In my life, I've pushed away boxes and labels in acts of defiance and then felt lonely. I’ve jumped into boxes and labels and still felt lonely, so jumped back out again. I still sometimes find it hard to see myself the way others see me. I guess I’m not a person at peace with myself. But when you say “theatre”? That’s who I am. It’s who I’ve always been. And who I want to be. There’s a lot of comfort in that.
The love affair with theatre started at school, probably initiated by a teacher, probably in hindsight a teacher I had a massive crush on. Mrs Roots was terrifying and clever and… swagger… and I really wanted her to like me. She was also directing the school play, Dr Faustus, so I auditioned, and only scored myself the eponymous hero (a word she taught me and I later used incorrectly - she pointed out - when referring to her - in my gushing and not very carefully coded “thank you and I’ll miss you and I can’t live without you” letter when I left sixth form). Anyway, Dr Faustus. A group of insecure self-obsessed teenagers coming together after school for a term to fuck up Marlowe’s mighty line. Year 7s and year 9s and sixth formers in the same room with one another (woaw!) pretending to be deadly sins. Our own little world within a world within a world.
Fast foward (sharp intake of breath emoji) 17 years… to today, to (sharper intake) double the age I was then… and I’m realising today that theatre, along with London and family, is one of my key constants. Other stuff in my life has changed - friendships, disposable income, how I define my sexuality, my ratio of optimism to pessimism. But theatre? Theatre is home.
I think the news hit me properly week three of the lockdown. I’ve always been a bit shit at processing emotions, typical Brit, repressing the feelings deep down in some secret organ I can’t locate, until bam it erupts. So week three of lockdown and I’m doing my usual “if you don’t look it dead in the eye, it’ll go away” thing, when... this tidal wave of… holy shit, the theatres are closed! The theatres are actually CLOSED, what the fuuuuck?, this is, massive, or maybe not, I mean we can still make theatre, theatre doesn’t need an actual theatre to be actual theatre (cheers Mrs Roots) so it’s not like “theatre is closed” it’s just that “the theatres are closed”, there’s a difference, thank fuck, phew, was getting sweaty palms there, anywayz its been around since the fucking Greeks, it’s survived plague, wars, theatre is bad ass, resilient as fuck, (nervous laugh) theatre will never die, it’s just on pause, right?, while we navigate the small business of a global pandemic.
The theatres should be closed. No one is disputing that. In fact it was the theatres who made the decision to close before the government instructed them to, which tells you a lot about our government. Those venues who closed early saved lives. When you look at the big picture, the loss of life, the loss of wellbeing, the injustices that communities who feel the affects of this emergency most are experiencing at the hands of a callous government, the temporary loss of theatre does feel small.
In early March, weeks before lockdown was announced, I was up on the Queen Elizabeth Hall stage, which is terrifyingly maaaasive btw, with 35 diverse womxn reclaiming my vulva and talking about my sexual fantasies in front of an audience of WOW Festival goers that included my mum (possible subject for another blog). You can take theatre out of the girl, but you can’t take the girl out of theatre. Anyway, there’s a bit in the show where the collective “hug” - we’re talking about our right as women to be held and to hold. Not small.
In December, I was teaching playwriting in prison with the amazing Synergy Theatre Project, and trying to explain theatre to a room of men who’d never experienced theatre before. We talked about how it needs three ingredients: at least one actor, an audience, and a space to perform in. They produced some short pieces that could indeed be performed by (at least one) actor, in a space, for a live audience. But talking about it and experiencing it are two different things. When they saw the power of their words come alive in front of 100 or so of their peers? The smiles on their faces were enormous. The unimitable magic of audience responding to actors and actors responding to audience, real people responding to real people. Being allowed to connect as people in a system that dehumanises them. Not small.
It’s hard to connect in person right now. Impossible to hug. Kids looking for a sense of belonging at school can’t find home in the making of a school play. My feeling of loss for theatre, is a feeling of loss for so much more. There’s no denying the forecast is bleak. Theatres will probably be the last to reopen. That’s going to have huge repercussions for the industry, most of all artists. But just like festivals, stadiums, libraries, community centres, pubs... theatres are places where people congregate to connect, to feel human. And that’s the reason why my feelings of loss haven’t turned to feelings of despair. There will always be that need to feel human.
As for the theatres themselves. I think almost daily about all the theatres across my constant city that are dark: a phrase that always felt so romantic to me before, that was in anticipation of light. Sometimes they’re in my dreams. When they reopen (because there will be light again), I will make a point of going into the auditorium earlier, instead of rushing from the loo/bar at 7.29. So I can look at them properly, thank them for making me who I am.