Assistant Director Hal Chambers reflects on the last year with members of the RSC acting company.
August 2020. A troupe of actors are huddled under a tree, the rain falling around them, splashing off the branches. There is a line run and singing rehearsal taking place. In a short amount of time they will be performing a hastily organised collection of Shakespeare scenes, speeches and songs for whoever is bonkers enough to turn up in such weather conditions. It strikes them, at this surreal moment, that this wasn’t how this year was meant to turn out. How did it come to this?
Wind back to the start of the year and the new RSC company descends on the Clapham rehearsal space, shaking hands around coffees and pastries, hugging, meeting their new colleagues for the coming year. They will perform three Shakespeare plays together in front of packed houses in Stratford, before a triumphant transfer to the Barbican in London.
Soon rehearsals are in full flow and come March they are due to head to Stratford to get these productions into technical rehearsals.
You all know what happened next…
The first few months of lockdown were strange. We had been working at full tilt, like an athlete preparing for the Olympics, and then, suddenly, there was nothing. Initially we carried on with some online rehearsals, naively thinking this was all temporary and we would be back in rehearsals by the summer. Our resumption date kept getting moved back and back and before long we had become the Pandemic Theatre Company.
We created stuff. For each other. For the RSC audiences.
To start with, in the first week of the first lockdown, actor Joe Kloska’s internal podcast, Isolation Island Disks, brought us together. A different company member was interviewed each day and shared a song that was getting them through this period of crisis.
For a time this was what got me up in the mornings! Early on in lockdown this really helped us feel like a company and get to know each other, in a way we couldn't over a drink in the Duck at the time. - actor Avita Jay
Then followed director Phillip Breen’s Sonnet Club, where a group of us met each Thursday and interrogated the Bard’s pocket poems, trying to see what they teach about acting Shakespeare. We would go on to perform a live version of this venture at Maidenhead’s Norden Farm in November 2020.
There was a DIY, have-a-go energy which was strangely galvanising. The work with the RSC Education and Events teams stacked up: from surreal crayon tales to helping young people with their homework, and showing families theatre games they could play at home during lockdown. Then came the filming of poems in our green spaces, making arts and crafts and comedy sketches for the online Midsummer festival, and taking part in community and school Q&A’s and storytelling sessions. We made an interactive Comedy of Errors playground installation that, to this day, sits outside the theatre. We even had an RSC choir, rehearsed on Zoom.
We couldn't hear each other but it was lovely to see everyone singing together. We also recorded a Christmas song for a charity which was played in care homes. - Avita Jay
Additional theatre companies were even born - The Stratford Six project gave a platform for writers within the company and six new plays were made and shared online. Elsewhere there were research and development sessions exploring brilliant plays by contemporaries of the Bard.
It was a hub of activity.
Soon restrictions relaxed and the Pandemic Theatre Company smelled an opportunity. We set up in the Dell gardens, right by the theatre, and mounted a ‘Snapshots’ show each weekend for whoever might turn up. Our stage was a tree stump and the open air. We performed in our own clothes, with no props or set. We were back to basics. Audiences sat in heart-shaped boxes at a social distance. The sound of distant cars, geese and hand driers rumbled away in the background.
The Snapshot weekends at the Dell felt so immediate and celebratory; performers and audiences missing live theatre, pitching up on patches of grass, eager, with open hearts to share an event, all of us giving it large - after weeks of only performing on Zoom in bedrooms. This was street theatre we had to deliver with gusto, very Elizabethan! - actor Zoe Lambert
Roaring from a tree stump was proper fun! - actor Greg Haiste
As the autumn came in we were back inside the theatre at last. The RSC put together a Winter Festival with a number of exciting projects being made for online stream: Gregory Doran’s ambitious and epic Troy Story, Erica Whyman’s emotional and heartfelt Festive Tales, as well as the popular author Michael Morpurgo's Tales from Shakespeare. We were BACK… sort of. Being able to make work in an actual theatre was bittersweet. Despite the thrill of being on the stage and making engaging work, the empty red seats stared back at us. It was eerie. Is a theatre really a theatre without an audience?
A year on, we, the Pandemic Theatre Company, are barely able to remember what we came to do at the RSC in the first place! It has been a blur of Zooms, social distance, multi-cameras and a strange type of togetherness. We have been some of the lucky ones to make work throughout this period; that is not lost on us. Our time at the RSC will certainly be impossible to ever forget.
In some ways I wonder if all the various projects have strengthened us as a company in a way that would never have occurred had things gone to plan, pre COVID. - Zoe Lambert
Back to August 2020.The rain that has been falling around us is starting to stop. The acting company step out and over to their little performance space by the tree stump. To their disbelief, rain-drenched audiences are arriving, laying down things to sit on and getting ready to watch our performance on a muddy field by a river. The actors step forward, intake a breath in order to begin again, as a glint of sunlight pushes its way through the departing black clouds.