers feel the same about their job – though I suspect not.
We’ve always been the outsiders that somehow found our ‘tribes’. This alone made us feel safe and contained even without putting a show into the mix. It’s hard to feel the benefit of that tribe when everyone is struggling at the same time. You see it online – who’s going to pick who up today?
Well right now this is the aim I guess. We get on with doing whatever we need to do to survive, breathe and just know that in time theatre will return. Fast forward a few years and we might be able to look back on this disaster as a catalyst for real meaningful change in the world, and if we can’t then I guess we just have to accept the fact that we tried, and we tried whilst surviving the most bizarre thing imaginable.
It’s important to go through a process to survive this period as best that we can. We were right to be numb, sad, angry, bitter, remorseful, optimistic . . . just ‘being’ right now is enough. Suddenly we are all survivors