On the 17th March, it will be exactly one year since UK theatre came to an overnight standstill. Every day as we approach the anniversary, Theatre Bubble will be releasing personal accounts from theatre makers across all areas of the industry, telling us what this unexpected and unprecedented year has been like for them. See the full series here: Hands Face & Empty Space
Alison Ford: Producer and Programmer
Thinking about the past year feels somewhat akin to the act of remembering the morning I woke up to the news that Princess Diana had died, or the afternoon I came home from school to see the footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. I remember everything. Every detail of the minutes and hours that surrounded those events. In this case, it’s a 365-day timelapse of specific dates remembered with vivid clarity and an overwhelming sense of emotion.
I’d recently gone part time in my role as Programmer & Producer at Square Chapel Arts Centre in order to pursue some freelance opportunities. Through Square Chapel, I was producing Debs Newbold’s Outrageous Fortune which was about to go out on a 20-date national tour, and independently, I was producing TheatreState’s Say Yes to Tess, which was due to premiere at Leeds Playhouse in April, ahead of an Autumn tour. By the time we went into rehearsals in early March, Covid-19 was sweeping its way across Europe and there was a growing level of anxiety in the room. Big decisions needed to be made at government level and yet nothing was happening apart from a resounding chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ at every trip to the toilet.
On the 16th March, following the government advice that people should avoid public buildings, SOLT & UK Theatre announced that all member venues would close immediately. Those considered ‘vulnerable’ were instructed to stay at home. I was 22 weeks pregnant at the time.
By the following day, both the Spring/Summer tours I had planned were postponed indefinitely, and cast and creatives sent home.
A week later we went into national lockdown and the following day I received a phone call with the news that Square Chapel was going into administration. My job would be made redundant by the end of the month if no buyers came forward. I remember feeling swallowed by sheer panic. The realisation that 50% of the Outrageous Fortune budget (granted in the artist’s name) was wrapped up in the collapse. That I’d be left without maternity rights, with a statutory redundancy package that would reflect my 6 months’ part time hours rather than my 8 years full time, and with no access to the SEISS as I hadn’t been registered self-employed for long enough. Above all: the immense grief that the organisation I’d poured my heart and soul into for the entirety of my career to date had come to this end.
I spent the remainder of March working frantically to save both projects from collapse, protect the freelancers involved by paying what fees we could upfront, salvaging the remnants of Outrageous Fortune from Square Chapel and liaising with Arts Council England over releasing the remaining funds for us to manage independently. On the day I was due to be made redundant, I received an update from the administrators: negotiations with potential buyers were taking place, and I would be temporarily furloughed until a deal was made. Hope.
On the 7th May, in the midst of the doorstep clap for the NHS and hazy VE Day celebrations, I turned 30. Six weeks on from the lowest point of my working life, I was the happiest, healthiest and furthest from burnout I’d ever felt. I was in close (virtual) contact with friends and family, and my daily routine consisted of a morning crossword, Yoga with Adrienne, and a 5km walk with my growing bump and a Guide Dog we were boarding. I felt better connected and truly rested for the first time in as long as I could remember.
Come June, I was wrapping up the remainder of my freelance activity in preparation for our imminent arrival. The last weekend of May had been spent in hospital where I was diagnosed with a pregnancy-related liver condition. I’d have weekly blood tests and monitoring from this point forward, and was told I’d be lucky to make it to full term.
On the 8th July, after a long but positive labour, I gave birth to my daughter, Margot. She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever set eyes on; my greatest production to date.
Three weeks postpartum and still sore from the birth, I received a phone call from the administrators of Square Chapel. My role was to be made redundant, with immediate effect.
Twelve weeks into new motherhood (and without doubt the toughest of my life), the maternity cover I’d put in place for Outrageous Fortune came to an end. This is where the reality of being freelance hit me. There was no money in the budget to pay another producer to take on the work (I’d been offering my services in-kind since moving the project away from Square Chapel, which I was able to do thanks to my temporary furlough and ACE emergency fund) and there was no infrastructure around me to delegate. With a 3-month old at home and no childcare support, I got really good at working during Margot’s naps (unpredictable in timing and duration!), became an expert in ‘unproducing’ for the second time that year, and more often than not had to choose emails over showers.
Christmas came and went, and before you could say ‘Veganuary’, we were in Lockdown 3.0. Since I’d rejoined the project we’d already had to make several major adjustments, and now, following the closure of our last remaining venue partner (with whom we were going to make a film of the show), we were faced with some huge decisions – we had a team of twelve freelancers contracted for work that we were legally able to continue with according to industry and government guidelines – but was it morally right to go ahead, given the conflicting ‘Stay at Home’ advice? And if so, could we find a replacement venue at such short notice?
We took ‘making it happen’ to a whole new level and in early February we succeeded in bringing everyone together in a Covid-safe environment to make a broadcast-quality film; beautifully lit, with a stunning set design. The word ‘proud’ doesn’t cut it.
And just like that, it’s March again. One year on. I’m in my final month of ‘maternity leave’. In April, the UK will ease out of restrictions. Parent and baby groups will restart. Theatres will make plans to reopen. We’ll reunite with loved ones. And alongside motherhood and my work as Co-Director of TheatreState, I’ll begin a new role as Producer of Transform Festival – planning international collaborations and connecting people, places and ideas across the world.
It’ll be a different world to the one we left, but one full of opportunity to rebuild.