What do you do if you’re in lockdown with fellow theatre professionals? From couples working together to a group of unexpected new housemates, artists united in isolation tell Amber Massie-Blomfield what they did next
When lockdown started, Nicki Hobday’s brother Peter Hobday and brother-in-law Stuart Turner had just sold their houseboat and moved in with her, her partner Hester Chillingworth, and their dog Peppers (the only member of the household not involved in theatremaking). The arrangement was meant to be temporary.
Soon after, the shows they were variously working on – Hobday was performing in Chillingworth’s play Trainers at London’s Gate and Peter was in Wild at the capital’s Unicorn – were cancelled. They decided to make the best of the situation. “Really early on, we wrote down all the activities we wanted to do on a blackboard: every Academy Award winning film we haven’t seen, food we wanted to make,” Hobday says. “This is when we thought: ‘Oh God, what if we’re here for three weeks?’ ”
Two months on, there is little indication of when lockdown will be lifted, and even less of when theatres may reopen. So what is life like for theatre companies and artists that find themselves in quarantine together? Are these households beavering away at 2020’s King Lear? Or are they – like many of us – spending their time binging Netflix in their pyjamas and bickering about the washing up?
“Actually, we watch a lot of The Chase,” In Bed With My Brother’s Dora Lynn tells me. “And I’ve been making a chess set out of clay. To be honest, I’ve done one side and not the other. I should have just bought a chess set.”
‘How can you make a political show in a time that is so tumultuous?’
She, along with fellow company members Nora Alexander and Kat Cory, have been living together and making theatre and music (“heady, silly rave”) for nearly a decade. Seven months ago, Cory’s baby, Frida, joined the household.
“We’ve been through so many strange experiences together we were like – okay, a pandemic, let’s just deal with that together,” Alexander explains. Until coronavirus hit, 2020 was set to be the company’s busiest year to date, particularly given its win of the prestigious Oxford Samuel Beckett Prize, awarded after a work in progress in October. “We did that two days after Frida was born. Dora and I were Kat’s birthing partners. We walked straight out of a 48-hour labour into a tech. We were like: ‘We’re never going to win this.’ ”
The award-winning show is scheduled to premiere at the Barbican at the end of the year. “It is about the end of civilisation. Now we’re like: ‘For God’s sake, why is this so timely?’ ” Cory says. But developing the show in lockdown has proved challenging. “The stuff that we make is very present. How can you make a political show in a time that is so tumultuous? Society could be changed forever. It’s not going to be relevant.”
Lynn adds: “We don’t know what the mood will be. Whether people will just want a hug. It’s weird when you’re halfway through making something and you go through this. It’s like: does it even matter? It’s just theatre.”
Cabaret artists Dusty Limits and Sebastian ‘Snuggles’ Angelique are in isolation together in a “bijou studioette”. The couple has initiated a number of online projects since lockdown started: Dr Sketchy, a burlesque life-drawing event; Cabaret Virale, a YouTube variety show featuring cabaret stars in their nightwear; and a short comic series called How to Enjoy Wine. They’re also taking commissions for digital singing telegrams.
Limits believes cabaret artists are particularly well equipped to deal with 2020’s unexpected crisis. “Cabaret has always been about being in the moment. Half the stuff you come out with on stage is completely improvised. There’s no script. Cabaret artists are very good at going: ‘The circumstances have changed, so how do I adapt, right now?’”
Their cramped living quarters have forced the pair to be inventive. “Last night’s Dr Sketchy was Through the Keyhole. So our viewers got to see the kitchenette, the sofa corner… the amount of wine bottles,” Angelique says.
“We have a massive collection of stuffed animals. Most of them are quite creepy,” Limits adds. “They’ve featured in every Dr Sketchy. We had a Star Wars one with Pooh as Jabba the Hutt.”
The domestic environment has also been a source of inspiration for theatre producer Nur Khairiyah Ramli’s online series Rumah X Cognatus’ Monologues from My Bedroom, which has featured new work from writers around the world, filmed in their bedrooms. “There was one submission where the performer had her pillows as characters, and then she switched her lights on and off for dramatic effect. It was silly, but it showed that from the constraints of home you can do a lot.”
When lockdown started, London-based Ramli and her actor husband, Mohamad Faizal Abdullah, found themselves stranded in Singapore, where they’d been for a family wedding. After initially staying in a hotel, they moved in with Abdullah’s sister and brother-in-law and their two toddlers.
‘A couple of weeks ago I had to look at my business card for a minute to remind myself who I am’
In spite of their distance from the London theatre scene, the couple hasn’t succumbed to the temptation to make work together. Whereas Ramli “always has to be doing something”, for Abdullah, “it’s been very difficult to be creative. There will be days where I feel very motivated, that will last about six hours – and then I will go on a three-day run where I don’t want to do anything.”
Instead, he sees this as a period of reflection. “It’s given me a lot of time to question why we are doing art. What is the value of our work compared to those serving in hospitals?” He is cynical about artists’ inclination to place themselves at the heart of the crisis. “I certainly don’t recommend singing Imagine like Gal Gadot.”
Movement director Kitty Winter is in isolation in rural Derbyshire with her composer-sound designer partner Wayne Walker-Allen – with whom she runs family theatre company WinterWalker – and their three-year-old, Rufus. “Where we live is very remote, so it’s not that different to normal,” Winter says. “Our main challenge is childcare.”
While she and Walker-Allen have been able to alternate looking after Rufus with working independently – Walker-Allen has been accompanying remote dance classes, and Winter has been teaching online classes for Rambert and developing their company’s digital learning resources – she has found holding on to her creative identity hard. “A couple of weeks ago I had to look at my business card for a minute to remind myself who I am. It’s not only because my own work isn’t happening, my whole industry has gone,” she says. “And the main thing I do as an artist is on other people’s bodies. I’ve been having dreams about contact improvisation.”
Although Winter has enjoyed revisiting some of the old shows she worked on with touring company Pentabus that have been shared online, for the most part she has avoided the streamed theatre currently on offer. “With recorded versions of live shows, the scale is off. I find it very uncomfortable.” Instead, she says, “We’ve mostly been watching live streams from zoos and aquariums with Rufus.”
In fact, few of the artists interviewed have been watching streamed theatre in their downtime. As Chillingworth puts it: “It’s like if someone asked: ‘Do you want to hear this audio track of my essay?’ I’d rather watch something made specifically for this form.”
The installation Chillingworth has created during lockdown is the antithesis of an NT Live recording. Caretaker is a live stream of the vacant main stage and auditorium of London’s Royal Court, where Chillingworth is a Jerwood New Playwright 2020. It will run until the theatre can be repopulated. Although occasional audio messages from Chillingworth are broadcast, “more often, there will be silence”. The Royal Court’s website reads: “No productivity is demanded. Nothing needs to happen and nothing is expected of you. You are, after all, already doing really well.”
It’s a statement that reflects a conflict that Chillingworth has felt in recent weeks. When lockdown began they had, along with Hobday, Hobday’s brother and Turner, been developing a transpositive family pantomime. “We could have been working on it. Most of the company are in this house,” they say. But the uncertainty of the coronavirus means the planned premiere has fallen through. “We all want to do creative stuff. But when there’s no money, when all our income and prospects have been thrown under a bus – it’s a political question. When are we doing a nice thing for our mental health and solidarity, and when are we working for free?”
An artist whose experimental practice has tended to place them far left of centre in the theatre ecology, Chillingworth is alert to the irony of the fact that they may find themselves with the longest-running Royal Court Downstairs show in history. “There’s something triumphant about this sort of work, from a live art heritage, being on that stage,” they say. “I knew there would come a time for it.”
Meanwhile, partner Hobday – a regular performer with Forced Entertainment – has also found a creative outlet. “I’ve really bonded with the kid who lives in the flat opposite. Every day I draw something different on the windows for him.”
For the first 26 days of lockdown, she drew pictures for each letter of the alphabet: apples, bees and cats. “Now I draw a scene, and he responds to it. I drew an island scene. I looked over and he had sunglasses on. Then I did a cityscape and he put on a hard hat and high vis.”
She relishes her modest new audience. “Something about how small it is feels important. This is literally just for one kid,” she says. “Although I quite enjoy the attention I get from him…”