As rehearsals for The Comedy of Errors are put on hold, Assistant Director Hal Chambers talks about what it's like to be a creative in lockdown.

Friday 13 March. Clapham rehearsal rooms. There’s a feeling of triumphant optimism in the air. The actors have just finished their second full run of the day. We can feel this great puzzle coming together. The cast are buzzing and Phil, our director, gives a defiant speech. Onwards and upwards! 

Monday 16 March. Things in the news have shifted and we no longer know if the rest of the week’s rehearsals will be fully completed. Despite an exciting day working with our singers, who beautifully sang through Paddy Cunneen’s new compositions for the show, there is a strange mood in the air, a little bit like being a passenger on a plane that is running out of fuel.

Come the end of the day the news has broken about Coronavirus’s growing hold on the UK and the new instructions that the public are strongly advised against attending ‘mass gatherings’. No more pubs, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and… theatres. There is a slightly grave atmosphere as we pack up for the day. Our stage manager advises us to take any personal items from the rehearsal room in Clapham as we may not be coming back. A little like someone on a sinking ship, I hastily gather my script, books and possessions into my arms and flee. 

On Tuesday we wait at home for further news. I feel very strange. We should be in the midst of action and excitement and instead I'm sitting at my laptop, waiting… My WhatsApp buzzes with messages from the cast, as well as other freelance creatives whose projects have been postponed or cancelled outright. The mood is nervy.

By Wednesday it is clear from Catherine and Greg (our “Mum and Dad” at the RSC) that all of the company’s output has been called off for now. Shows currently running have had to halt and shows in rehearsal (Comedy included) are to pause.

By Friday we hear that we are not able to rehearse again for quite some weeks. The irony is not lost on the Comedy company that we are performing a play that is primarily about separation, and now it is we who are separated. 

A woman sits on a chair with a large bowl on her lap. Another woman crouches beside her. They are both smiling.
In rehearsal for the show.
Photo by Pete Le May © RSC Browse and license our images

At home there is plenty of time to think… What is a ‘mass gathering’? Souls who congregate and celebrate the basic human need to share their lives in the company of other souls. Be it at a live music show, a theatrical performance or just a Friday night in a bustling, busy pub; the need to be connected during our strange and brilliant lives always burnt bright. 

The fact is I cannot do my job without ‘mass gatherings’. As a director I have no role without the collaboration of others. ‘Social distancing’ means that, for the time being, we may have to find ways of collaborating together online. Perhaps rehearsals over Facetime or Zoom? In the meantime I am preparing understudy cards, collating research and writing up blocking notes. But beyond that I plan to make the most of my time working from home, hopefully being a helpful soul to the RSC in the midst of this new world order. 

If or when we get to share our production of The Comedy of Errors with people I hope that stirring sense of reunion and rebirth at the heart of it really resonates with our audiences. Emilia says to her reunited family in Act 5 Scene 1: ‘after such long grief, such nativity.’ The context of this pandemic will add extra resonance to that feeling of coming together once more having been bereft of each other’s physical presence for so long. 

I am blessed to be working for the incredible RSC at this moment. They have made our company feel supported in a time when the world feels wobbly. I hope to write another blog for you soon which includes the buzz of creative endeavour in a room with OTHER PEOPLE! 

For now, keep healthy, safe and sane in these bizarre times of separation and isolation. 

Hal Chambers

Hal Chambers is the Assistant Director on The Comedy of Errors. He is a director, puppet director and education facilitator based in south London. He has recently directed work for Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, York Theatre Royal, Eastern Angles, Polka Theatre, RADA and Shakespeare’s Globe Education. He is super excited about working with the RSC for the first time!

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