As the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold of Europe, performer Jon Dryden Taylor suspected the play he was rehearsing might not make it to the stage, but very quickly he found himself fearing for his future career
It’s the suddenness that’s so shocking. Two weeks ago things were looking reasonably secure. I was rehearsing one show, and had an offer on the table for another. There was the possibility of a tour in the autumn. I hadn’t said yes to the job offer yet, because we were holding out for a better part. That feels like the most obscene privilege now.
There was still anxiety looming in the background. Breaks in rehearsals were spent on the phone, reading scary stories from Iran and Italy and trying to understand graphs. Reactions ranged from the dismissive – “It’s just flu” – through to gallows humour to genuine worry, but none of us realised how swiftly and efficiently Covid-19 would remove all our certainties.
Rehearsing a show is an emotionally taxing affair at the best of times, but rehearsing one while slowly discovering that nobody is going to see it takes things up a surreal notch. At first, only the beginning of the day changed – rather than gossiping over coffee before the warm-up, we’d wash our hands. A huge Purell dispenser suddenly appeared on the wall. We stopped the jaw-massage part of the vocal warm-up once we realised it was a lot of face touching. Our stage manager sanitised the football we chucked around in the physical warm-up.
And then, on most days, ‘doctor theatre’ would do its job – well, ‘therapist theatre’ to be more accurate. Suddenly existential worry would be replaced with trying to figure out how to sit four of us around a cafe table without destroying sight lines. My concern about my tickly throat (just a cold) would be assuaged when the high note in the big number came out okay.
But even as rehearsing our show helped distract us from the world outside, signs of stress were showing. On one occasion I asked an unhelpful question and received a mild slap down. Usually I’d have laughed and tried to think of a retort, but instead I fought back tears. People would suddenly get up and leave the room in between scenes – it wasn’t discussed, but we knew it was because they suddenly didn’t trust the prop, or the person, they’d just touched and wanted to wash their hands to be sure.
What surprises me, now rehearsals are over – I’m writing this in my digs as I wait for my train home to London – is that in the room the show stakes never really lowered, or not consciously. There was no moment of trying to solve a blocking problem, or during notes, when my brain would say: “There’s no point in any of this, there’s not going to be a show.” Outside the rehearsal room it was all I could think of: ‘Why am I 200 miles from home? Why am I getting on public transport? Why haven’t I told these people I’m scared?’ But once we started, it was all about the work. There’s some comfort in that, I think.
One thing that massively helped is that when cancellation was still on the unlikely side of possible, our producers unequivocally told us we would be paid until the end of the contract. I know other people haven’t been as lucky and I really feel for them, because this information made all the difference as far as anxiety was concerned. Prior to that moment I’d been eking out my future in Mondays – if I start a week I have to be paid for that week, right?
What that future looks like now is pretty grim. Like thousands of my fellow theatre workers I am without any work for the foreseeable future. The job I was about to accept will almost certainly not happen, and my side-hustle job has instituted working from home. I’m waiting to hear if I will be allowed back on the rota. On my train back to London I’ll use the WiFi to investigate applying for Universal Credit, but I already know that it won’t be enough to cover my outgoings, and that it will take a long time to arrive, especially with the system about to become so overloaded.
This is a precarious profession at the best of times and we’re not all suddenly going to be back in employment when the theatres open
Like many freelance workers, I have no savings, and we all have a tax bill looming in July. Usually when acting is off the table it’s possible to find temping or bar work or something, but in this crisis that’s obviously not an option either. And on top of all that, this is a precarious profession at the best of times and we’re not all suddenly going to be back in employment when the theatres open. All but the very richest in our profession are going to have to accept that there’s going to come a time when the money runs out, and for most of us that time is already looming.
I’m hoping that official measures will be taken to help us, but we tend to belong to categories – the self-employed, renters – who are traditionally low on the list of government priorities. It’s encouraging to read talk of mortgage relief and rescue packages for businesses, but unless those reliefs trickle down – and who wants to bet that at least some unscrupulous types won’t pay them forward? – then frightening times lie ahead for us.
There’s no guarantee, either, that our industry will survive in its current form. At the time of writing, the insurance position for theatres is uncertain but doesn’t look good. Those of us who make it through to the other side without losing everything will be plying our trade in an even more crowded marketplace than usual.
I’m not a pessimist. I hate writing about being scared. I like writing jokes. But at the moment the only joke I can think of is the guy on the phone to his agent two weeks ago, saying: “Let’s hold out until we get a better offer.” The joke’s on him, and it’s a particularly unfunny one.
Jon Dryden Taylor is an actor, writer and editor of The Green Room. If you work in theatre and would like to join in the conversation, email firstname.lastname@example.org