This has happened very fast. Within days - or if you had time to notice the subtle changes then maybe weeks - our life as we know it… stopped.
Disbelief was a first reaction. This can’t really be possible. But as the reality starts to sink in, as show after show, and theatre after theatre closes - grief sets in. A huge feeling of loss. The thing is, (as we theatre workers all know)… we don’t go to work just to earn money: we follow a need to create, to tell stories, to share what we do with the audience. The trajectory of what we do has a forward-looking flow that is usually unstoppable - you interrupt this - you cut it off, and it’s like waking up from a dream in complete disorientation.
So we acknowledge this grief. We have to do so mainly by ourselves in our own homes as we can’t see each other any more. In many cases, we were in the midst of working on another continent - our heads set to spending this time in other lands - but we are now hundreds of miles removed from where we had just been in mid flow. As the immediate sense of loss settles, you realise how much you define yourself through what you do. Who are you now that you cannot be a designer any more? This runs alongside the very fundamental and frightening question of how do I survive - how do I feed my family? So, in the quietness of your house - underlined by the quietness outside your window - you try and piece together the fragments that your life has been shattered into. This is what a crisis looks like. This is why we can’t treat it like just a few weeks off. It will take time to piece those fragments back together and then - as they won’t fit the same way they did before - it will also take time to re-adjust to their new formation.
The worry about the future is immediate and real. Compared to other industries, it is not just about when we can go back to work. There is a real sense that our places of work may not be there any more or they may look completely different. Talking with friends and family can quickly become over-emotional as people fight for their own situations to be seen - for those around you to acknowledge how bad it is for you, as, equally, they feel they are in the same boat.
During these weeks of quiet that followed the first turbulent weeks, we freelancers are more and more removed from the world that we belonged to. It is deadly silent. The community you thought you belonged to turns out not to exist or at least not in the way you thought it did. Our habitual disposition as freelancers is that we are not the makers of our fate. We are the recipients of a call to work from the buildings or companies that employ us. Not that I ever thought this is the right way around, but this is how it was. So when these places of work shut their doors and turn inwards to focus on their own survival, and the talks about your future are utterly inaccessible to you, the feeling of helplessness is enhanced.
But it is our industry and we are the core and the life blood of it. We don’t have to wait for permission to create, we don’t have to wait for permission to have ideas, or to set out to help save our theatres from collapse. We know we are vital for its existence and most definitely for it’s successes and we are well-equipped to begin to break the silence - start the talking and put ourselves back at the centre of it.
What we must be mindful of is the wider emotional landscape we are in, but also keep questioning the source of our own feelings and how these manipulate our current actions. Once you start reaching a hand out, you want to take on the whole world - but you can’t. Does that mean you should put your hand down and go back to waiting? But helping one does not make you the enemy of another. We have to be clear and honest about our capabilities, and resolved that it is better to reach out to a few than to not reach out at all.
Navigating this current landscape is like stepping through rubble surrounded by bomb damage. It is unknown territory with open emotions. But starting to go forward, trying to find a beginning - an imagining of the future - feels so much better than being still and without hope.
We will have to accept that we might get it wrong, that we might make mistakes. That we can’t solve all or help everyone. But we should at least try. And we should be kind to each other. Just because someone stood up does not mean that they are strong or unhurt - it just means that they are willing to be brave and try.
Drawings by Anna's daughter Mia Marriott (16) created during lockdown.