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
Sherry Coenen: Lighting Designer
At the start of March 2020 I was lucky enough to be with a load of my friends in Austin TX to celebrate my birthday. We ate BBQ and Tex Mex, paddleboarded and did a lot of walking. This new virus (Covid) was mentioned a few times as one of my friends is a doctor and another couple had come from Oregon where the USA outbreak was barely starting out. But it was mostly just not a thing. We met up with some UK friends who were over for SXSW set-up and they were sure that everything was going to be fine and the festival would be going ahead. It cancelled the day we flew home.
I got home, swapped bags and hopped a train up North to pre-program the lights for a large comedy tour. And then it all got real very quickly. Even while I was putting cues in the board the production manager was on the phone with the promoter trying to see whether there would be a tour to prep for. Yet again the cancellation came in as I headed out of town.
After that they came thick and fast. BAC Frankenstein was in Adelaide at the Fringe and I gave the sound designer and prod lx my parent’s address in Sydney incase they go stuck (thankfully they didn’t need it). Then when they were safely home the rest of the year’s world tour evaporated. A show at the Arcola got pulled, a show at The Playground got pulled, a show at Little Angel cancelled mid run, and Operation Mincemeat pulled its sold-out Southwark Playhouse outing. Other shows that were in discussion either got in touch to say they were going to postpone or just drifted away. My world stopped.
About that time a few of my neighbours started worrying about the flour shortages becoming bread shortages and so came knocking at my door and asked me to start baking for them. Suddenly I was making 4 loaves 3 times a week! They took two loaves and that left me with two spare so as the roads were quiet I finally had the nerve to try cycling around London and thus commenced the Tues/Thurs/Sat bread delivery service – first to all the company members of shows that had been cancelled and then to other industry friends around town. The furthest I ever went was 36mi roundtrip and I was the first non-neighbour this person had seen in 3 months! Slowly it began to sink in that the gov’t optimism may have been unfounded and I wasn’t having any luck getting a ‘normal’ job so I went ahead and planted all my extra tomato seeds and bought a bike basket – that kept me occupied for another month as I put calls out on twitter and delivered 200+ tomato plants to friends and strangers alike.
By this point we were into summer and I had been turned down for a stack of jobs but thankfully had been applicable for SEISS and was thus in the very lucky position of being able to keep hoping our world could bounce back anytime. Outdoor shows were switching on though sadly there wasn’t a lot of work for lighting designers (the sun being a nice big light and all) but I missed the organisational challenges so decided to arrange a marathon for a group of lighting people who had started a lockdown remote running club. Magically the race was scheduled for the day after lockdown lifted and we were able to have a nice distanced picnic once the runners finished the course.
In August the ALD launched an amazing digital version of its Lumiere scheme for emerging designers and I was fortunate to be selected as both a mentor and a mentee. For the next several months my weeks again had a fixed point that wasn’t just baking and it was such a joy to discuss both the art and the business of our industry. The program came to an end in November and I still feel the hole where it used to live in my schedule.
Then in November for one night only I was part of a company again. Potential Difference took part in the Signal Fires series and we had 2 bubbled/distanced promenade performances before the 10pm curfew that started London’s second lockdown. It was really quite a chilly evening, but sitting around a fire pit with collaborators and audience even for such a short while was a magical experience.
None of my venues or companies were putting on Christmas shows so the season came and went in a slightly grey lockdown fug. It’s now too cold and wet for me to feel confident cycling so my bread deliveries have been curtailed to just the few theatre people in my walking range. Too keep my mood up I have taken up ‘Daily Dancing’ and I’ve been on twitter again asking who wants tomato seeds and making little seed parcels to send around the country. I’ve also been teaching bagel making classes over zoom which has been a great way to connect with people from around the country. We spend 40 mins one evening making our dough and then 40 mins the next morning boiling/baking and then showing off our attempts.
There are tiny glimmers of hope on the horizon. I’m in rehearsals for a children’s show that will be going out over zoom. And I’ve just been sent the fourth reschedule contract for another show that fingers crossed will be opening late May if the restrictions lift. But I also had my July show cancel last night so I think there might still be a bit more road to tread.