What Did You Do in the Great Theatre Shutdown.....?
Following the order in March 2020 for theatres to close because of the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of actors were thrown out of work or denied the prospect of finding work in the near future. The Society suffered collateral damage in that the 2020 Poel Workshop, which relied heavily on ensemble work and the use of the Olivier stage at the National Theatre, was postponed. When in July it became clear that it would have to be cancelled altogether, we wondered what those 40 actors who had applied for places on the Workshop had been doing to help keep theatre – and themselves – alive for those five months. So we invited them, and Poel Workshop alumni from earlier years, to tell us about their experience of the Great Theatre Shutdown.
THE SHOW MUST GO ONLINE
ROBERT MYLES describes himself as an actor-director-writer of working-class origins. He has been performing for over a decade, mainly in Shakespeare, and is the author of The Shakespeare Deck, a text-work exploration tool for actors. He was an applicant for the 2020 Poel Workshop.
I like so many others lost work as the pandemic hit, and it hasn’t recovered since. I chose to take solace in Shakespeare. I sent a tweet of my intention to start a Shakespeare reading group, streamed live. It went viral, and friends rallied around to turn an idea into an inclusive, joyful, global project.
Since the first show on March 16th, I have endeavoured to direct the complete works of Shakespeare, broadcast live via YouTube to a global audience, every week. The Show Must Go Online has now reached the half-way point in the canon: I have read, edited, researched and directed 18 Shakespeare plays in 18 weeks, winning two OnComm Awards so far in the process. The project has created a global movement, working with over 300 actors, attracting over 150,000 views, and live audiences of 150-250 every week. The shows have been featured on BBC Newsnight twice, in The Guardian, Playbill and other global media, and has attracted multiple 5- and 4-star reviews.
I have worked harder than ever in lockdown, with actors of all levels of experience, from veterans of The National, The RSC, Shakespeare’s Globe and Shakespeare In The Park NY, to those who have never read Shakespeare aloud before, from 6 of the 7 continents.. The project has established a Patron opt-in hardship fund for all those who take part.
This is not sustainable economically: I make no money from this and we don’t receive funding due to the model not matching the criteria of funding bodies. But I see what I’m doing as investing in my future by undertaking a marathon of professional development, accruing years of experience in months. The project has stretched me as a director and I have grown so much every single week. Similarly, I’ve learned from every actor that has come through the door how to be a better performer myself.
I even participated in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as Bottom.
A WISE CHILD AND A LITTLE ANGEL
PHOEBE HYDER was a 2020 Poel Workshop applicant. As well as performing as an actress she creates much work as a puppeteer, movement director and puppetry director, working across stage and screen.
As an actress at the very start of her career I found it hard to comprehend but also grieve for something that I was only just getting my foot in the door of. Many early-career artists like myself have felt the blow of lockdown harder than most established artists for the very simple reason of not being established… it’s back to the beginning as you try to build up the momentum and network you were just getting a grasp on. But despite the lack of ‘in the room’ opportunities and the prospect of tangible future work, lockdown has presented me with some awesome ways to keep theatre alive that wouldn’t have come about otherwise.
Firstly, I was part of theatre company Les Enfants Terribles’s creation Prism, an online theatre production, along with a collated cast of 2-3 minute clips from artists all over the country. These were made in isolation by the artists, the brief being: ‘a world to escape to’ and from there you could run wild. As a puppeteer, my world was of pictures coming to 3D life before your eyes, while others created hilarious characters and bizarre worlds. The project is all spun together in a web that the audience can navigate at their own will and can enter to escape the lockdown fog whenever necessary.
Next, for me keeping theatre alive means developing your practice and I had the phenomenal opportunity to do just that by being part of Emma Rice’s: ‘School for Wise Children Summer Spread’. I received a place on the Movement Direction course via Zoom headed by Etta Murfitt. Coming out of lockdown I think the need to diversify your work and be as multidisciplinary as possible will be paramount to getting employed and surviving, so having this opportunity, time and space to develop my work as a movement director is something I’m incredibly grateful for. A happy surprise presented by lockdown!
Then, Little Angel Theatre is a special place for many; it was one of my first employers when leaving drama school and is an important theatrical corner stone for many schools and children across the country. The theatre receives zero government funding so during lockdown, in both a campaign to get donations but also to continue providing theatre for families, freelancers from LAT were asked to record themselves reading a children’s story for the theatre’s media channels. I had the pleasure of reading ‘The Little Match Stick Girl’ which I enjoyed revisiting immensely. Over lockdown Little Angel have released 18 weeks worth of resources, videos, online puppetry shows, making tutorials, courses and stories – all free to enjoy; an amazing feat to have been a part of.
Lockdown, with its abrupt stopping, has enforced a sense of calm perspective and time to reflect upon your practice as an artist. I’m looking forward to seeing how our industry slowly starts to reopen, as we gradually move out of lockdown and hopefully towards finding a vaccine. Perhaps that’s one last thing lockdown has surprised me with, how artists all over the country have embraced and reignited an open-hearted giving nature towards the work and others… something we can all agree our industry has been well overdue an injection of!
RICHARD II IN A QUANDARY
ANNIE McKENZIE, actor, writer, director and MasterChef semi-finalist, can be heard on Season 14 of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Home Front’ as Nurse Betty Newcombe. She founded immersive dining company Scripts for Supper in 2017, and is co-founder of Quandary Collective, a new female led theatre company making bold adaptations of well-known stories and “striving to find ways to connect with one another, human to human, with honesty and clarity because the whole world is in a bit of a quandary at the moment, but perhaps together we can claw our way out”. Annie was an applicant for Poel Workshop 2020.
What do you do when two years’ worth of work meant to culminate in a Central London industry showing of your brand new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Richard II gets cancelled 48 hours before the event because of a global pandemic? Why, you make a short film, of course!
That is what we say to ourselves, early in the morning on Tuesday 17th March 2020 after a brilliant, exhausting, liberating two week R&D with the cast and creative team behind Quandary Collective. Our new version of Richard II is set in a post-pandemic, post-Civil War England, where a global ecological collapse has meant a return to caveman violence and feudal law. There is a war brewing, and the politics of old and young grapple with each other to maintain a fragile peace. So… a bit like living in Britain today, then?
The Company – and the idea – came into being over pizza one night several years ago, as I asked my co-founder Coco Maertens which character she would most like to play in all the world. She said Richard II, and the rest is history.
So when we realise this Covid-19 thing is here to stay, and the future of the whole world rather than just the future of our play looks uncertain, we get savvy.
We get all of the actors who are available and willing to travel to meet for one final day of filming at Cuckoo Bang Studios in Bermondsey, and we get to work. We film everything from Bushey’s violent death to “This royal throne of Kings” and all the parts in between. I remember that day being frightening, overwhelming and anxiety provoking. None of us knew what was going on. We had never lived through such uncertain times – and that’s saying a lot when most of us have spent our lives working as freelance creatives!
But we did it. We left that room on a cold, wet March evening with two SD cards full of footage. Exactly 4 months later, after Coco’s countless edits, our going a little bit crazy a few too many times, barrels of laughter, buckets of tears, and a world that looks mighty different now to how it did when we started this thing, and we had made the short film. We had made a show pack. We found a way to sell our show.
If I’ve learned anything from this past year, it’s that patience, tenacity and faith are of the utmost importance. I believe in my Company. I believe in my work, I believe in myself. I believe in the show. It doesn’t matter when and it doesn’t matter how, but it will happen. Audiences will see our work, because, ‘For heaven’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings’.
If you fancy taking a sneak peek at what it is we do, visit our website or follow us on Instagram@Quandarycollective – we’d love to hear from you.
Stay strong. We are not alone. Together, we will save the arts.