The day that the Society of London Theatre announced the closure of the West End on 16 March 2020, my worst-case scenario prediction – which sounded highly alarmist at the time – was that theatres would remain dark for three to four months.
In the weeks preceding the announcement, I had become increasingly distressed every time I went to the theatre to chair a post-show Q&A – and last February/March was a particularly busy time for events. Could I be catching or passing on the virus? Was I starting to feel sick? I certainly felt sick with guilt at encouraging people to go to the theatre where they could be putting their own health at risk.
The final Q&A I chaired – to the Old Red Lion’s wonderful triptych – was on 17 March 2020, a day after the SOLT announcement, when this brave little fringe theatre went ahead with one of the very last live performances in London. The post-show discussion with Olivier and Tony Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens had been due to take place the following evening but was hastily brought forward.
It was highly emotional for everyone. Had we known then just how long the closures would last, I’m not sure any of us could have kept it together at all.
The initial relief from the removed risk of infecting others that that first lockdown brought was replaced with a blind panic as the next several weeks and then months of future Q&As were cancelled, alongside all the campaigns in my StageFaves and MyTheatreMates businesses. I chased up all outstanding invoices, paid all my suppliers, cancelled all unnecessary expenses and scrambled to figure out if I was entitled to any government support.
The stress took a toll on my relationship. My partner of nine years moved out for over a month and we nearly broke up. Financially, he was hit even worse than I was and had no safety net for joint household expenses.
Come that worst-case three-month mark, it became obvious to me that however much longer than anticipated the lockdown continued, the theatre industry was going to take much longer still to recover – and I certainly couldn’t expect it to pay me a sustainable wage. I had to look elsewhere for a living.
The thought of going back – and for me, it is well over 20 years back – into any kind of corporate career was anathema. Thankfully, last summer, I found a position working for a prominent philanthropist. On my way to my interview, I sent a tweet wishing for luck, and was overwhelmed by responses from theatre friends. I felt like I had our whole industry backing me and I got the job.
The role is demanding but incredibly interesting, and utilises so many of my skills. I am really enjoying it. By a bizarre, small world coincidence, six months after I started, a lovely West End PR I used to speak to frequently also got a job working for the philanthropist. We get to speak on a daily basis again. We call ourselves ‘theatre refugees’.
Since starting ‘the day job’, I have tried to support the theatre industry by keeping MyTheatreMates.com going – despite no revenue – appointing my wonderful colleague Lisa Martland to run it day to day.
But what of my own ties with theatre? In those first few months after March 2020, I was amazed at how much energy creatives, bloggers and other practitioners were able to put into creating and consuming digital versions of this art we love. My energy was totally drained by just trying to fortify my finances, keep a roof over my head and salvage my relationship.
By the time a handful of performances resumed last year, I was fully focused on proving myself in my new job. Also, remembering the dread of those weeks in February/March 2020, I didn’t feel up to putting my unvaccinated self in a room with people.
I have missed theatre – and my theatre self – terribly. On my many daily walks around London, I have burst into tears passing closed venues where I have spent many magical evenings. Once in the West End, I even shouted at a couple who were blithely dining at a table set up at a shuttered Front of House entrance on St Martin’s Lane.
Now, as we creep out of lockdown again (for good?) and I have had my second jab, I am attempting to edge myself back. I have to. For me, the feeling of missing theatre (when there isn’t really much happening) makes me incredibly sad, but missing out on theatre (because I am not making the effort to be a part of it) makes me unbearably anxious. I have to get back to Theatre Terri.
I know many other people have been forced or drawn away from theatre. I know many won’t come back. I know many have had a far more difficult time than I have. I know every person out there has their own version of what I’ve described above and how this pandemic has changed their life trajectory. This is mine.
I hope to see you at a theatre soon.