"Business As Usual."

Russell Bender
September 3, 2020

Russell's diary in the run up to lockdown

It’s an interesting exercise putting oneself back into the pre-lockdown headspace of late February and March. At what point did the theatre shutdown appear inevitable to you? I imagine every UK artist, theatre company and venue’s experience of that time was particular: depending where they happened to be in the lifecycle of a project; how big or small an organisation they were; where in the country they were; how well-funded; how established; how privileged... and a myriad of other factors.

As for our own tiny company, we were preparing for our third full show, Fragments – a production that’s been several years in development. Rehearsals were due to start on 30th March. The show was set to open on April 30th at London’s new Playground Theatre, where it would run for 2.5 weeks before touring to the Old Fire Station in Oxford.  As producer and director I was gearing up, gathering momentum, assembling the team, getting everyone excited about the show – as the pandemic loomed.

I’ve never felt such cognitive dissonance as in those weeks leading up to March 17th, when the UK’s theatres went dark. While European countries were banning gatherings and locking down, the message from our own government was ‘business as usual’. The overwhelming sense I had from the theatre industry was ‘the show must go on’.

Four weeks before our rehearsal period was due to start, things were so strange that I started jotting down my thoughts. Now, as theatre starts to make its first tentative steps towards very partial reopening, I'm thinking a lot about what we've learned as a sector these past 5 months, what is changing and where that change will last.

I'd be interested to know what other people's experiences of the lead up to lockdown were, and how you look back on them with 5 months' hindsight. The following – for what it’s worth and for the archive – is my own (slightly condensed) journal of those weeks.

Week of 24 February

We’re at f h space for a week of puppetry workshopping. Fragments has a lot of shadow play using hand-held light sources and old-school overhead projectors, a visual language whose development has been led by our puppetry director Jess. This week we need to turn our concepts into sequences and workout any script changes before rehearsals, only 4 weeks away...

Jess and I are excited to welcome Lori, our new puppetry associate to the team this week. We three will be working in the space all week while Laura (my co-writer) and other team members are going to drop in at various points.

We’re working on a full-scale mark-up of the set (by our designer Lucy) to test how it’s going to accommodate the puppetry. Since various surfaces are going to be used for projection, we need to think about building materials, as well as consider practicalities like sightlines, positions, dimensions, how we’re running cables, building things, lighting things, etc.

In the news, we're hearing the novel coronavirus has spread out of China. A surge of cases and some deaths have been reported in Italy. It feels distant but no longer something ‘over there’. Around the middle of the week I think for the first time that this virus might hit the UK during the period of our show. Perhaps it’s not the first time I’ve thought this but it’s the first time it feels like a real possibility. I mention it, half-joking, to the team, but I’m not sure the thought lands.

Saturday 29 February

I’m concerned enough by the end of the week that I email PD’s board of directors and my associate producers (Kendall who works on fundraising and general strategy and is based in New York, and Natalie, who has, just this week, come on board to support with Fragments delivery in London). I outline 3 scenarios that are starting to feel possible:

1.      The show goes ahead but we struggle to deliver because of Covid. Could our rehearsal space suddenly close? What if a core team member gets ill or individual schools or nurseries close, impacting on team members’ ability to work? The show would go on, but any of these outcomes could have a devastating impact on its quality.

2.      The show goes ahead but no one wants to go to the theatre and we can’t sell enough tickets.

3.      One or both of our venues has a case of Covid on the premises and has to shut down – and they cancel or postpone our production.

No one has clear answers. Our chair, who works with a lot of theatres in both the UK and US, says all his venue clients are proceeding with business as usual.

We conclude that at this stage we should think through more carefully what we will offer in terms of sick pay, how to handle an actor becoming ill, and to find out what other conversations are happening in the industry. I start looking at what is in our contracts that covers different scenarios where we are unable to produce.

Monday 2 March

My week starts in Oxford with two days of script writing with my co-writer Laura. Laura has two kids aged five and one, and since January, the most effective way we can work together is for me to travel to her on those two days and work until its time to collect the kids from school and nursery. Over lunch I mention that I’ve been concerned that the novel coronavirus could have an impact on the show. Laura says it has crossed her mind too and she’s been worrying about it. We just have to keep working, we conclude. There’s still some weeks until rehearsals, and so for now it doesn’t change anything.

Wednesday 4 March

Back in London, I meet with our composer Jon and lyricist Victoria. Fragments has five songs plus half-songs and refrains that need writing and we want a draft of everything ready for the start of rehearsals. As the three of us talk through the music, the coronavirus remains in the back of my mind, but no one mentions it.

Wendy, leading our marketing and comms, has been busy getting the show announced and posters and flyers designed and printed. The press release launches today – it’s two months before Press Night.

The news reports that the UK has the biggest one day increase of cases of the coronavirus so far – 34 cases, bringing the total to 87.

Thursday 5 March

Mostly spent auditioning actors. Coronavirus doesn’t come up in any of the auditions but throughout each meeting, a thought whispers that I might not actually have a job to offer.

Friday 6 March

More auditions. Later Natalie and I look through everyone’s contracts and examine our financial situation in the event we suddenly had to cancel. What would we need to pay our freelancers?  What money have we spent would not be reclaimable? What provision is in our contracts for cancellation, postponement, force majeure? What are the industry standards?

That evening, not for the first time, I google “Arts Council Coronavirus”, “London Theatre Coronavirus”, and look through theatre twitter. I don’t find anything useful. Surely these conversations must be happening, but I don’t know how to access them. I don’t want to undermine our marketing efforts or dent team morale by asking questions on social media along the lines of Is anyone else panicking about how coronavirus is going to hit their shows?

I hear reports that anyone with cold symptoms will be asked to self-isolate for 7 days. I think so if I get a cold, or one of the cast do, we lose half of our rehearsals and basically we can’t deliver.

I’m anxious because we ought to have booked travel and accommodation for our tour dates already but we decide to wait because it’s likely not refundable.

Monday 9 March

The week begins at the Rag Factory with our last workshop day before rehearsals: a read-through of the script for the whole creative team, white card model showings, and working through sequences from the show where the movement/puppetry and the songs will be interacting closely so the song-writing team can get cracking! It’s thrilling having almost the whole team in the same room.

The Rag Factory has set up two big containers of hand sanitiser in the space. There are about 15 people in the room and we’re checking in with each other whether or not we are hugging, which feels strange. Over the weekend, there was panic buying of toilet paper and hand sanitiser and the team trades anecdotes. When devising a sequence, one of our actors suddenly produces a pair of latex gloves from his bag. I ask him “do you just carry those around with you?” It only occurs to me later why he’s wearing them.

Tuesday 10th March

In Oxford with Laura. After yesterday we’re both buzzing from a sense of growing momentum. There’s much to do but after years of conversations, workshops, a scratch performance and seemingly endless funding applications, this show is finally happening!

I follow up on last week’s auditions and find myself in the always painful position of turning down one brilliant actor in favour of another brilliant actor. As I start to write the emails, I hear a voice in my head: but you don’t actually have a job to give any of them – the show is going to be postponed.

Potential Difference is a member of English Touring Theatre’s FORGE network of emerging touring companies. After some hours of wondering whether I’m alone in having these thoughts, or if I’m mad to bethinking them, I post a message to their private facebook group: “I'm curious about who is currently producing or soon to be producing work and is being affected by Coronavirus or trying to plan how to manage it, how to manage risk, how to be responsible employers etc. This must be something lots of small companies are thinking about and I'm interested in joining up thinking on this. Does anyone have advice or good resources? Is anyone being hugely affected by cancellations?”

I get just one message back, from a company in a similar situation with questions to mine.

I am suddenly flooded with conviction that the show won’t, can’t, go ahead.

The realisation is devastating. But the uncertainty around it feels even more confusing and stressful than the realisation itself. I don’t want to make a unilateral decision to postpone Fragments because that is a decision that we need to make with our venue partners. I don’t want to be in a situation where we want to postpone and they don’t, and as a result, they start pushing us to pay them our guarantees. And I don’t want the team to be burdened by uncertainty. I wonder why I am asking questions about how other companies are planning to carry on. What I really want to know is: how do we stop? And until we do, we have to keep working full speed ahead, in case we do still end up producing.

I get an email from Kendall about managing payment and cashflow. She mentions that her son’s school in New York has just announced it’s closing.  

Wednesday 11th March

Today, I make the conscious decision to stop hugging people or shaking hands.

I have meetings with Jess and Lori, and later Jon and Victoria. I bring up coronavirus and say there are scenarios where we wouldn’t be able to produce and that we should think about contingencies. Everyone seems surprised – both that I’m not hugging and that I think the show might not happen. My message for now is that there’s work to be done whether we postpone or not, so we keep on working and see how things play out.

I ask everyone what they are hearing from the other shows they’re working on. Not much, it seems.

While talking to Jess and Lori the news comes out that there’s been a case of Covid in Jackson’s Lane and they have closed.

I have a first chat with our London venue about their thinking. Simon, the Playground’s general and technical manager, seems sensible and practical. They may well need to close, he says, and if so, they would look to move their entire season of work…we’ll stay in touch. That’s a good start.

That night I go to the theatre – it’s press night for Love Love Love at the Lyric Hammersmith. I wonder what their team are thinking about the coronavirus. I’m conscious of how close I am to people in the crowded theatre. Around me all I hear is “business as usual”. Is that what everyone believes is everyone nervous to talk publicly about the alternative?

The WHO has declared the virus a pandemic.

Thursday 12th March

The news is that there will be a lunchtime COBRA meeting followed by a press conference given by the Prime Minister. Ah, this must be it. This announcement is going to knock the chain of dominos leading to theatres starting to close.

It doesn’t. It’s business as usual in the UK.

I send another email to our board. They reply almost immediately. From our chair: “There's definitely been a step-change in the last 48 hours, mostly among my US clients: Seattle shut down public gatherings on Wednesday, and California/New York City did so yesterday. Cue lots of large arts organisations scrambling to process tens of thousands of dollars of refunds.”

We conclude that proceeding now feels incredibly high risk and that we need to push our venues towards discussions about rescheduling.

Friday 13th March

More auditions today, which feels a little unreal. I get into a conversation with the person who runs our audition space about steps everyone using the space needs to be taking. Washing your hands, mainly. She mentions she’s due to fly to the US in three days for her honeymoon. The US has announced a ban of travellers from Europe but not from the UK. She won’t get the money back on insurance unless the ban extends to the UK so she is planning to make the trip unless they ban the UK too.

This double-think is getting increasingly stressful. On one hand having to keep bringing the show together, recruiting the last few people, getting them fired up about the production. On the other hand, my conviction that surely we won’t be producing is growing by the hour. I try to calculate how much money we will lose if we cancel tomorrow versus next week.

I also have a real sense of pain around feeling like we’re building up an incredible team of people who are excited and ready to do this show. I know that if we have to reschedule that many of them might not be available. After lunch I can no longer deny the large elephant in the room and start acknowledging in the auditions that I don’t know if I have a job to offer or not.

We’re contacting our marketing partners, our rehearsal space, everyone we have paid money for future work…checking what of that money would be lost and what activities can be postponed if we need to. I write to The Playground, gently pushing towards making an active decision to cancel before we get into rehearsals rather than waiting to ‘see what happens.’

But the big theatres are still announcing shows as normal and I’m reading statements about how “the show must go on”.

I check in with the British Library about our event happening next Tuesday – yes, they say, it’s going ahead.

I check the news every hour.

Saturday 14 March

On Saturday evening, a leak comes out in the media – nothing official, but it’s reported that mass gatherings ‘may’ be closing in a week’s time and that Over 70s may be required to self-isolate for at least 12 weeks.It seems like chaotic misdirection or miscommunication.

Sunday 15 March

In the evening four London theatres announce closures: The Arcola. The Bunker. The Turbine. The Old Vic. I feel a strange sense of relief- I wonder if this is the opposite of what many artists and freelancers in my industry are feeling tonight.

Monday 16th March

Our talk at the British Library is tomorrow night. We’re expecting a low turnout – maybe we can spread the chairs right out to make people feel more comfortable.

We’re using an old-fashioned overhead projector in our presentation, and early in the morning I carry it on foot to a nearby lighting company to get it PAT tested. I feel slightly absurd about this safety precaution in the context of probably cancelling Fragments any moment due to a pandemic. But here I am lugging an OHP down the street to a lighting warehouse so we can satisfy Health&Safety that we’re safe to run our wraparound event. If it’s still happening….is it still happening? Should it be happening? Well, for now it is happening, so the OHP must have its certificate.

I keep checking for responses to my emails from our venues. I email my team saying I think it’s ‘likely’ we will have to postpone - still understating. I feel I can’t yet announce that it isn’t happening until I’ve confirmed with our venues. I assure the team that the work we’re doing now needs doing anyway, that they’ll be paid for their work and that we’ll continue doing it while we can.

Two more theatres close: The Young Vic, the Finborough.

I’m supposed to get to Oxford for another day’s work with Laura. After a lot of thought I decide against going. If we really are going into rehearsals in two weeks, we have a lot of work to do, but it seems like an ‘unnecessary journey’. We decide to have a go at working remotely over Zoom and find it surprisingly productive.

At 5pm the British Library call me: they have cancelling all their public events until further notice. Their Events Manager sounds like he’s expecting me to be devastated. If anything, I’m relieved – this feels like the right decision. While we’re on the phone he says that the Prime Minster is on the air right now. I immediately call Laura and our other event participants to let them know while I skim the live news updates at the same time. Audiences are being told not to go to the theatre but the government doesn’t say the theatres have to close.

I get off the phone and watch the theatres themselves announcing closures like dominos. It feels like a massive release of two weeks of… ‘stress’ is hardly the word….more like two weeks of feeling like I’ve been strapped on a train barrelling towards a cliff, trying to get myself and my team off the train – because the train itself seems unstoppable.

I feel I should still wait for official confirmation from our venues but now there’s only one way this is going. That night the Playground announces it is closing its current show. My heart goes out to them. I am reminded that we happen to be insanely lucky we are that we weren’t in rehearsals or mid-run like so many others.

Tuesday 17th March

I wake up to a text from my designer who wants to talk coronavirus plans and over the course of the day, I contact everyone else in the team as well, seeing how they are doing, reassuring them that the project is safe (is it?), that they will be paid, and confirming the new plan which is to keep on working, but with more time, and bring the creative conversations to a natural place where they can be paused until we can start rehearsals. We have no idea how long that is going to be. Time to learn how to unproduce a show…

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