Emma Burnell: London’s theatre world has been devastated by coronavirus. But the show will go on

Emma Burnell: London’s theatre world has been devastated by coronavirus. But the show will go on

The show must not go on. That was the message from the government to theatres everywhere. Or was it? Initially, no one was really sure. At first it seemed to be a case of “It would be quite nice if the show didn’t go on”, but without compulsion there was no support from insurance and no real understanding of what the impact was going to be on an industry almost entirely run by freelancers. 

As Owen Kingston, artistic director of Parabolic Theatre says, “The lack of support for the self-employed has left the overwhelming majority of people working in theatre in the gutter. Every role in the industry, from actors and directors to stage managers and technicians, are in the same sinking boat, while the companies that would usually employ them have been unnecessarily damaged by the lack of clarity about what the government is telling them to do.”

Parabolic make elaborate, engaging immersive theatre. Not something you can do while social distancing. The point of immersive theatre is to be up close and personal: actors mingling with audience, everyone touching and exploring everything. It’s a world that – if you fall in love with it, as I have – can be all-consuming. To suddenly lose it is devastating. 

Actor Beth Jay told me, “It’s the people I miss most – the people and the escape into another world. I’m lonely, really lonely. Work, when work’s a show, is more than get in, get out, get paid. It’s G&Ts and midnight conversations and people to share your crazy ideas with.”

Theatre – immersive or otherwise – is about people. It exists to tell our stories, examine our lives, our passions, our souls. It feeds us emotionally, whether through glorious silliness or chilling parable. But there aren’t any people to be seen anymore. We aren’t allowed to see each other. And, as Beth says, it’s lonely. I can’t imagine a life without theatre. But I’m just a consumer. It is the freelancers who make the industry work, who are really struggling right now. 

Ros Doré is a freelance stage manager who was most recently working at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. She doesn’t know when she will be able to work again. “It’s a real wrench,” she tells me. Like Owen, she says the confusion around financial support hasn’t helped. 

Robert Neumark Jones had just had his big break appearing in One Jewish Boy at the Trafalgar Studios. “It’s been a total whirlwind.” He says. “I went from literally seeing my dream start to happen to then seeing it crumble in front of me and now I’m just scrambling to find whatever online jobs that are out there. One day I hope to be able to bring back our fledgling show. It was just starting to spread its wings. We had three more weeks in the West End. A national tour. Talk of transfer to America. For now and the foreseeable future those are just dreams.”

Rachael Williams is the executive director of the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. She is also pregnant with her first child. Pregnant women are considered an “at risk” group, so she will be self-isolating for some time to come. She is in touch with the theatre regularly online and is doing what she can. But for her – as for so many of us – it is the not knowing that is hardest. “I feel like at the moment the biggest challenge is the complete uncertainty of what will happen in the next few weeks, months and even years.”

We don’t know how long this will go on for. We don’t know what adaptations we will have to make to our lives before it ends. But it will end. 

As Playwright Tristan Bernays says, “It’s really tough for a lot of people out there. But you have to keep positive – morale is so important during all this. I know that sounds feebly Pollyanna of me ,but I do believe that. Yes, it’s going to be hard and it will take a while for stuff to get normal again. But if you get fatalistic and see nothing but utter despair, well, you may as well give it all up now and throw in the towel, mightn’t you?” 

The industry is showing real signs of emotional and cultural resilience. David Brady, artistic director of the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town (one of my very favourite fringe theatres) believes it is in their very nature. “The brilliant thing about London’s fringe theatre community is that it is adaptable, resourceful and creative under any circumstances. We’ve discovered that this goes even further during difficult times,” he says. “From web-streamed theatre content to creatives helping each other out in all sorts of ways, fringe theatre continues to find ways to survive in even the most extreme of circumstances. You can be assured that when we get through this thing, however long it lasts, we’ll be back before you know it with so many brilliant pieces of work and continuing to champion emerging artists of all kinds.”

In the last few days I have spoken (remotely, of course) to lots of theatre makers, writers, actors and backstage crew. They’re all worried and scared about what this all means for them personally and for their loved ones (as we all are). They are desperate about the impact this will have on the theatre industry as a whole. But what is clear from all of them is that there will still be theatre and a demand for theatre. As Ros Doré says, “There’s a real need for theatres to reopen and stories to be told.” And when they are she believes “the outpouring of love and support will be overwhelming.”

She’s right. And while we need to find practical ways to support our wonderful theatre innovators through the crisis, we also need to let them know that we need them back and that we have their back. One day, the show will go on.

Emma Burnell is the person behind Political Human. Follow her on Twitter. Photograph: Park Theatre by Tom Turpie.

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