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Theatre at the NHS front line: Meet the extraordinary creatives helping to fight the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK

Clockwise from top left: Stephanie Silver, Shaan Sahota, Stefania Licari and Nadeem Crowe
Clockwise from top left: Stephanie Silver, Shaan Sahota, Stefania Licari and Nadeem Crowe

As the health service feels the strain in its fight against the coronavirus, multidisciplined theatre workers serving on the front line tell Giverny Masso about the parallels between medicine and performance and how working in the medical field has brought perspective to their careers in the arts

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In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of people across the UK have stood on their doorsteps to applaud, cheer and bang saucepans to celebrate the extraordinary work of the National Health Service. The NHS is one of the most loved institutions in Britain – once described by Nigel Lawson as “the closest thing the English people have to a religion” – but it is expected to be pushed to its limit in the coming weeks as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies.

Helping the medical professionals on the front line are close to 750,000 volunteers who have signed up to support the NHS through the coronavirus outbreak. Among them are theatremakers whose skills have become hugely useful in the crisis.

Shortly after venues went dark around the country on March 16, creatives looked around for ways to support themselves and to help out a country facing the most unprecedented challenge in generations.

Many took on jobs that have become increasingly vital to a country in shutdown – from stacking shelves in supermarkets to driving delivery vans to ensure vital supplies are distributed.

Increasingly, that focus has been on support for the NHS. Many famous faces, including Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Benedict Cumberbatch, showed their love for the health service in YouTube clips uploaded by NHS England. Others applied to be volunteers, while Helen McCrory and Damian Lewis have launched the Feed NHS initiative to ensure health workers are delivered food, with Matt Lucas also supporting the scheme.


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Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Prasanna Puwanarajah. Photo: Helen Murray
Prasanna Puwanarajah. Photo: Helen Murray

Diverse talent and skills

A spokeswoman for the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre said: “It is inspiring to see so many in the theatre industry doing their bit to support vital NHS and key workers, whether volunteering as an individual, or coming together with industry colleagues to create charity videos (such as a 70-strong virtual West End choir performing Do You Hear the People Sing?) and online fundraising drives.

“The huge diversity of talent and skills in the theatre workforce has never been more evident, as well as the sense of wanting to help the whole community in these turbulent times.”

One surprise has been how many theatre people already work in the NHS – from doctors and nurses to those working in administration and human resources departments.

Doctor Nadeem Crowe, who alternated theatre jobs with shifts in accident and emergency before the pandemic struck fully, says: “It was a very obvious and very slow ramp up, which started to become a problem. Our A&E has literally doubled in size,” before adding: “Every day we’re looking at how we can handle it – how can we change our normal working environment to prepare well for this?”

‘I believe I’m a better doctor due to the fact I’ve not allowed my passion for acting to fall by the wayside’ Nadeem Crowe, NHS emergency doctor and actor

Crowe trained in medicine at University College London, but had “always wanted to be an actor” and did a year-long diploma in acting at LAMDA in the middle of his medicine degree. He recalls being on his way to medical school in his final year and posting acting CVs to three agents.

“Global Artists replied within an hour of me dropping it though and said: ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ And I said: ‘As a doctor who’s got some West End credits under their belt.’ And they’re still my agent today.”

After getting his “break” in Sunset Boulevard at English National Opera in 2016, Crowe switched to emergency medicine and until the shutdown alternated rolling shifts in A&E with theatre jobs, which have included roles in School of Rock in the West End and Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era at the London Palladium. Crowe – who also runs a perfumery with the photographer Rankin – says: “I believe I’m a better doctor due to the fact I’ve not allowed my other passions in life to fall by the wayside.”

Performing arts and medicine

The British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, which provides medical support for people in the performing arts, has a directory of 200 specialist practitioners, many of whom are also musicians and performers, according to the charity’s director Claire Cordeaux. She says: “An opera singer was, for a long time, one of our main trainers in mental health. We have dancers who are doing physiotherapy and a lot of people from the music industry have seen mental health problems emerge as part of their experiences in the industry, and they’ve decided to retrain as therapists.

“They are extraordinarily talented people. Most of us only do one thing. It’s amazing – they’re not just doing two things, but they’re doing two things to an extraordinarily high standard.”

Intensive care doctor and actor Stefania Licari says she loved acting since the age of five, but ended up training and working as a doctor until her passion for performance “exploded again” and she went to drama school.

“Endless nights and weekends at hospital allowed me to afford East 15 in London and almost two years of comedy school Philippe Gaulier in Paris. I quit my permanent job as an anaesthetic and critical care doctor to train and pursue a career in acting. I am senior enough to work in hospital on a freelance basis.”

Before the pandemic emergency, Licari was working one or two days a week and dedicating the rest to her acting career, “sometimes more, sometimes less depending on acting opportunities. Now for obvious reasons, I am offering my medical skills to various hospitals on a full-time basis.”

When talking about working in medicine in recent weeks, she says: “This is truly an unprecedented situation for me and most healthcare workers of my generation and a few above or below. What is really challenging is the physical and mental strain. Co-workers are not only tired but also scared. We are human beings after all.”

Disturbing aspects of critical care

Shaan Sahota, a doctor who describes herself as being “always slightly between arts and sciences”, was redeployed to corona-virus critical care a month ago. “I’m basically part of the team that is looking after the patients who are being incubated, and are in ICU [intensive care unit], and ICU has massively expanded in my hospital. Part of it is quite disturbing because people are really close to death and just being kept alive on machines. I think the press have this idea that it depends on how many ventilators you have, but by the time you need a ventilator, you’re not in a good situation. It’s horrible to be honest.”

Sahota moved into theatre in her final year of medical school, after a family scandal over a disputed inheritance inspired her debut play, which was picked up by Tamasha Theatre.

‘I do think being a great doctor has a huge overlap with being a great writer. You have to have imagination and you have to care about people’ Shaan Sahota, playwright and junior doctor

The piece was set for a rehearsed reading and workshop at London’s Park Theatre and Sahota was working on her second play as part of the Tamasha Playwrights scheme when the coronavirus crisis took hold.

She says her writing is helping her to process overwhelming emotions during this time. “I do think that theatre helps you make sense of things, because you can feel very small,” she says. “Even though I know this is a pandemic, there are not that many patients in an intensive care unit, so the stories around you are partly where the pain comes from, but also where your sense of meaning can come from.

“I have just been writing about what it looks like. I’m so overwhelmed; you just have so much emotion at the end of each day, so I’ve been trying to make sense of it.”

Actor and director Prasanna Puwanarajah initially trained as a doctor – but left the medical profession 10 years ago to pursue a creative career. He directed Venice Preserved with the Royal Shakespeare Company last year and also starred in the BBC’s Doctor Foster.

‘I’d always thought it would be difficult to contemplate going back to the health service except in the most extreme circumstances, and I think it was clear that is what this is’ Prasanna Puwanarajah, who trained as a doctor before becoming an actor and director

Now Puwanarajah has reapplied to join the NHS in order to assist in any way he might be needed. “I’d always thought it would be difficult to contemplate going back to the health service except in the most extreme circumstances, and I think it was clear that is what this is. And at that point there isn’t really a decision, you’re just sort of getting on with it,” he says.

“It might be that they decide they don’t need to use me – in which case it will probably be the worst casting rejection ever. If you can’t get seen for a pandemic…”

One of the parallels between the practices of medicine and theatre, Puwanarajah says, is the “inescapable link between the presence of a teller and a listener, the difference between the subjective feel and the objective gaze, and an empathic gap that needs to be bridged. Every time a patient describes a set of symptoms they are, of course, telling you a story.”

Crowe also finds connections between the two disciplines. “When I submitted my LAMDA scrapbook there was a photograph on the front of surgeons looking down at a patient, and I’d written: ‘Whatever happens, I’ll end up in theatre.’

“The thing is with being a doctor, you’re all the time opening a blue curtain and walking in, forming an instant rapport with somebody that you’ve never met. With actors, you’re thrown into a project with a load of people you’ve never met before, and before you know it, you’re kissing them or you’re having a break up with them, and that’s all about instant rapport as well.”

Licari says she is “shocked” by the parallels she has discovered between medicine and art over the years. Thanks to acting, she says, she is a better leader in resuscitation and emergency situations, as her “voice is better placed and [her] diction clearer”. She attributes acting to helping her learn to communicate with clarity and develop more empathy for colleagues and patients.

She also uses her performance skills to keep her colleagues’ spirits up by making short videos as well as cracking jokes. “If we are to help others, we need to find ways to keep our spirits up. My latest motto is: medicine can save the body but arts can save the soul.”

Lee Gower-Drinkwater
Lee Gower-Drinkwater
Alex Aldren
Alex Aldren

Putting things into perspective

Sahota also argues that there is a “huge overlap” in skills between the two professions. “Most doctors can treat you, but you want someone who is a person on top of that, who can hold your hand and imagine what it’s like to be you,” she says.

“As much as you’ve got to have a tough skin, I do think being a great doctor has a huge overlap with being a great writer. You have to have imagination and you have to care about people.”

Both Licari and Crowe agree that their work as medics has helped bring perspective to their acting careers.

Licari says this is “one of the biggest gifts” of her medical work. “If I don’t get an acting job, it only takes me another shift in intensive care to stop being upset and just be grateful for life.”

Crowe adds: “I do think medicine gave me huge perspective, in that when people say: ‘If something goes wrong in the show, no one will die’, that maybe resonates more with people like me, because I now understand that we’re paid to play, and we’re paid to tell a story. I think that helps me perform, because now I walk on stage, I think the stakes globally, of what happens in the next two hours, are very low, and that reduces my own anxiety and I feel more comfortable on stage and I give a better performance.”

Some take the idea of transferable skills much more literally, including opera singer and A&E doctor Alex Aldren, who performs for his patients. “I’ve always done that – especially at Christmas,” he says. “It’s nice because people don’t expect it, and obviously they can’t run away. [I’ll sing] whatever they like – I’ll take requests.”

Finding balance between careers

Children’s nurse Stephanie Silver, who is an actor, writer and producer involved in running Glass Half Full Theatre and co-running equality campaign organisation Actor Awareness, also uses her theatrical skills in the hospital.

“As a paediatric nurse my ability to do different voices for the Gruffalo is a plus and the ability to sing many songs and be silly helps a lot. Sick children love silly nurses.”

Silver has now been redeployed to help look after adult Covid-19 patients. She says she was recently moved to tears when her colleague Natasha Addington brought her cello into the ward to play music for sick and dying patients.

“Being a trained paediatric nurse, I’m being asked to do things that are brand new with little training, so it’s a very hands-on approach throughout the entire NHS,” Silver says. “We also recognise as high-risk carriers we have to isolate ourselves from people who are high risk, so it can be lonely.”

She adds that she usually finds balance between her two careers, and is finding it “crushing” to no longer have access to theatre, adding: “I’m having to find ways to keep being creative and am trying to use my spare time to write.”

As well as paid professionals, trained volunteers are also playing a crucial role within the health service during the current crisis, including the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester’s company manager Lee Gower-Drinkwater, who volunteers as a first responder and packs personal protective equipment for North West Ambulance.

“It’s been a nightmare,” he says. “Some days there have been two of us packing and distributing for the whole of Greater Manchester. For every ambulance that needs to be on the road in Greater Manchester, we’ve provided the PPE for it.”

‘It’s about compassion, you have to stick together and look out for each other and treat everybody with respect’ Lee Gower-Drinkwater, company manager of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and volunteer

Gower-Drinkwater says the service is relying heavily on volunteers because it doesn’t have the core staff base. He adds: “It’s about compassion, you have to stick together and look out for each other and treat everybody with respect – everybody from the paramedics to the nurses and doctors, they’re working so hard and everybody is absolutely shattered.

“I’ll be honest with you, not last night but the night before, I got home and I just cried, because it’s backbreaking, and what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing – it’s horrendous.”

Costume makers across the country are also using their skills to support the NHS, by pitching in to make much-needed scrubs for medics. These include around 20 staff members at Glyndebourne who, along with a wider network of costume makers in Lewes and Sussex, are hoping to produce around 500 sets of scrubs for the NHS Sussex Trust. Head of wardrobe Lucy Harris is making scrub hats for two local hospitals using fabric she has “hoarded for years”.

She says: “I have plenty of cotton prints and it’s great to know that the colourful scrub hats might brighten someone’s day who is in hospital.”

Others assisting in the effort include costume design company Carry on Costumes and costume makers behind the BBC series His Dark Materials.

Another initiative created to support the NHS and spearheaded by backstage workers is People Powered, set up by lighting designers Katharine Williams and Jono Kenyon. People Powered already has a database of about 1,000 entertainment freelances who are ready to assist the organisation to help hospitals build new facilities to cope with the coronavirus.

These can include off-duty areas for staff as well as new spaces outside of the main hospital buildings, including triage centres and public waiting areas. One project that members of People Powered assisted with was the conversion of a gym at the Royal Free Hospital in London into a food shop for staff.

Williams says: “I think being a lighting designer is an excellent grounding for this. I spend most of my life in technical rehearsals where things have to be done swiftly, there isn’t an option for them not to be done and the point at which you start saying no, there’s a director standing right behind you saying: ‘There must be a way to make that happen.’ ”

Kenyon adds: “Our ability is to offer help, but speedily, so people get the sense that if this is something they’re calling for now, let’s make it happen now and let’s not spend two or three weeks making it perfect.”

People Powered is urging individuals who want to help to sign up to the organisation’s database, or for anyone with contacts within the NHS, to put them in touch. The organisation is also asking if any theatres are willing to donate their radios – which doctors are using to communicate between wards. According to Kenyon, audio equipment rental company Delta Live has been “outstanding” and has already provided hundreds of walkie-talkies for doctors free of charge.

While there are many opportunities for people to help by donating their time or skills directly to the medical effort against the coronavirus, Puwanarajah says it is important to emphasise that any offer people in the arts feel able to make is “profoundly valuable”.

“My message [to those in the theatre industry] would be: ‘You are needed’ whatever it is you feel you can do. Whether that’s putting together some video clips for GCSE drama students who are looking for ways to stay active in their education, whatever it may be, to know that any offer made is profoundly valuable.”

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Keeping people’s spirits up

Aldren argues that it is the job of artists to keep people’s spirits up during the pandemic, in order to prevent society from descending “into chaos and misery.”

“I think our job as artists in this time is so important, to keep morale high,” he says. When he began performing opera “a lot of people said to me: ‘You used to be a doctor and now you’re an opera singer’, as in: ‘You used to do something useful, and now you prance around on stage.’

“I take real issue with that. I know it’s easy to make a case as to why medicine is objectively useful; you solve problems and you treat sick people, but the arts are so important.”

He continues: “In medicine, a lot of the time, we keep people alive for no reason, there are people who have zero quality of life who want to die and we’re like: ‘Sorry no, we’ve got to keep you alive.’ The arts are all about the actual point of being alive. It’s about giving people’s lives meaning, sharing those experiences – and that’s the whole point of being human.”

Crowe also recognises the ability of the arts to bring people together and allow them to share stories. Alongside his full-time work in A&E during the crisis, he and business partner Rankin have set up an online arts project that encourages creatives to do just that; share experiences. The project, called Rook Moments, asks people in the arts to submit videos discussing who they are, what they are missing out on and the limitations the coronavirus is putting on their creativity. Rankin will then create a piece of video art inspired by the clips.

When all of this is over, it will be artistic interpretations and projects such as these that shape how future generations look back at this era, Sahota argues. The playwright and junior doctor says: “I’m really interested to see what people make of this. I do think that it’s theatre and storytelling that make sense of things. Will it be that we were in this hedonistic society and we didn’t see what we were doing, or will there be stories of great will?” Then she adds: “It will be the artistic community that shapes it. It’s the arts that shape how you see an era.”

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