The Show Means Something and Absolutely Nothing

On not-finishing.

Before you open a show you think a lot about the audience. You dream about them; you wonder what they like; you obsess about how they’ll read a moment onstage. Your relationship with your imagined audience becomes intimate, like a teenage crush, and it’s all completely in your imagination until there are bodies in the room.

Covid-19 has affected so many lives in ways immediately felt and in other ways we don’t even know yet. And it’s really, truly, not the end of the world if the show mustn’t, in fact, go on. But I’m interested in non-endings. Live performance only has the moment, nothing else. What does it feel like when you’ve crafted and cared for something over a period of time, but you’re not able to release it for your audience and for that moment? What happens when you’re in the middle of a run as an actor, in tune with the rhythms of the season, to walk suddenly into the brick wall of the unexpected end?

I asked four theatre-makers and actors from across the country (plus one New Zealand Harry Potter across the ditch) who were on the brink of opening a show or in the middle of a season, to dig a bit further into this in their own words. Not out of sentimentality, but because maybe, I just wanted to offer up a small moment of release. As Wellington theatre-maker Stella Reid eloquently put it, “it must be a unique kind of blue balls right now”. And we really can't have anyone feeling that.

Karin McCracken – Performer and Creator, Standard Acts
BATS Theatre, Pōneke

I’m writing this just after the government announced that we will be in nationwide self-isolation for at least the next four weeks. As a result I might be a little earnest. Sorry!

Standard Acts, a new theatre show created by me, Meg Rollandi, and Tom Clarke, with lighting design by Elekis Poblete, was due to open on 19 March for a three-night development season at BATS Theatre. The show was packed in and ready to go; we decided to pull it the day before opening.

I’ve wanted to make this show for a long time. It’s about gender and misogyny, friendship and loneliness. There were duets, wedding dresses, broken glass. I got to make it with Meg and Tom, both disastrously talented, intuitive, kind – my dearest friends. It had finally come together after several years and a long series of setbacks, and I was pleased with what we’d made.

So to cancel it the day before opening should have been a bit heartbreaking but in honesty I felt nothing, except perhaps relief (the thought of gathering people together was, at that point, kind of nauseating). I continue to feel nothing about the show. All of my emotional output is being reserved for everything else. Right now, Standard Acts means both something and absolutely nothing.

We made the call to pull the show last Wednesday morning during our pack-in, and right after decided to continue on and finish the lighting plot. How often do you get a day in the theatre to test lights without the terror of an opening? Tom had to go home, so Meg and I took turns hopping onto the stage and miming action from a show we knew no one would get to see. Elekis’ lighting design was beautiful. The way Meg asked to see a sunset on the back wall was beautiful. The loud whir of the movers was, for the first (and probably last) time, beautiful.

We got to the final sequence. The last moments (spoiler alert!) of action are Tom and I slow-dancing. Meg got on stage, hit centre and slowly rotated, shifting from foot to foot, so I could watch the 3-minute light sequence. The cold light transitioned to warm, and Meg’s skin turned gold. It occurred to me that I had no idea when I’d next set foot in a theatre. The lights started to slow-fade on Meg, who was still gently turning. I thought about how I love Meg and Tom, and the work they make. I love working in theatres. I love seeing the lights change.

Gareth Reeves – Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Princess Theatre, Naarm

January 2020. I’m nearing the end of one year playing Harry Potter in the world’s third production of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child in Melbourne, after London and New York. We’re very proud of our production, acknowledged by the creators as the new template for the show. There are two other Kiwis in the cast, a couple more on the crew and we are welcoming another into our Year Two Company. There’s over a hundred cast and crew all told. We’re a small town and full of all the love, life and drama you’d expect. As far as theatre jobs go for an actor, it’s about as big as it gets.

February 2020. I can remember the first time I thought about how the coronavirus might affect us. Our Australian Producer Michael Cassel – a young, energetic, brilliant man – was visiting us backstage and he didn’t look his usual self. Michael Cassel Group was producing a Chinese Tour of The Lion King and the production was due to open in Wuhan in a couple of weeks. Michael was waiting on the W.H.O for clarification while his company waited on him. I remember thinking, these are the moments you don’t want to be a producer and, selfishly, I’m glad I’m in Melbourne.

March 2020. I’ve been an actor for 22 years. This is the first time in my life I’ve had a full-time job with annual leave and the ability to apply for a home loan. So, like others in our company, my wife and I get pre-approval and begin searching for our first home in earnest. We find a property a few suburbs further out that the owner is looking to sell quickly so drop a deposit that makes me feel nauseous and put a big SOLD sticker on the sign outside. We hold off on posting it online until we get full approval from the bank.

At work, things start moving very quickly. We are now having regular company meetings about extra hygiene measures and reports are coming in of other productions limiting capacity or closing temporarily. The German language production due to open in Hamburg postpones its premiere and closes for five months. Then Broadway shuts down and we know we’re in trouble. Our Australian Associate Producer Rhys Holden updates us regularly but his updates are vague because the advice from State and Federal Government is unclear. But by now the writing's on the wall. Finally we're told we'll close for a month. We're to take everything home from our dressing rooms, and costumes start getting plastic wrapped and stored. Our penultimate performance is eerily quiet. There were very few people on the train on the way in. It was unseasonably cold and I was wearing a dusty winter jacket that made me sneeze. People changed carriages.

My body doesn’t yet understand what’s happening.

Our final performance is riotous. Like a party at the end of the world. We cancelled Stage Door signings two weeks earlier so I don’t know for sure by talking to people, but it seems everyone is aware this could be our last performance for some time. Maybe ever. No one really knows. The curtain calls are emotional and loud. People mouth ‘Thank-you’ at us from the stalls.

The following week we get an email from the bank asking how Covid-19 will affect my employment and how long I expect that to last. I’m pretty stunned a major bank is asking me how long I expect the coronavirus pandemic to last but it serves to highlight how unsure everyone is about the future. We’re still waiting to hear if our loan has been approved. Our conveyancer tells us there is no way to get back the deposit if they decline.

I am watching my friends lose their jobs and the industry I love and have grown up in and made a living from, close its doors. We know Michael Cassel and his London equivalents Sonia Friedman and Colin Calendar will work hard to get this global franchise back onstage, and if they succeed our company may well prove to be the luckiest in Australia and I will owe them a debt of gratitude. The Boy Who Lived indeed.

For now I'm treasuring the time I have with my son, whose face lit up with joy when I told him I wouldn’t be Harry Potter for a while. I’m also joining the scores of artists who are trying to take their skills online and offering workshops, talks, Q&A’s and making mischief.

I want to tell you what it feels like to have been working the hardest I ever have in a job I love at the top of my game with incredible people, to suddenly have that all stop dead. But I honestly can’t. I think I’m in shock. After playing Harry eight shows a week for over a year and still rehearsing new performers in at the same time, my body doesn’t yet understand what’s happening, and I’m pretty sure this headache I have is me holding onto some kind of grief. I did allow myself a moment to fall apart today briefly. My union had just told me that as a New Zealander I wouldn’t be able to access the Government Support Package, despite Australians in New Zealand being able to do so. Then New Zealand went into lockdown and suddenly I felt like I was floating. Like the party was over but I couldn’t go home and I wasn’t welcome anymore. I came out of my funk eventually but it really is that much harder without your friends and colleagues around you. I miss them terribly.

After the curtain came down on our last show, our Resident Director Naomi Edwards called the company onstage behind the fire curtain. She pulled out a copy of the script and we each tore out a page to keep and take home. There’s so much secrecy around this production that I can’t tell you what’s on that page, but I can share the first two lines of dialogue.

Scorpius: Albus, we need to do something.

Albus: I know we do! But what?

Hannah Smith – Director, Lysander's Aunty
Court Theatre, Ōtautahi

For the last wee while we’ve been rehearsing a new show Lysander’s Aunty in collaboration with the Court Theatre in Christchurch. For an independent company, who frequently make and tour pocket-sized shows, it looked like the most stable gig we’d had in years.

It was also the most ambitious thing we’d made. (Cast of fourteen! Moving trees! Blasting soundtrack of agit-prop metal!) Usually we make new work fast, throw it in front of an audience, and then refine it on the floor. With this show, we’d had a much longer run-up time – writer Ralph McCubbin Howell had been working on the script for the last three years, and we were coming to the end of a luxurious four weeks of rehearsal. Whilst the upcoming season was still very much a first crack at the thing in performance, we were so ready for this next step. The set had gone in, the costumes were sewn, the cast had worked up this wicked new thing. We’d made something wonderful with some wonderful people. We were so so close.

Rehearsing a comedy under the atmosphere of the last couple of weeks wasn't ideal. Almost all of the cast and crew had lost work, people were stressed and not sleeping, and every time the door opened the cast would look to Dan and Hannah expecting it was someone coming in to tell us they were pulling the plug. We went into this process hoping the show would be a success, and then that the box office wouldn’t take too big a hit, and finally after we’d cancelled the season, that we might at least get a run of the show in costume on stage to capture what we’d made on film. We didn’t quite get there.

We don’t know what theatre is in a time of social distancing and self-isolation.

There’s always an awful lot of making before anyone sees a show, but it only lives once there are people in the room to see it. Ralph and I have established a process which involves honing a work through performance. We fiddle with lines, scenes, delivery throughout a season (lucky actors, here come some notes) and we tour, tour, tour so that in between season dates we can get under the hood and do some more major mucking about. It hurts our hearts that we won’t get to that necessary part of process.

We’re glad we were on the same page as the Court when it did come to calling it quits – it’s the only thing we could have done. A show is a show, and there are more important things, but – even aside from the financial uncertainty ahead – to have come this far creatively and suddenly see it fall away is gut-wrenching.

We're aware there are a lot of people in the same boat as us, and that this is devastating, not just to our company, but to our industry, our very art form. The kind of work we do, we cannot work from home – it requires being in a room with other live humans. Theatre is contact. Theatre is community. We don’t know what theatre is in a time of social distancing and self-isolation. We don’t know what our livelihood will be with no theatre for the next, what, 12 to 18 months while we wait for a vaccine? We’ve spent ten years building our business and our company and 2021 was going to be our decade anniversary. We don’t know if we’ll make it.

Saraid de Silva – Actor, Emilia
Pop-up Globe, Tāmaki

It’s 2.30 on a Thursday. At this point in the matinee, I should be wiping a fake-but-frightening-looking bruise off my face with coconut oil, ripping my hair tie out, and running down three flights of stairs to wait outside the main entrance before I and two other actresses throw open the door, and walk in smiling.

Instead I am sitting in a huge circle onstage in an empty theatre, talking about whether we should do the play tonight, during a global pandemic.

One actress flew here for this job from Hamburg. She has two small children at home there and she doesn’t know if she’ll be let back in the country. Some others have families that aren’t comfortable with them leaving the house to even come to this meeting, let alone entertain the possibility of doing a show tonight. One has a family member in Parliament. Another has a partner in the UK she doesn’t know when she’ll get back to. There’s a Grandmother, children of parents with serious health problems, people being kept away from those they love by this meeting, and all of us just sitting here, talking about putting on a play.

I think about my Gran. She would be shitting herself if she were still alive. SHIT.TING. HER.SELF. She did not move countries three times, wash her hands fifteen times a day in NORMAL circumstances, or wipe my literal ass till I was the far-too-old age of seven to have me sitting in a room discussing whether or not to put on some theatre.

I should sanitise my life, go home, call everyone I know to check on them, and leave it. I’ve barely had a drink in two months because I’ve been trying to be in peak health or whatever for the show and all I can think about is having five tonight.

Writing this just before we enter Level 4 and total lockdown feels strange, but less than a week ago, we were still operating under the idea that because we were working an open-air theatre and reducing capacity we might be able to manage it.

Companies all around the country have been having the same conversations. It’s a confusing time. Here we spend hours talking. Hours where we truly hold space and have time for everyone’s voices and opinions, as female-led companies are gloriously capable of doing. Hours where I feel more and more scared, withdrawn and somehow physically smaller – all terrible states to consider performing a show in, in case you were wondering – and where all I can think about is being back in bed, reading the news next to my girlfriend.

Then just like that, the decision is completely taken off our hands by the latest announcement from our Government. The rest of the season is cancelled.

I don’t realise how sad not doing the play makes me till I don’t have a choice in the matter. I sit in the theatre where I was able to do the arguably useless thing I love for two whole weeks, look up at a painted sun on the ceiling and my bottom lip quivers. As I leave, I hear there’s a woman waiting. She’s an English teacher who’s read the script twice and who has flown from New Plymouth to see the play.

I get into my car and sit staring at the tiny plant one of the actresses brought us all as gifts, wondering if I have enough gin at home or if I should stop on the way.

On Tuesday 10th March I waited in Johnnie’s Southern Kitchen on Rattray Street with Kelly Hocking and Allison Horsley for our lunch orders while cold, sticky rain spun in the air outside. We’d come from a National Theatre Live screening of Fleabag as research for Kelly’s solo play Theif!, which was to open in 13 days’ time in Prospect Park Productions’ (PPP) Play:Ground 2020 in Dunedin Fringe. Johnnie’s is owned by Matthew and Kim Morgan; also Dunedin theatre practitioners and supporters, literally feeding our bellies and minds. As they handed over our rice, burritos and cornbread they promised to see us soon at the show.

That afternoon’s rehearsal of Thief! culminated in a very good place. We were on top of the script, staging, costume, and props and what we didn’t have, we could get. There was still some music licensing to be confirmed but we had contingencies. Kelly would be out of town for the rest of the week and the three of us would reconvene the following Monday for the rehearsal home stretch.

I’d started working with Kelly on Thief! in mid-2019 as her dramaturg for the inaugural Ōtepoti Playwrights Programme (ŌTL). When Allison moved to Dunedin a couple of months later, we snatched her up as director, not wanting to miss having someone of her calibre and experience on board. The shorter version of Thief! was presented as a rehearsed reading that September.

Play:Ground was to be delivered in portfolio format with support from the Dunedin Fringe Arts Trust, UNESCO City of Literature, and Playwrights Studio Scotland. Each morning would begin with a free Breakfast Reading (including said breakfast) of scripts from Dunedin, Auckland, and Edinburgh, followed by lunchtime and evening performances. The home of Play:Ground was The Regent Theatre’s Clarkson Studio. 23 May marked not only the start of the season, but the bringing together our crew of 18 who, until then, rehearsed in small groups at separate sites – one of the by-products of working in a city with limited venues and infrastructure. In this sense, Play:Ground wasn’t just a festival of works but a homecoming.

The main publicity image for the season is our Prospect Park Productions tree with the addition of an vacant swing; a beacon of future occupancy and play. An invitation to commune at different speeds and heights of imaginings. Like so many swings around Aotearoa, it will hang empty for the time being. Play:Ground was cancelled on the Monday we were to resume Thief! rehearsals. Johnnies, as required by the nationwide lockdown, has closed at time of writing and when any of us will see each other on common ground is unknown. What we do know is that fair weather is not a determinant of friendships and working relationships within the Ōtepoti theatre community. And what is even clearer now than ever before is the need for the means to take care of business in order to play in the future.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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