My first theatrical experiences took place at St Laurence Junior School during assembly. As the name suggests, St Laurence was a Church School that every morning put on a little production, so to speak. Mr Andrew, the Headmaster, took top billing, of course. He was supported by Mrs Bowden on the piano, who would play a selection of hymns from Jesus’s ‘Holy Banger Playlist’. As memory serves, the one about being cold and naked never failed to bring the house down. There was also the occasional special guest appearance from Father Robert Warren. Now I think back he was an erratic performer at best but back then I was far from a critic. Most of the time he gave us his morose Vicar who droned on and on assiduously adhering to the fourth wall. Every now and then, though, if we were lucky, he’d give us his fiery preacher who glared at his young audience seeing a dirty little sinner in each and every one. He’d bring a cane and beat it on the floor, he’d gesture to the heavens, he’d pace back and forth ranting and raving about how much he bloody loved that Jesus bloke and how much we ought love him too. I was transfixed. I thought it was all absolute bollocks but I was transfixed none the less. I knew, even then, that I’d quite like to do a bit of transfixing myself one day.
Many years later I had my feelings regarding a potential career in acting consolidated by a production of Mojo by Jez Butterworth at The Hexagon Theatre in The Midlands Arts Centre. In a far superior version of the ‘last meal on death row’ question, if asked which theatre I would like to attend the night before I die I’d say The Hexagon. A lecture theatre originally, I believe, it’s a tiny room which accommodates only sixty people or so. When I saw Mojo I sat on the front row which in that delightful little space is tantamount to be being on stage. The play is a tense, dark comedy about London gangsters and it was being performed by various people from the Youth Theatre I attended. At one point a character gets shot in the neck and as he wheeled around clutching his wound I got sprayed with blood. Regardless of how fashionably ‘immersive’ the experience was, ultimately it was vital, purely theatrical and absolutely fucking fantastic.
As I write this, Theatre in the traditional sense has stopped completely. Playhouses are dark across the land and the closest you can get to seeing a play is watching a filmed production on the television. I won’t go into the pros and cons of recorded drama as they’re glaringly apparent to anyone who’s watched some. All I’ll say is thank goodness we have it for now. So, how can theatres function in a society that’s socially distancing? I say ‘function’, really what I should ask is how can theatres make money in these Covid times? Regional theatres barely cover costs when houses are full, how on earth are they to remain solvent if they can only sell twenty five percent of their available capacity? If operating with such little audience is somehow feasible for some, I pity the poor actors trying illicit big laughs from one hundred punters spread out over four hundred seats. I’ve been there and done it, folks, trust me it sucks.
Helpful suggestions and doom mongering predictions are coming in left and right. This morning I read that singing might need to me mimed in musicals to keep the amount of droplets springing from the performers mouths to a minimum. It seems to me rather unfair to single out musicals for this. I pride myself on my ability to drench a front row with merry spittle but that’s an attitude I’m going to have to temper. Perhaps I’d be a little more successful if two thirds of my face were covered by a mask?
I have no answers for you, I’m afraid. I feel like a terrified, helpless observer watching the Hindenburg go down. I hope financial aid won’t be necessary but I can’t imagine that’ll be the case. At a time when all manner of industries will be screaming to the government for help, we’ll need to make sure our cries are loudest. I dare say some sort of warm up will be required. I just hope that far more resourceful and impressive people than me are currently rolling up through their spines vertebrae by vertebrae, shushing and vrooming and Mrs Puggy Wuggy-ing with all of their might in preparation to get as much attention as possible.
Thomas Willshire is a writer/actor/comedian who just about lives in London with his wife, Polly and dog, Fergal. He considers himself the fortunate product of a supportive and loving environment.
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