There’s a scene from a movie I love, The English Patient, where, as war breaks out the international band of explorers meet up one last time before mothballing their planes, abandoning their work and heading off in separate directions to their own destinies.
I don’t think any of us have ever experienced anything quite like that, particularly in theatre where, even when shows close, the end is very rarely unexpected.
Until now. I said goodbye to colleagues I was working with overseas as it became clear that everything would be brought to a stop and, more alarmingly, that if I didn’t get out, there was suddenly a very real chance I might not be able to get home at all.
It was a surreal journey. Landing at the mid-point and discovering that, at home, your entire industry has been shut down while you’ve been in the air is not normal. But then neither is watching a team wearing full hazmat suits board the plane to thermally scan everyone before letting us off. All with the plane parked in a far corner of the airport because every gate was occupied, aircraft from around the world now with nowhere to go, grounded.
‘Remember, we’re all in this together – especially the freelances, who suddenly feel terribly alone.’
I made it home, to a Britain that seemed much less concerned, much less prepared. No masks, no gloves on the airport staff here (interestingly the only people consistently wearing masks and gloves everywhere were the cleaners; I guess they’re used to dealing with the mess no one else worries about).
So now? The trouble with unprecedented times is exactly that: there is no precedent. Home-schooling three kids is going to be a whole new experience. Scheduling visits to the shops around when their deliveries arrive, another. Fortunately, the having-no-work thing will make all this easier to achieve…
It’s been interesting to watch the reaction of two particular groups of people to all of this: those who lived through SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in Hong Kong in 2003, and those old enough to remember the Second World War or its immediate aftermath. They seem less alarmed, less frightened. While this feeling of complete loss of control is new to us, it’s not new to them. They got through those and know, in as much as anyone can really know, that we will get through this, with leadership, with order, with science, with calm. I think we can all learn something from them.
Though it’s going to be rough along the way – especially since the length of this is unknown, and the hard part will be knowing when it can be declared over. Hopefully you’ve already battened down the hatches. Remember, we’re all in this together – especially the freelances, who suddenly feel terribly alone.
If it’s possible for there to be a good side, it’s perhaps that this is happening in an age when technology lets us communicate even when locked down. Keep talking, so we can all look after each other.
Rob Halliday is a lighting designer and programmer. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/Rob-Halliday