Six Months in the Life of a Locked-Down Theater
Six Months in the Life of a Locked-Down Theater
LONDON — Britain’s National Theater is set to reopen on Oct. 21 — 219 days after it was shuttered with just minutes notice because of the coronavirus.But in the past six months, it hasn’t really closed.
Rufus Norris, the theater’s artistic director, has been spending his time lobbying Britain’s government for extra funding and putting together a reopening plan. Its digital team has been running NT at Home, a streaming service of recorded plays from the theater’s archive, some of which have been viewed millions of times.
Other staff members have been working out how to run the theater in a world changed by the coronavirus. Even the theater’s pest controller has been busy.
When the theater reopens, it will be a much smaller institution. Many of its employees were furloughed almost immediately after a national lockdown began in the spring, and hundreds were later laid off, a process known here as “redundancy.” Before the pandemic, the theater had around 1,000 employees; now, there are closer to 600.
The first show back will be “Death of England: Delroy,” by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams, a one-man show exploring what it means to be Black and British today. A follow-up to one of the National’s last shows before lockdown, the monologue will be performed by Giles Terera, with Michael Balogun as the understudy. The two actors will keep apart to reduce the chance that either catches the virus.
“Death of England: Delroy” will be followed by a pantomime — that curiously British theater form featuring audience participation, dirty jokes and slapstick. Its 12-strong cast won’t be allowed to touch, though, and the audience might have to keep quiet.
In September, seven workers at the National Theater — plus one who was laid off — told The New York Times how the pandemic had changed things for them. All said they wanted to get back to work, but expressed anxiety that another lockdown might stop them.
“If we have to shut tomorrow, then a lot of the gambles we’re taking will not have paid off,” Norris said. “But if we can reopen, we should, and we must.”
Below are edited excerpts from those interviews.
The Artistic Director
Rufus Norris, 55
I think Monday, March 16, was the day (Prime Minister) Boris Johnson said, “Don’t go to theater anymore.” And there was some confusion, because he had omitted to tell us that first.
We had one show “All of Us,” and the cast said, “Tomorrow was supposed to be our dress rehearsal. Is there any way we could do that?” So the last performance was actually to an invited, very, very small, socially distanced, audience.
It was very emotional. And after it, I went up to the office to get my stuff and started to feel very weird. I then cycled home and went to bed for two weeks.
What word can sum up the past six months? Bewildering. But there’s nothing to do but get on with it, make decisions, keep making decisions and keep as many plates spinning as you can.
We were hemorrhaging money, and we had to stop that. Our survival is a combination of several things: NT at Home, which brought in a certain amount of money, philanthropy and radical cost saving. We’ve had wage cuts across the board and very, very sadly, a round of redundancies.
We’ve had to apply for a government loan. If we don’t get that, do we go insolvent? Yeah, probably.
Of course I’m worried we might have to shut again. The whole thing is brinkmanship. We are rolling the dice and it might go wrong, but you’ve got to make the best judgment with the facts in front of you.
Theater will survive this. It always survives and finds new forms, but I’m not optimistic about what it’s going to mean for the diversity, especially in the broadest sense of our freelance work force, because the people who don’t have a back a backstop, alternative income or savings, can’t stay in the industry.
The Security Manager
Collen Heskey, 57
It’s been like a ghost town. You start to think of those horror films where there’s a major catastrophe — zombies — because it’s so quiet.
You could tell how empty it was because the mice stopped. We had the pest controller still coming once a week, and he was catching less and less, until one day he got nothing. There’s no one dropping food.
In the six months, you know what I actually did? I learned to play piano. Never played one in my life, but I found myself in a rehearsal room and thought, “Why don’t I do something different?”
I went on YouTube and there was a lesson for Elton John’s “Song for Guy,” so I watched a bit, memorized a few notes, and when I had a break, went up there and tried to play.
I’ve come out of all this with something, which is really nice.
The Casting Associate
Bryony Jarvis-Taylor, 30
At the point we closed, there were over 220 actors in 19 different productions, so we had to always let them know what was going on, what might happen, what we thought was going to happen. I became like this bringer of bad news.
I’m sure they were all panicking, worried, but all the actors were amazing, the understanding and compassion on both sides.
In the last few weeks, online auditions and readings have picked up, and that’s been wonderful to be back talking about plays again.
It’s different watching people online. I feel like I’m IT support at times: “Maybe try moving closer to the router.” But I have a lot of empathy for actors who’re coming to an audition already nervous and have this extra worry about Wi-Fi or the computer suddenly telling them it wants to do updates.
Hopefully moving online can really help with diverse casting. If you don’t live in London, having to spend 80 pounds on getting a train here, is a real barrier.
The Props Supervisor
Kirsten Shiell, 45
In the first few weeks, I had some things to do. Companies kept ringing us trying to do deliveries, like this special-effects company who had made us 60 smashable ornaments. And I had to get facilities to remove some boxes of cereal, as I was worried the mice would have a field day.
When I came back, everything was still sitting in the workshop. There were pots of paints and half-upholstered armchairs sitting on benches. We’d literally downed tools and gone home.
Now we’re trying to clear everything away to make sure there’s less to touch so it’s a bit safer in this Covid world. Normally, if someone comes into our office, they’ll pick something up to look at it, because we have so many weird and wonderful things here. Around me now I’ve got some really beautiful 1920s Bakelite telephones, some taxidermy ducklings, a puppet of a dog. We’ve got to put it all back into the store.
Dealing with props for the new show’s been interesting. We’ve set up a cleaning bay outside the rehearsal room, I clean each prop, and then we to try to let the prop sit there for 48 hours.
Onstage, only the actor, Giles, will be allowed to touch them. We think he’ll have to set up the stage every night. It’ll be interesting when we get to the point where an actor has to pass a prop to someone else. We haven’t worked out the rules for that yet.
Katherine Hearst, 32
We were told we were being made redundant in July — 400 casual staff, the entire front-of-house team, basically. It was really scary, because, obviously, being on a casual contract, you know you’re exposed. But at that moment I realized exactly how vulnerable we were.
A lot of my colleagues worked there a long time, doing it in between acting. I think they feel very betrayed, like they thought that the theater valued them more than it actually does.
A lot of my colleagues have signed up for Universal Credit (Britain’s unemployment benefit). One colleague, a young woman of color, told me she’s now working as a carer and said it wasn’t possible to do that and be an actor anymore.
They also prematurely announced redundancies ahead of clarity on the government’s cultural bailout. When that was announced, there was this brief glimmer of hope: “Oh, maybe we will get to keep our jobs.” But we very promptly got an email saying, “No, you won’t.”
They are doing some rehiring, but the problem is the contracts are part-time. And they’re demanding maximum flexibility, so you can’t really have another job alongside that. It’d screw most people who have to pay rent, right?
Roy Williams, 52
I was stricken by it, very early on, by the virus. It felt like my lungs were hardening. Just walking a few yards up and down the stairs was a nightmare.
Playwrights are known for procrastinating, but when I was up and running again, I ran to that computer. I was really eager.
The play we’re doing, it’s a carry-on from “Death of England” that we did earlier this year. I actually started work on it before lockdown. We weren’t even thinking of doing it this year. It’s about this character, Delroy, and what it means to be a Black British man. How British are we? How Black are we? He’s got these words ringing in his ear: “Oh, you look like us, talk like us, you’ll never be one of us.”
This isn’t the “George Floyd play.” But when that happened, I thought, “This is important. It’s going to chime.” I think all theaters should want to do a play like this. It says something about what’s happening.
I’m so glad to be back in a rehearsal room, doing what we want. It feels really safe, as they’re really on it, and they’re nagging us when we enter: “Wash our hands. Wash again.” There’s a sign where you make coffee that says, “If you touch it, you wipe it.” And we’ve got these really cute little buzzers around our necks: I walk by somebody too close, it goes off.
The Set and Costume Designer
Georgia Lowe, 38
In March, I was working on this show “All of Us,” and I found out I was pregnant. Then the very next day I found out on Twitter the theater was closing.
The cast decided to do the dress rehearsal anyway. We didn’t know if we would be back in months. I came in as I really wanted to, but sat at the back with a scarf round my face as far away from everyone as possible. No one really knew how it affected pregnant women then. I think everyone must have thought I was really rude, but I’d hardly told anyone.
I feel really lucky to be back, especially as a freelancer. It’s such a strange way of working now, as nothing’s fixed — anything could change at any moment — and there’s so many challenges because of the things you can’t do anymore. In pantomimes there’s always a scene where a character gets covered in food, or gunge. But we can’t just throw food at someone now, so we’re trying to think of creative ways to still do it and keep the same energy and sense of excitement.
We almost have to have a plan B, and plan C, and plan D, just in case.
I’m seven and a half months pregnant now, so timing-wise it’s not ideal. But it doesn’t seem the craziest thing right now.
The Facilities Manager
Kieron Lillis, 52
The amount of leaks we had over the past six months! Pipes bursting!
And we had to look after the sprinkler system, fire alarm systems, water systems. The water’s really important — if you don’t keep your water flowing, it stagnates and then bacteria start growing. Forget about Covid, people could have been going down with Legionnaires’ disease.
Every week we had to flush every single tap, every single shower, every drinking fountain. Hundreds of them.
Ordinarily, people like us, and security and housekeeping, we’re in the background. But our presence became much more known in lockdown. What I’d like to come out of this is for us to remain in people’s minds. Putting on work onstage is the most important thing, but behind that are teams of carpenters and plumbers and housekeepers and security that have remained here. We’ll be hear even if, God forbid, there’s a second lockdown.
I really hope that doesn’t happen.