Yes we are in limbo, we're playing the long game, but we will always crave stories ...
So as we try and come to terms with the personal, financial, political and psychological impacts of two months in lockdown, last night’s ‘address to the nation’ from our Prime Minister felt muddled - June 1 ‘might’ be a date to ease lockdown and there was an image of a ticket with the word ‘entry’ behind the Prime Minister. But no more details given. We are in a limbo. We have to be patient.
And the picture for artists outside of London may well be very different from those working within the West End too. And the landscape may shift - the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton goes into Administration, other venues are Crowdfunding, JustGiving, help us ride the storm…who will buy these theatres needing refinancing? Theatre producers? Individuals? Property developers?
The many actors and creatives I have spoken to via zooms and google hangouts over the past few weeks has underlined that we are uniquely placed in the arts industries for uncertainty, belt tightening and creativity in difficult circumstances. We pivot well. Actors of all the workers in the arts are the masters at this. They are used to shifting sands, 24 hours notice of new arrangements or ways of thinking. And resourcefulness in difficult times.
So we ride it out. With concern and a watchful eye. And whilst trying to stay creative. Or not if it's one of those days we need to work, to rest, to support others, to do nothing. It's a tough and anxious time. Within the industry those with profile are more protected than those jobbing actors. Those already in Netflix or streamed series can really use this time to self-promote and draw attention to the work already created, which is fantastic. Those in RSC/Globe/RNT shows that are enjoying online success currently can highlight their skills and profile and some theatre actors will gain TV/Film work because of it potentially - there are huge benefits for those whose work can be visible. Others have been using the time to make us smile eg Richard Standing’s gardening programmes, Jamie Chapman’s Twitter Chums ‘Read That Lyric with Jamie Chapman’ brings a daily smile and BBC Radio Kent programme it now. Kerry Ellis is broadcasting. Actor/Director Reece Dinsdale live broadcasts via Twitter common sense and wisdom. Former ITN/STV presenter/journalist Rachel McTavish is hosting Facebook chat shows live from her shed via her page from her 'other job' - a jewellery business called The Mctavish Collection. Singer songwriter Zoe Bestel is offering Facebook gigs every Wednesday from her Glasgow flat, there are Quizzes galore. I applaud all this entrepreneurialism. And it’s really great to see. These guys are keeping our spirits up. And we’ll remember them with immense good will and gratitude for that.
But there’s also the invisible thousands of actors who are feeling powerless. And we mustn’t forget them or deny that there is a wellbeing problem for many, just because it’s not a positive message. Our industry is fuelled by positivity. It’s also a currency. Let’s pretend all is well all the time. It’s what stops actors talking about their day jobs, it’s what stops actors being honest with their peers sometimes for fear of not looking ‘industry’ enough. Actors have to bring this positivity into a room. But it’s OK to acknowledge the dark side too. If we don’t we will look callous, or stupid. People have lost relatives, some have had close shaves themselves with poor health and others in the industry have died.
And as those in theatre work as carers, gardeners, script readers, drama, voice and music teachers, copywriters, administrators, some may have trained as teachers and nurses as well as acting. One I know is working in the postal service. Some are in supermarkets. Some hospital cleaners. This is resourcefulness. And I applaud them. Because you don’t need to be acting to call yourself an actor. You need to have trained as an actor, be intellectually alive and curious, well read and interested in the world. And that next audition might be yours. If you’re in the right headspace. And you need to look well and to eat and not be stressed. So getting a job to stay busy, in the world and earning may be the best thing right now.
I hope casting directors are mindful of this when the self tapes and real life auditions start up again. We will all be a little in need of kindness. Like hostages coming out of the darkness, space for adjustment will be necessary as well as whatever ’new normals’ we are advised to follow.
For those who can and who choose to stay in the industry, audiences will need collective experience. Will it be the feel good like the post-war musicals people crave? Will the time come for more serious plays about humanity and existence? This was already happening in post-austerity Britain I would argue? Will it see a new wave of writers? A new golden age of theatre? We can’t say now. But it might. It just might. How many writers are using this time to finish something off, plan a new idea?
When people feel safe let’s hope they are craving that. I had a dream last night that I was sitting in a theatre and the tears were streaming down my face, in sheer gratitude, during the first scene of a drama, that we could simply just be there. It wasn’t a tragedy, it was just my own relief that we could be together in a dark room again. Enjoying a shared experience.
As any creative knows, if you’ve been fallow for a while (inner) confidence slips but the minute the right job comes along, you bounce into it and it’s like riding a bike. You don't forget what you have learned. And off you go! And the best jobs could be yet to come - but it could be on the other side of a new working adventure. Without denying the challenges we face in the fall out of this unprecedented health crisis, let’s celebrate our in built optimism, resilience, talents and ability to survive without knowing what the future holds - whilst remaining sensitive to those who are struggling. Because it’s what we’re good at. We will always crave stories. We will tell stories again, of course we will. But we will also be changed by this. We will know ourselves better and have more to offer new employers, new colleagues. As Arnie once said 'I'll be back'. It's the long game, this one.