“Necessity is the mother of invention” is a proverb that has been tested and proven to the hilt this year. Theatre-makers – and those in associated industries – have seen the sudden and lengthy closure of the playhouses blast their livelihoods to smithereens. And notwithstanding some – far from comprehensive – Government support, masses of freelancers have been forced to do what they can to keep body and soul together.
Such is the burgeoning nature of the new activity, which has seen this creative sector turn on additional taps of money-raising ingenuity as never before, that sites and social media accounts have sprung up helping to guide potential customers through the maze of home-grown delights. If you want to help the freelance theatre community and stumble on unusual Christmas gift ideas, theatre-themed or not, you could do worse than start at NotOnTheWestEnd.co.uk.
The website was set up by Anna Saunders, who lost her job as the wardrobe deputy on 9 to 5: The Musical after the playhouses closed in March, then, in a temporary twist of good fortune, found employment as head of wardrobe at the Dominion for A Christmas Carol – which has now been felled by the imposition of Tier 3.
As the year wore on, Saunders says, “I didn’t have much faith that we’d all be back and it would be business as usual. We needed to find a way we can all support each other.”
Developed in August, the site now has links to over 420 different businesses. “Everyone’s doing things”, Saunders adds, launching into a breathless list: “Actors, writers, wardrobe people, wig-makers, dancers, singers, musicians, directors, writers, choreographers, movement directors, lighting, sound, set-builders, scenic artists, front of house staff, producers, marketing officers, chaperones.
“I don’t think the public necessarily realise how many individuals and companies are affected by theatres closing – even dry-cleaners and cobblers. It’s often people who are the bottom of the pile, who don’t have the voices to be able to put their cases, but who need to put food on the table, and pay their bills.
“It’s a real ‘show must go on’ spirit – ‘I’ve got other skills, what can I do to make this work?’”
The project is currently running at a £9 profit. Similar altruism is to be found in a largely Instagram-based scheme set up by the designer Robert Innes Hopkins, the Theatre Makers Support Pledge, in which at a certain level of earning, the theatre-artist in receipt of money pledges to spend 20 per cent on another artist’s work. Hopkins has sold some of his storyboards for past productions – including Clybourne Park (Royal Court) and Oppenheimer (RSC) – and puts others up fairly regularly.
“What can we tempt people with? There is some graduate work there which is beautiful – and, boy, could they do with some support. Imagine graduating into this industry right now. But I’d advise people just to take a look, because it changes all the time.”
Hopkins’ own income is now bolstered by working for a flooring company. “It will take years for the industry to get back to a full head of steam,” he warns. In the meantime, log on and marvel at seeing what names – well-known and otherwise – have turned their hand to.
Set and costume designer, also fashion designer
Ti Green’s last design work in the West End was on Touching the Void. She was working on Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at the Gate, Dublin, and thereafter was due to work on Mark Rylance’s project Doctor Semmelweis at the Bristol Old Vic and ’Night, Mother at Hampstead.
Once the pandemic hit, she took a realistic (or pessimistic) view. “I know how long it takes for a show to gear up from the point of being green-lit. I wasn’t relying on any theatres being open this year.”
So she set about developing an idea for a fashion label. “I have been designing clothes for myself for a while – people would ask me if they were available to buy. Now was the time to try it.” She got £2,500 of emergency Arts Council money which helped sustain her while buying materials.
When she set up online, the response was encouraging. “I think of it as a cottage industry for me to keep myself afloat. It can do that now quite comfortably, but at the moment I’m trying to grow it so it becomes more of a social enterprise.” Ten per cent of sales goes to the Bristol Old Vic’s commissioning fund.
Green detects a latent connection with her work as a designer: “My clothes are quite sculptural but very minimal – they look simple even though they have quite a complicated construction.” There’s an eco dimension too. She uses European textiles and raves about Tencel – “an incredible fabric made in Germany from sustainable wood pulp that’s like silk, heavy, soft and lustrous – it works well with non-polluting dye. I’ve also started working with organic cottons and organic hemp.”
Among her range is the ‘Morris’ scarf, named after Bristol Old Vic director Tom Morris, and the Tilda tank top, named after Tilda Swinton – “though she doesn’t even know that. I just imagined her wearing it!”
Actor, also artist
The Scottish actor, who has lived in London for the last 10 years, originated the role of the abusive husband Earl in the UK premiere of Waitress. When the pandemic hit, all his revenue streams dried up, but Hannah rustled up an increasingly lucrative sideline by turning his attention to illustrations.
“I’ve always done art,” he says, “but I didn’t have much time for it. Living in west London near lots of beautiful pubs, my original idea was to draw them and sell them to the pubs themselves. Then I thought about my following on social media all my Waitress fans. I sketched the Adelphi and it went from there. There’s a lot of architectural drawing out there but no one was doing theatres.
“The idea was to bring a bit of the West End to people’s homes while the theatres are closed.” He launched in August, mainly relying on the wealth of photos online, including Google Street View. It takes weeks to finish these £35 drawings, such is the detail, but he points out that they also take liberties.
“Obviously I can’t use the show signage so I’ve found ways of giving the essence of the particular show with a splash of colour.” His portfolio includes the Noel Coward (Dear Evan Hansen), the Shaftesbury (& Juliet) and Victoria Palace (Hamilton). He has sold more than 650 prints so far, with buyers including Sam Tutty, Amanda Holden and Peter Capaldi.
Info: etsy.com, instagram.com
Stage manager, also online sweet-shop owner
Daniel Haynes was about to oversee, as stage manager, a new musical – Love Letters – at the Queen’s Hornchurch, where his partner Stephen Pemble works as head of lighting – when the theatres closed. His recent prior work includes a touring production of A Woman of No Importance and Half a Sixpence in the West End.
Based in Essex, Haynes began to send sweets to his family in Birmingham while they were self-isolating. But, unimpressed by what was on offer online, he and Pemble decided to assemble boxes and packages of sweets that could fit through a standard letter-box. They soon drummed up a trade. “It kicked off quite quickly,” he says. “We started on Facebook then, after a few weeks, set up a website.”
Oh My Sweets! soon had so many requests that they went from packing up around 20 varieties to just over 100 – catering for those with vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free needs too. “Being in stage-management, you’re used to all the spreadsheets, being able to handle a budget and work to a tight timescale as well.”
Hygiene is a watchword. The sweets are stored floor to ceiling in a dedicated room, in their original packaging. Haynes has also completed a Level 2 food hygiene course. The pair now average 70–80 orders a week. They will keep catering for those with a sweet tooth, but haven’t given up on their main calling.
“I’ve always kept up the hope,” Haynes says, “that at some point we will be able to return.”
Sound crew, also baker
Jessica Howells has served as deputy head of sound on productions as big, and various, as Mary Poppins, Hamilton, Wicked and The Band. In March, she had been working for over a year and half on The Phantom of the Opera, “six days a week, eight shows a week”.
She was put on furlough then went on maternity leave. With the Phantom contracts ending – “I got made redundant when my baby was three weeks old” – she turned her hand to another passion. “I’ve baked for much of my life. Now was the time to see whether a bakery would take off.”
An avid Bake Off viewer, she has set up her own dedicated cake kitchen at home. Since August, Flour and Fold has made over 250 sales; her baking ranges from lavish cakes, delivered around the Oxfordshire area, to posted boxes of brownies and personalised biscuits.
“Some people are very particular about what they want – some might say ‘I’d like your cluster cake – but in blues’. My mum jokes, ‘I never knew you were so artistic.’ I say, ‘I didn’t know I was either.’”
Prices range from £45 to £120. “It has been a tough year, but this has been a silver lining. Who knows when theatre will be back, but it’s great to have a new path to explore.”
Director, also artist
Blanche McIntyre was poised to open a revival of The Little Foxes at the Gate in Dublin in March. Further work for 2020 – The House of Shades at the Almeida, and Pericles at the RSC – was also affected.
She had enough money – from savings and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme – to get to September, but the anxiety levels ran high. “Did I think ‘Why have I become a theatre director?’ Oh yes – why did I make this terrible mistake of getting into this precarious profession? When the future is a blank, an existential terror hits.
“It did cross my mind that theatre might not make it through to the point where audiences could return. That terrified me.”
She had practised drawing as a hobby. “I thought: ‘The one silver lining is that I’m now shut at home. I have nothing to do except pick up a piece of paper and pencil. I have no excuses.’
“I started small and carried on working from there. There is something about having to focus on getting the line right that has kept me in a much healthier place than would have been the case.” Offered for sale under the pseudonym Mery Greeke, her drawings and gouache paintings range in subject, but incline to the macabre and abstract – she’s inspired by Edward Gorey, Ronald Searle and Mervyn Peake.
And they’re not theatrical. “The things I love about theatre”, she says, “are the opposite of what is interesting on the page – because the page is fixed. If I did Titania in the forest, that would be my idea of just one moment.”
Her output ranges from “bespoke initials on A5” (£20) to more substantial ink drawings and larger canvases (rising to approx £100).
Casting director, also purveyor of children’s activities
Ellie McPhail is a casting director whose credits include Killer Joe with Orlando Bloom, the adult company for Adrian Mole, the musical, and the kids casting for The King and I in the West End. Her bread-and-butter gig was as the regular casting director on Witness for the Prosecution, in London. “As soon as everything got called off that meant that all that money evaporated.”
At home with three young children below the age of five, she found herself shifting from finding activities for them to making – with her husband Kyle, a primary-school teacher – activity-based “Boredom Bags” for kids far and wide.
“We wanted to create something that would work just as well for parents as children. Something that provided choice – games, recipes, crafts, discovery, science hacks, mindfulness – and encouraged children to apply their own creative flair.”
There are 35 activities in all, 10 of which have resources supplied, plus 25 ‘interactive’ cards. “There’s longevity to the activities, it’s not about making something and then moving on. One of the things, for example, is a sewing challenge that helps you make your own juggling ball.” The affordability (£20) is enabled by the use of recycled material.
“Our loft is full of donated materials. The fabric varies from bag to bag, so everyone gets something unique. We are utilising old pots to stock glitter or contact-lens cases to put seeds in. We have reimagined the items to become something else.” So far she has seen 200 orders, from all across Britain. In terms of revenue, “it’s not comparable to what I was earning before – but given it’s a new business, it’s amazing.”
Lighting designer, also stained-glass maker
Anna Watson was in technical rehearsals at the National when the theatre shutdown hit, opening All of Us, the first play by the comedian Francesca Martinez. The company came back in to do the dress rehearsal. “We knew that would be the only time it would get performed.”
“I tend to light six shows a year,” she says. “I had about four taking me up to Christmas – all of that was postponed.” She already had an interest in making stained glass. “I might have made one or two pieces a year but I’d never sold anything. I put some pictures on Instagram and someone said: ‘My mum wants to commission something.’ It has taken off from there.”
Watson’s output ranges from small items that go for as little as £15 – Christmas decoration stars – to pricier pieces that can be put in a window, set above a door or hung in a garden. The most someone has paid so far, she says, is £600.
“What has been so lovely is getting taken in a completely different direction. People will say ‘I want it in these colours.’ I’d never been drawn to oranges and greens, but someone wanted autumnal colours. It has been great to try something new.” She works in a home studio.
What’s the connection with her theatre work? “Colour is a huge part of it. You understand how the glass will look depending on the kind of light coming through it. The process has similarities – there’s the design and the concept to work on, then the practicality of getting it right and presenting it.”
There has only been one disaster so far: “I sent something to someone that wasn’t delivered, then it disappeared, and arrived two weeks later, almost destroyed. So I had to suck it up, remake the whole thing and send it again.” That, indeed, is the spirit.
A substantial directory can be found at notonthewestend.co.uk; those interested can also visit outofworkwork.co.uk and etsy.com